Sean Wilentz on Richard Hoftstadter


Richard Hofstadter

In the Sean Wilentz interview I posted about yesterday, the Princeton historian told Bill Kristol that mid-20th-century historian Richard Hofstadter may have been one of the few Americans who understood the populism, paranoia, and anti-intellectualism that we see today on both the Left and Right.

Today I found another interview with Wilentz at the blog of the Journal of the History of Ideas in which he talks with Daniel Wortel-London about Hofstadter and his legacy. Wilentz is the editor of a recent Library of America collection on Hofstadter that includes Anti-Intellectualism in American LifeThe Paranoid Style in American Politics, and some essays he wrote between 1956 and 1965.


Here is a taste of the interview:

DWL: Hofstadter argues that anti-intellectualism is partly the product of “benevolent impulses” towards equality and egalitarianism. Expertise, for example, can be equated with hierarchy, pursuit of nuance can appear synonymous with political inaction, and personal experience can be seen as more “honest” than abstract facts. As a result, he argues that anti-intellectualism can only be contained and checked “by constant and delicate acts of intellectual surgery which spare these impulses themselves” (Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, p. 23). How can this surgery best take place today, particularly regarding those whose “benevolent impulses” might lead them to join progressive or radical social movements that seek to challenge several additional (and in my view, far more powerful) factors Hofstadter identified as threats to intellectual life: the influence of powerful business groups wary of criticism and an unimaginative and complacent political class?

SW: In his early writing, Hofstadter seemed more sympathetic to agitators than political leaders. The one figure in The American Political Tradition who broke with the dominant democracy of cupidity is Wendell Phillips, the “golden trumpet” of abolitionism and later a supporter of the labor movement. At one level, that portrayal allowed for a consistent radicalism in American politics but also sketched the limits of its power. Long before a younger generation of scholars began dog-earing copies of Antonio Gramsci, Hofstadter laid out what he saw as a kind of liberal capitalist hegemony in American politics. And in that respect, his work has sometimes ended up encouraging a cynical view of American mainstream politics, in which social movements do all the good, only to be coopted and ultimately defeated by more progressive liberal elements of the ruling class. Hofstadter never subscribed to that view: he still found Jefferson, Lincoln, and the others honorable and valuable. But the distinction between movement politics and party politics was certainly implied in his early work.

The McCarthyite experience helped shift that. Whereas he had previously criticized Popular Front myths by debunking their sentimentalized depictions of Jefferson, or Jackson, or Lincoln as champions of the people, he later came to criticize the sentimentalized view of popular movements themselves, above all the Populists. Along the way, he began having more sympathy for mainstream reformers. Compare, for example, how The American Political Tradition (1948) handles FDR with how The Age of Reform (1955) does. Hofstadter was still working out his critique of social movement politics in Anti-Intellectualism (1963) and The Paranoid Style(1964).

I think that toward the end of his life, he was trying to find a way to handle the kind of surgery you talk about. You see hints of that in The Idea of a Party System (1969), where professional party politics becomes more than an anti-intellectual engine of greed. You see other hints in America at 1750 (1973), a stark portrayal of the suffering among slaves and indentured servants that lay behind what he saw as an essentially middle-class society. I imagine that he intended the multi-volume history of the United States on which he had embarked at his death in part to explore when those acts of intellectual surgery in politics you’re referring to succeeded and when they failed.

Read the entire interview here.