Sean Wilentz on Richard Hoftstadter

hofstadter

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.

Why Robert Jeffress Needs Socialism

This Fox News segment got some traction yesterday:

Comments:

1. Robert Jeffress claims that Democrats are on the wrong side of every major faith issue, especially abortion.  He always pivots to abortion because he believes it is the most important faith issue on the table.  Fair enough. But he also pivots to abortion because he wants to rally his Christian Right base to vote for Donald Trump. Jeffress is a surrogate for Trump and a spokesperson for the American political movement known as the Christian Right. He has credentials for serving in these roles because he is a minister of a Dallas megachurch.  Jeffress’s constant call to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s” is disingenuous. He pulls out this verse whenever he wants to dismiss an approach to Christian politics that does not fit comfortably within his Christian Right playbook. Jeffress can say that the Democrats are on the “wrong side” of “every major faith issue” in America because he believes that there are only three such issues: abortion, religious liberty, and support for Israel.

2. Jonathan Morris is correct. The Democratic Party is not going to attract evangelicals until it moderates some of its positions on social and moral issues. I made roughly the same case here.

3. Dee Dawkins-Haigler, a black pastor and politician, says that the black church is committed to acts of mercy and justice that today we might call “socialism.” While I appreciate Dawkins-Haigler’s counter to Jeffress, we need to be careful about pinning a modern political ideology on Jesus.  Jesus was not a socialist.  There was no such thing as socialism at the time Jesus lived.

4. Jeffress, of course, is not going let Dawkins Haigler’s reference to socialism slide.  The very utterance of the word raises the hair on the back of his neck. Culture warriors and fundamentalists like Jeffress are incapable of taking nuanced approaches to these kind of issues. Instead of suggesting that socialist concerns about the plight of workers might have some overlap with Christian views of social justice, Jeffress claims that socialism is “absolutely antithetical to Christianity.” (Of course there are millions of Christians around the world and many in the United States who disagree with him here.  I guess they’re not real Christians).  Jeffress needs socialism.  It is vital to the survival of his fear-based approach to Christian politics.  Without the constant “threat” of socialism he loses his political brand. His statement equating socialism to “communism lite” reminds me of historian Richard Hofstadter‘s words about McCarthyism in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life:

The [McCarthyite] inquisitors were trying to give satisfaction against liberals, New Dealers, reformers, internationalists, intellectuals, and finally even against a Republican [Eisenhower] administration that failed to reverse liberal policies.  What was involved, above all, was a set of political hostilities in which the New Deal was linked to the welfare state, the welfare state to socialism, and socialism to Communism. 

For Hofstadter, McCarthy’s attack on communism was part of a deeper fear-based politics, something he would later call the “paranoid style“:

The deeper historical sources of the Great Inquisition are best revealed by the other enthusiasms of its devotees: hatred of Franklin D. Roosevelt, implacable opposition to New Deal reforms, desire to banish or destroy the United Nations, anti-Semitism, Negrophobia, isolationism, a passion for the repeal of the income tax, fear of poisoning by fluoridation of the water system, opposition to modernism in the churches.

Deconstructing the “Paranoid Style in American Politics”

ParanoidIn the age of Trump, many are saying that we are witnessing a resurgence of a phenomenon that historian Richard Hofstadter once called “the paranoid style of American politics.” Over at The Baffler, UC-Davis historian Kathryn Olmsted traces the history of the “paranoid style” and how it may or may not be employed in today’s political climate.  Here is a taste of her piece:

Hofstadter also highlighted another common trope in right-wing rhetoric that’s relevant to today’s politics: the curious sense of loss among Americans on the right. Their anger, he argued, stemmed from their sense of dispossession, even though many of them were relatively well off. They believed, he said, that “America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion.”

Many scholars today have commented on this sense of dispossession among Trump supporters. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild captured this sentiment in the title of her book on the worldview of rural white voters, Strangers in Their Own Land. The rural white people who Hochschild interviewed felt angry at “line-cutters”: immigrants and people of color who, they believed, had jumped the queue in front of patient, hard-working white Americans like them, and were rewarded with welfare checks and affirmative action jobs. Hofstadter might call this fear that someone will take your place in line—i.e., push you out of your rightful spot in the social order—just another form of status anxiety.

Finally, even back in the 1960s, Hofstadter remarked on the skepticism of science and contempt for expertise among Americans on the right. The paranoid spokesman, he said, was not open to new ideas, scientific studies, or scholarly arguments. “He has all the evidence he needs; he is not a receiver, he is a transmitter.” This phrase could have been written about the most passionate Trump supporters during the 2016 presidential race. The Oxford Dictionaries picked “post-truth” as their word of the year for 2016, or the word “chosen to reflect the passing year in language,” and defined it as circumstances in which “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Trump was not embarrassed that his sources or his facts might be wrong; “All I know is what’s on the internet,” he said at one point during the campaign.

Read the entire piece here.

Are Anti-Trumpers Paranoid?

Paranoid StyleI have argued that fear helps explain the evangelical embrace of Donald Trump in 2016.  When I speak, blog, and tweet about Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald TrumpI am often asked about the role fear might play in the political lives of anti-Trumpers.  Are Trump’s opponents afraid of what he will do to the country?  Of course they are.  But I did not write a general book about the relationship between fear and politics.  Instead, I wrote a book about why 81% of white evangelical voters pulled the lever for Donald Trump.

Historian and cultural critic Andrew Bacevich thinks that anti-Trumpers are paranoid and such paranoia is bad for the republic.  Princeton historian Julian Zelizer disagrees.  Here is a taste of his piece at CNN:

Making his opponents look paranoid has in fact been a conscious strategy of the President. This is why he warns that critical news is not real and how a “deep state” is driving the investigation against him.

Paranoia is certainly a relevant problem in US political history. But Hofstadter’s theory doesn’t capture most of what is going on with Trump’s opponents. Nor does the President when he sweeps aside the critics of his jaw-dropping press conference in Helsinki, Finland, as “haters.”

Brushing aside a majority of the President’s critics as showing signs of paranoia misses the new political reality of the Trump administration.

Read the entire piece here.

Quote of the Day

HofstadterThanks to Tyler Flynn of Eastern University for reminding me of this classic essay:

American politics has “served again and again as an arena for uncommonly angry minds, [exhibiting] a style of mind, not always right-leaning in its affiliations, that has a long and varied history. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy [of] the ‘paranoid style.'”

–historian Richard Hofstadter, 1964