To the present generation of historical and political writers it has become increasingly clear that people not only seek their interests but also express and even in a measure define themselves in politics; that political life acts as a sounding board for identities, values, fears, and aspirations.
- Richard Hofstadter, 1965
Richard Hofstadter (1916-1970) was an American historian who was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize in non-fiction, for his books The Age of Reform (1955) and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963). He is also famous for his enduringly influential essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics", which delineates a particular type of political style that became increasingly recognizable and interesting to many in the years since the essay was written, as conspiracy theory has become a central fascination in American culture.
Hofstadter's political ideology shifted dramatically over the course of his life, but he ultimately came to be associated with the "Consensus" school of historians, defined against the "Progressive" school of earlier scholars such as Charles Beard. Hofstadter and his contemporaries viewed themselves as providing an "antidote" to the singularly class-fixated and Marxist-influenced analyses of Beard and the Progressives; instead the Consensus historians argued that American political life was marked by a consensus of differing groups, rather than persistent and inescapable class struggle (bearing a distinct influence from the notion of American exceptionalism). In his own writings Hofstadter applied the tools of other disciplines such as depth psychology and sociology in order to divine the non-economic, cultural influences on the political styles of various groups—such as the sublimation of Manichean, fundamentalist religiosity into the anti-Communism of the 1950s and '60s.
Early Life, Marxism, and Disillusionment
Hofstadter was born in Buffalo, New York in 1916. He completed his BA at the University of Buffalo, with a major in philosophy and a minor in history. Entering college during the "First Hundred Days" of Roosevelt's New Deal, Hofstadter joined the Young Communist League and married his Marxist comrade, Felice Swados, in 1936 (after her death in 1945, Hofstadter would go on to remarry). Hofstadter went to Columbia University's graduate program in history and found himself caught up in the radical ferment of the Popular Front era, eventually joining up with the Communist Party. Hofstadter explained himself to his brother-in-law by saying simply, "My fundamental reason for joining is that I don't like capitalism and want to get rid of it." However, like many of his fellow young Communists in the upper echelons of New York's intellectual community, he became rapidly disillusioned with the Party as the tyrannical machinations of Stalinism began to unveil themselves (or rather, began to become impossible to ignore—especially, for the half-Jewish Hofstadter, after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact). In this sense his background was not dissimilar to his neoconservative contemporaries such as Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, and Daniel Bell, although Hofstadter is (rightly) not considered to be associated with the movement.
Having been disillusioned by the realities of Soviet Communism, Hofstadter was further depressed by being continually denied financial aid at Columbia, lamenting: "The guys who got the fellowships are little shits who never accomplished or published anything."
Despite his abandonment of communism, Hofstadter retained an essentially Marxist outlook as a young historian, penning his master's thesis on how the New Deal's agricultural policies benefited large landholders and further diminished the position of sharecroppers. He became a disciple of sort of Progressive historian Charles Beard, who approached American history as the continual unfolding of conflict between class interests (Beard's interpretation of the Civil War was not as a conflict born out of the divisive institution of slavery and an increasing social and cultural polarization between North and South, but as an economic transfer of power from the agrarian soutern states to the industrializing North).
For his dissertation, Social Darwinism in American Life, Hofstadter explored the adoption of Darwin's ideas as a rationale for the laissez-faire capitalism and individualism of American tradition, and later for the competitive conflicts between states and races (as offered to justify imperialism following the Spanish-American War and the American acquistion of Spanish colonies). Despite ultimately relying on a Marxist analytic framework (with Social Darwinism as a superstructural manifestation of the economic interests of the capitalist elite), Hofstadter's sketching of the conflict between Social Darwinists and its opponents (such as progressives and religious leadership) somewhat suggests the ideas he would later develop regarding "status politics." Of the study, American historian Eric Foner writes: "The book demonstrates Hofstadter's ability, even in a dissertation, to move beyond the academic readership to address a broad general public." Hofstadter's work also made the term Social Darwinism part of the common parlance in America.
Consensus, Status Anxiety, and the Paranoid Style
Hofstadter's next work, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (1948) marked his departure from the class-fixated historiography of Charles Beard and the Progressives. In the book Hofstadter profiled a dozen prominent American statesman and argues that they all held the same basic, underlying ideas: that American society was not made up of atomized classes who struggled for control of resources, but that it was characterized by a broad consensus regarding its fundamental tenets, such as individual liberty, private property, etc. But unlike some of the other "Consensus" historians whose study of America's exceptional consensus was affirmative and celebratory, in his seminal work Hofstadter dynamites the idolatry surrounding famous political figures like Thomas Jefferson and FDR (as an apologist for capitalism and a political opportunist, respectively).
In 1954, Hofstadter published a lecture he had given entitled "The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt" in The American Scholar. In this essay, Hofstadter begins to develop some of the themes that would come to fruition in his work a decade later. He examined a contemporaneous form of irrational, hyperbolic political "style" (the anti-Communist hysteria of McCarthyism) and determined that it was plainly not a result of rational, economic self-interest, but rather the result of a kind of sublimation of status anxiety, with both "old stock" Anglo-Saxons and insecure immigrants attempting to assert their tenuous identity as Americans by lashing out at new targets such as Communists and their "fellow travellers." Hofstadter provocatively drew a distinction between interest politics (such as those that emerged during the deprivation of the Great Depression) and the status politics that emerged during times of prosperity--such as in the 1920s and the 1950s.
In the mid-'50s Hofstadter also co-wrote The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States with Walter Metzger and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Reform. The latter illustrated how far Hofstadter had shifted, arguing that the Populists of the late 19th century were not acting out of downtrodden class solidarity but out of identification with a romantic myth that had been adapted to political organization.
In the 1960s, Hofstadter would deliver some of his most provocative and influential work. He published Anti-Intellectualism in American Life in 1963, earning him another Pulitzer as he further explored the provincialism and irrationality of certain political groups in American history. But perhaps most notable amongst his '60s output was his essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics.", published in 1964. In the essay Hofstadter attempted to systematize his thinking regarding an "old and recurrent mode of expression in our public life", which manifested itself in a number of conspiracy-minded political movements in America, including anti-Illuminatism, anti-Masonism, anti-Catholicism, and anti-Communism. These movements presumed "the existence of a vast, insidious, preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network designed to perpetuate acts of the most fiendish character."
The paranoid (a term which Hofstadter makes clear is not being used in a psychoanalytic sense) views history as the result of a grand Manichean struggle between the conspiratorial forces of darkness and the righteous, with himself standing at a turning point—society is forever in danger of being lost forever to the forces of darkness. His exegesis of the conspiracy is always painstakingly detailed, but requiring at some point a crucial logical leap that marks the division between the paranoid style and the conventional or regular style of consensus-driven American politics. Hofstadter also notes that the paranoid style is always practiced by "marginal men" who feel dispossessed and at odds with contemporary society, and who paradoxically end up imitating their enemy (think of the anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan seemingly adopting the robes and titles of the Church).
In 1965, Hofstadter returned to the issue of pseudo-conservatism with "Pseudo-Conservatism Revisited." In this essay he qualified his earlier emphasis on status, noting the influence of religion and other factors in the development of a pseudo-conservative politics characterized by a deep and fundamental distrust of modernity and contemporary society, and (far from being genuinely conservative; thus the prefix) bearing traces of radical and destabilizing discontent. The most interesting facet of this essay, however, is the way that Hofstadter struggles to articulate the notion of what would come to be called the culture wars decades before the term came into popular use. His division between identity politics and status politics is provocative and thoughtful, and he notes: "If there is something misleading in the word 'status,' it is because its meaning is somewhat too specific to account or what it attempts to describe, and takes the part for the whole. Few critics have denied the presence or significance of what is intended, but it has been suggested that such terms as "cultural politics" and "symbolic politics" will serve better." (Emphasis mine.) Hofstadter offers an outline of "status politics" that could've easily applied the 1980s or 1990s:
In periods of prosperity, when economic conflicts are blunted or subordinated, the other issues become particularly acute. We have noticed that whereas in depressions or during great bursts or economic reform people vote for what they think are their economic interests, in times of prosperity they feel free to vote their prejudices. In good times, with their most severe economic difficulties behind them, many people feel that they can afford the luxury of addressing themselves to larger moral questions, and they are easily convinced that the kind of politics that results is much superior to the crass materialism of interest politics.
In 1968, Hofstadter published The Progressive Historians, where he outlined the limitations of the approach practiced by Beard and company—but at the same time, never one for simplistic explanations, he noted the incapacity of the simple Consensus approach in explaining divisive conflicts such as the Civil War.
He died two years later, at the age of 54.
Richard Hofstadter's writing has many virtues: it is thoughtful and complex, but also well-written and approachable, never descending into academic obscurantism. His work has also been deeply influential, in some ways foreshadowing the historiography of later cultural historians such as François Furet (who problematized the class-focused interpretation of the French Revolution by noting the influence of democratic ideals and "political culture"). But perhaps Hofstadter's greatest quality was his sober and inquisitive moral compass, undoubtedly conditioned by his experience with Stalinism. Somewhat like Eric Voegelin (whose prose was infinitely more tortured), Hofstadter recognized the religious fanaticism that lurked behind political extremes on both the left and the right, where any moral lapse or excess could be justified by some kind of imagined righteousness or higher goal, and where dangerously irrational political ideas could flourish. Hofstadter's body of work acts as a kind of check on the extreme political impulses which, as he notes, are oddly recurrent throughout our history.
Foner, Eric. "The Education of Richard Hofstadter." The Nation. New York: May 4, 1992. Vol.254, Iss. 17.
Hofstadter, Richard. The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965.