The re-emergence of historian Richard Hofstadter

Historians in the News

Ideas are like viruses. They spread in waves, retreat, mutate and return. The latest proof is the recent re-emergence of academic historian Richard Hofstadter in the political consciousness.

Hofstadter, who died in 1970, was at one time amongst America's pre-eminent historians. He documented the evolution of the country's political culture and its populist underpinnings from the Revolution to the post-Kennedy-assassination era. It's no surprise that his work is still generally relevant, but his landmark 1964 essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, is Cassandra-like in its prescience.

The Paranoid Style asserts that a pervasive angst about the United States being under siege from within is an integral mutant string in the DNA of American politics. In 30-to-40-year intervals, a cohort of the population (almost invariably found on the right of the political spectrum) is seized with the conviction that the Republic is on the brink of destruction. Sound familiar?

Which is why the essay reads as if it was written last month and not 40 years ago. When Hofstadter described the right wing's "qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy" he wasn't writing about Sarah Palin or the frothing tea bag brigade but of Senator Joe McCarthy and the John Birch Society.

He identified a sizable segment of the population that lives in permanent fear of outsiders, secret societies and covert plots to subvert the Constitution. This genus of political citizen styles himself the ultimate patriot. "His sense," wrote Hofstadter, "that his political passions are unselfish and patriotic ... goes far to intensify his feeling of righteousness and his moral indignation."

This mindset is not to be confused with healthy dissent or alternative political perspectives. It's a deep-seated, emotional and irrational conviction. There's a difference between concern that your country is headed down the wrong track and insistence that the President is a non-citizen, that his health reforms are a Nazi-inspired eugenics project and that his foreign policy is a plot to bring about one world government...

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Leonard John Lanier - 12/9/2009

As an indication of the amount of research that John Moore put into his column, he refers to William Jennings Bryan as William James Brady.

Joseph Wilson Burgess - 12/5/2009

Yep. Hofstadter's essay on the paranoid style in American politics certainly has hard resonance in today's political climate. The 40th anniversary of the essay in November, 2009 resulted in numerous commentators recalling it as they reviewed the neo-paranoid politics that have emerged over the last 10 years or so. A half dozen or so such reviews make up a recent issue of Joseph Burgess's op-ed e-zine that is posted at Hofstadter's piercing observation about mindlessness leads off the issue -- "If there is anything more dangerous to the life of the mind than having no independent commitment to ideas, it is having an excess of commitment to some special and constricting idea."

Alonzo L Hamby - 12/2/2009

It is nice to know that Mr. Moore has read a little bit of Richard Hofstadter, but he obviously has not read very much if he thinks Hofstadter can be reduced to the "paranoid style," an essay that caught a nerve among liberal intellectuals but really was among the lesser of his efforts.

Hofstadter was the most important American historian of the last half of the twentieth century because he took the lead in resetting prevailing assumptions among historians about the wellsprings of American politics. Charles Beard (the most important American historian of the first half of the twentieth century) had posited an economic basis of politics in his most important works. Hofstadter made the case for social-cultural bases, sometimes not rational, in his two most important works, THE AMERICAN POLITICAL TRADITION and THE AGE OF REFORM. Mr. Moore would do well to read both.

Hofstadter's influence also rested on more than his ideas. If from time to time he seemed a bit too much like a provincial New York intellectual, the whole body of his work projected an agile and elegant mind along with a fundamental tolerance and authenticity that placed him well above the transient fads and movements of the sixties and post-sixties banner-carriers.

Anyone who has paid much attention to the intellectual and cultural history of the United States since Hofstadter's untimely death knows that he never "left" in the sense of being forgotten. I have frequently been amazed (and usually gratified) to see him quoted by people who had likely not been born when he died.