Richard Hofstadter: Predicted the rise of today's right wing

Historians in the News

THERE IS a certain mystique to Richard Hofstadter. For nearly 30 years, the legend goes, he wrote the best books, for the best publisher, won the best prizes and taught in the best city, at the best school, at the best time. Among his fellow historians, the memory of his brilliant three-decade tenure at Columbia University beginning just after World War II evokes a hazy attachment to a lost world of scholarly giants confident in the curative powers of the enlightened mind.

This was a world raised in the collective memory of the Depression '30s, tormented by the anti-intellectualism of the McCarthy '50s and ultimately rejected in the student wars of the radical '60s. The preferences of Hofstadter's generation for exploring the politics of ideas and elite personalities yielded before a broad canopy of studies focusing on race, class and gender that revolutionized the way historians presented the past.

Yet for those interested in the historical context from which our current conservative politics has emerged, Hofstadter's work remains indispensable. More than three decades after his death from leukemia at 54, legions of journalists and bloggers still routinely adopt the social-psychological concepts — "status anxiety," "the paranoid style" and "anti-intellectualism" — he popularized to explore and explain the radical right.

Among professional historians, only the distinguished "Progressive school" thinkers Frederick Jackson Turner and Charles Beard and postwar notables C. Van Woodward and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. made as lasting impressions on their culture as Hofstadter. A generation of liberal policymakers imbibed his books, taking from them historical lessons for why the nation's social and civil rights goals could only be accomplished under the aegis of an activist government.

The most activist politician of all, President Lyndon Johnson, recognized Hofstadter's influence publicly, inviting him in 1964 to serve as a domestic advisor.

Born in 1916 to a Jewish immigrant father from Krakow, Poland, and his German American bride, Hofstadter grew up in the ethnic tinctured city of Buffalo, N.Y. He arrived at Columbia University in 1936 to begin graduate studies in history. Like many intellectuals of his generation, he made the ideological pilgrimage in the 1940s from the Communist Party to a postwar liberalism that embraced the social and economic reforms used to combat the Depression....

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