Column: Richard Hofstadter Was Right


Mr. Carpenter is a writer and doctoral candidate in American history at the University of Illinois.

In his 1955 The Age of Reform, historian Richard Hofstadter reflected on reformist movements ranging from nineteenth-century Populism to the New Deal. The work contained masterful commentary on fundamental change over time (that, after all, is what the study of history is all about), and his insights were so superbly written that even those later revealed as a trifle off base were, and remain, a thrill to read. Other insights in The Age of Reform still stand as profoundly--though dismayingly--on target, which we'll get to shortly.

For sure, the book has taken its hits from historians over the last half century. Some of its arguments have been attacked, revised, retuned, or simply buried at sea--the internecine details of which I won't burden those readers who may be squeamish about the professional bloodletting history of history. It was in the book's still-valid final chapter, however, that Hofstadter outlined what he saw as a seismic shift in political orientation among progressives and conservatives during the 1930s. His thoughts at the time were (purportedly) historical. Now they seem more prophetic in their durability, wholly applicable to today's political scene.

The shift he described went beyond intense political battling, with Hooveresque Republicans bombarding allegedly fiery-eyed New Dealers just to score electoral points, and vice versa. It was, rather,"the relative reversal of the ideological roles" of conservatives and progressives that mattered most. Indeed, it was a deeply visceral change in ideological positions first founded in politics, but soon transcendent in thought and action.

Until the New Deal's advent, Hofstadter argued, progressives on the whole were moralists and utopians with their feet firmly fixed just about everywhere except on planet Earth. Yet during the 1930s progressives began dealing with the"urgent practical realities" of everyday life--more urgent than ever, of course, because of the Great Depression's toll on human welfare. With their heads forced out of the clouds, progressives tackled as best they could the problems of the newly unemployed, the long-term impoverished, farmers with goods to sell but no markets to sell in, banking and investment calamities, and so on. In short, out of necessity progressives rapidly transformed from simplistic idealists to practical thinkers.

Conversely, until the New Deal conservatives had exuded this kind of hard, practical, dollars-and-cents ideology. No theory for these boys. They were utterly down to Earth. In point of fact, Hofstadter found this old-style conservatism rather praiseworthy, writing that it was conservatives who had"set up [the nation's] great industrial and communications plant and founded the fabulous system of production and distribution upon which the country prided itself."

With the onset of national ruin and the"economic experimentation" of FDR's brain trust, however, conservatives became, well ... a bit unglued. To be more precise in descriptive terminology, they threw a hissy fit. They flipped ideologically, concerning themselves far less with the"hard facts" of everyday life and instead with what Hofstadter called their"high moral indignation" over New Deal doings. In reaction to progressive ascendancy they offered little more than" cliché-ridden" theories,"hollow" platitudes, and a lot of sermonizing about our needing"better morals"--all of which volunteered nothing for those experiencing real pain. Thus it was conservatives who rapidly scooted from practical thought to simplistic idealism. They replaced progressives as the party with its head in the clouds.

Assuming you have a strong stomach, fast-forward a few decades and compare notes. Beginning with the preachy and disastrous theoretical economics of Ronald Reagan, through the equally preachy Republican Class of '94, and now with the absolute monarch of all things moral, Bush II, we've witnessed a sad and sorry succession of simplistic idealism far too reminiscent of 1930s-style Republican sermonizing. Conservatives of late have displayed a disregard for practical thinking that astounds.

Most recently, it's the kind of history redux that prompted New York Times columnist Frank Rich to write a few weeks ago that Bush's"moral clarity [regarding the worsening Middle East situation] has atrophied into simplistic, often hypocritical sloganeering. He has let his infatuation with his own rectitude metastasize into hubris." Rich added that even Reagan's Middle East expert, Geoffrey Kemp, told the Los Angeles Times that"a two-year-old could have seen this crisis coming. And the idea that it could be brushed under the carpet ... reflects either appalling arrogance or ignorance." Yes, but it was the same brand of under-the-carpet brushing that conservatives attempted 70 years ago in response to economic catastrophe.

And it's the kind of history redux on the domestic front that prompted Al Gore to remark in Orlando with atypical candor:"I'm tired of this right-wing sidewind. I've had it. America's economy is suffering unnecessarily.... They're the party of Fantasy Land."

True again. But as historian Richard Hofstadter noted with such breadth and perception in the 1950s, it's a Fantasy Land conceived long ago. The only real difference this go-around is that Fantasy Land is now the official home of government.

© Copyright 2002 P. M. Carpenter

Fifth Columnist is published weekly by History News Network and

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