What Are They Reading?

What Are They Reading?





By Richard Hofstadter.
Tarcher/Putnam. 371 pp. $25.95.

In high school, I studied American history with a nineteenth-century-style polymath who assigned us readings from Richard Hofstadter. The impact still shapes my life and work.

After 9/11 the Bush Gang’s maneuvers prodded me to reread Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. The apocalyptic ratcheting-up of public hysteria neatly fits this cold war anatomy of America’s recurrent Manicheanism. And Hofstadter’s touch with history’s neurotic ironies is telling and funny: Take his wry example of how the anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan donned medieval Catholic liturgies and costumes.

Hofstadter’s tracing of the long relationship between fundamentalist Christianity and far-right paranoia, culiminating in Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential run, remains informative and suggestive. Still, as is inevitable, the passage of time lays bare some limitations. Writing before nationwide riots, the Vietnam War, the proliferation of right-wing think tanks, stagflation, spiking crime rates, the Iranian hostage crisis, multimillion-dollar elections and talk radio, Hofstadter couldn’t and didn’t foresee that the shape-shifting alliance he’d so cogently outlined could and would establish lasting control of key American political mechanisms; his faith that Madisonian dynamics would keep right-wing radicals relatively marginalized seems sadly quaint.

And yet he offers much. Drawing on Frankfurt School concepts, Hofstadter introduced status politics–a k a cultural politics–into the study of American history’s dynamics, and his uses of psychology and sociology are still provocative. As he wrote in 1964, “The style of status politics has been shaped in large measure by rigid moral and religious attitudes, and those who are moved by the issues of status politics transfer these attitudes to social and economic questions. On many occasions, they approach economic issues as matters of faith and morals rather than matters of fact…. In times of prosperity they feel free to vote their prejudices…. [They] 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.”

Now that these attitudes dominate American political discourse, what alternative languages can progressives develop and publicize to reach mass audiences? Must the left wait for economic disaster to successfully recast its discredited social visions? These questions, and others, strike me as I reread Hofstadter.

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