In the famously long, hot summer of 1968, when Columbia University was coming apart like the rest of America, the historian Richard Hofstadter seemed like the one person who could hold the fraying school together. Anti-war militants were demanding that Columbia end its cozy relationship with the Pentagon. Other activists decried the university’s haughty disregard for its Harlem neighbors, most visible in the proposed building of a gymnasium in nearby Morningside Park—dubbed Gym Crow and leading to accusations of segregation because it would have separate entrances for Columbia students and the community in Harlem and unequal access to its facilities. After months of butting heads with Columbia’s administration, students occupied campus buildings, and the school threatened to call in the cops, which is what university president Grayson Kirk did that spring, resulting in more than 700 arrests and nearly 400 police brutality complaints.
With graduation on the horizon, it was unthinkable that the universally despised Kirk would deliver the commencement address, so university officials turned to Hofstadter, asking him to give it in a ceremony hosted off campus at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Hofstadter was uniquely respected on campus by conservatives, liberals, and many (though not all) radicals. To the conservatives and liberals, he was a pillar of scholarship and service to the school. To the radicals, he was the rare professor who listened to their complaints—so much so that after students occupied Hamilton Hall, they left him a note saying, “The Forces of Liberation have, at great length, decided to spare your office (because you are not one of them).” The hope was that Hofstadter’s address would bring some peace and resolution to the spring’s turbulence.
Facing his colleagues and the students shifting uneasily in their pews, Hofstadter mostly succeeded in this, striking a fittingly pious note for the occasion. Holding up Columbia as a time-tested haven of rational discourse, he also acknowledged the justness of the students’ grievances and called for “conciliation” as well as “stability, peace, mutual confidence.” Diana Trilling, who was in the audience, cried during the speech, and many of Hofstadter’s colleagues were also moved by his sonorous rhetoric. But not everyone felt that way: A large group of students walked out in the middle of his address and organized a countercommencement on campus. There they were joined by Old Left radicals like Erich Fromm and Dwight Macdonald, who gave speeches decrying the failure of the existing liberal order. These were times, Fromm asserted, when if you weren’t out of your mind, it meant you didn’t have one. He wasn’t entirely wrong, either: Hours after Hofstadter’s speech, the news came from California that Robert F. Kennedy had been shot.
Hofstadter himself had a tragically truncated life. He was felled by cancer two years later, at age 54. Yet his life, much like RFK’s, helped chart the ups and downs of 20th century liberalism in the United States. Born in 1916, Hofstadter came of age during the Great Depression and the era’s surge of labor radicalism and social democratic programs and bore witness to the movements that pushed for equality in the workplace and challenged white supremacy. Struggling with his fears of the revanchist right during the early Cold War, he found himself helpless as the centrist liberalism he came to embrace fell under attack.
Perhaps for this reason, a full five decades after his death, Hofstadter’s legacy remains as contested as the liberalism he avowed during his life. For liberal pundits and more traditional political historians, he created a durable framework for understanding the achievements of the liberal tradition and the recurrent attacks it has suffered. He extolled the two-party system and bipartisan comity and warned of the dangers of extremist ideologies. But for radicals and the generation of social historians who came after him, Hofstadter represented many of the weaknesses in liberal politics and historical writing. Not only was his centrism myopic, but so was his historiographic approach. Neglecting archival research and focusing on those at the top of society, he often had a cursory understanding of the grassroots social movements he criticized.
Part of the controversy over his legacy is the result of a shared simplification. Among friends and foes alike, Hofstadter tends to be pigeonholed as one of the consensus historians who flourished during the Cold War. Consensus history—exemplified by the work of Louis Hartz and Daniel Boorstin—argued that most Americans had a shared ideology that transcended partisan differences and enabled the United States to avoid the bitter polarization that characterized European politics. Grouping Hofstadter with Hartz and Boorstin is not without justice. An easy mnemonic for understanding his work in the 1950s and ’60s is that he cherished words beginning with the letter C: “comity,” “compromise,” “conciliation,” “civility.” Conversely, terms that began with P made him purse his lips: “populism,” “protests,” “paranoia,” “popular front.”
But Hofstadter became a celebrator of consensus only midway through his career. In his earliest articulation of the idea, it was a way of marking out what constrained American democracy. For the young Hofstadter, the liberal consensus that set the parameters of American politics prevented the nation from moving beyond an outdated, money-grubbing individualism to become a true democracy.
In fact, his critique of the American consensus as an ideological straitjacket remains so convincing that it inevitably raises questions about his evolution: How did a thinker who was so alert to the painful fissures of class and race in America become a champion of the liberal consensus? And how did he go from offering a sweeping critique of the limits of American democracy to becoming an archfoe of populism?
A new Library of America collection of Hofstadter’s work, edited and introduced by the historian Sean Wilentz, helps us answer these questions. Charting Hofstadter’s intellectual and political career through his essays and books lets us better appreciate the origins and evolution of his anti-populism. Yet by leaving out many of his earlier works—above all, Social Darwinism in American Thought and The American Political Tradition—the volume offers only a very selective portrait, one that caters to the current anti-populist mood among centrist liberals and denies readers the more radical thinking that defined the first half of Hofstadter’s career. Although his critique of mass movements and radical politics had its seeds in his early work and his youthful experiences on the left, this new volume puts on display only the Cold War liberalism that did not fully blossom until the postwar years, when his frustrations with the left and his fears of repression combined to create the crabby elitism found in his later work. Only by understanding Hofstadter’s full story can we understand why his later embraces of the consensus and an anti-populist politics were understandable choices—but also fatal mistakes.
Richard Hofstadter was born in Buffalo, N.Y., the child of a Jewish father and a Christian mother. The paterfamilias wore his Jewishness lightly, so the family’s Christian side was more dominant when Hofstadter was growing up: He was christened in a Lutheran church, sang in a choir, and (to gild the lily) was confirmed as an Episcopalian to please an overzealous aunt. But the cultural tug of war within his family led him to acquire from an early age a keen awareness of how religious and ethnic differences were fault lines that could explain political differences—a theme central to his later work.
This insight was also nurtured by life in the 1920s, when economics took a back seat to more primordial battles over identity, faith, and status. Hofstadter grew up in an America consumed by culture war, an age marked by the Scopes monkey trial, the Immigration Act of 1924, the popularity of the second Ku Klux Klan, and the bigoted nativism that defined the 1928 presidential election, in which anti-Catholicism helped Herbert Hoover defeat former New York governor Al Smith and his vision of big city tolerance.
By the time Hofstadter attended the University of Buffalo, he and many of his peers were becoming defined by a set of fissures that were no longer merely cultural in nature. If his early hero H.L. Mencken taught Hofstadter the joy of rapier-sharp criticism in an age of Kulturkampf, the Depression taught him the reality of class politics. “You had to decide, in the first instance, whether you were a Marxist or an American liberal,” Hofstadter recalled. “When I was an undergraduate, I thought I was a Marxist, and I learned a great deal from the study of Marxism.”
This radical turn was quickened by his relationship with the firebrand Felice Swados, whom he met in 1933 and married in 1936, shortly before entering graduate school at Columbia. A member of the Communist Party–affiliated National Student League, she was much more of a rabble-rouser than he was. She wrote a pulp novel, House of Fury, about imprisoned teenage girls (eventually made into the movie Reform School Girl), and her dedication to political radicalism inspired him to join the Communist Party in 1938. Even then, always bookishly ambivalent, he did so more out of desperation over the status quo than in hope for a positive future. “I hate capitalism and everything that goes with it,” he wrote in 1939 to his brother-in-law Harvey Swados, a budding radical fiction writer like his sister. “But I also hate the simpering dogmatic religious-minded Janizaries that make up the CP.”
For Hofstadter, it wasn’t just the cruelty of the Soviet purges or the manifest cynicism of Joseph Stalin’s foreign policy that led to his uncertainty about the party’s so-called janissaries. It was also because he viewed its intellectual vanguard as promoting a cultural philistinism that did the left a disservice. Having made friends with New York intellectuals like Alfred Kazin, Hofstadter embraced their combination of anti-Stalinism and cultural elitism. For them, the Popular Front represented not only the positive achievements of a Dorothea Lange or a Woody Guthrie but also, more often, the promotion of crude socialist realism—what Hofstadter sniffed at in later years as “the pathetic proletarianism that swept over many American intellectuals in the 1930’s.”
Hofstadter’s time as a Communist proved to be short-lived. He quit the party in 1939, and although he continued to call himself a radical into the 1940s, his rejection of the party hardened into a comprehensive distrust of working-class movements. In his superb biography of Hofstadter, David S. Brown writes that during this period, Hofstadter became convinced that “if the workers actually took over…men like himself and Swados would be targeted for their intellectual habits, critical instincts and petty bourgeois backgrounds.” “We weren’t workers and couldn’t be workers,” Hofstadter explained to his brother-in-law, and “the workers had no place for us. In short, that we are petty bourgeois intellectuals and that there is a certain inherent alienness between us and the working class.” In another letter he wrote, “We are the people with no place to go.”
Swados couldn’t have agreed less. For him, anti-Stalinism did not mean a rejection of working-class politics and socialism; it only pointed to the need for a more democratic politics based on grassroots activism in the workplace. But Hofstadter, bereft of socialist hope and increasingly skeptical of popular politics, had come to conclude that his best option in the postwar years was to avoid political activism altogether and focus on his historical scholarship. “I am by temperament quite conservative and timid and acquiescent,” he wrote in a letter explaining why he was skeptical about signing a petition opposing the election of a scholar allegedly sympathetic to Franco, Spain’s fascist dictator, as president of the American Historical Association. “I suppose that at bottom I am a radical only because I can’t function intellectually any other way, but not because I have the true flame.” (This personal assessment was echoed by Kazin, who remembered Hofstadter at the time as “a secret conservative in a radical period.”)
In fairness, the “timid” temperament that Hofstadter described was a necessary strategy to survive in a period of constricted political and professional options. Stalinism was a nightmare, but as a former Communist and a Jew, he recognized that McCarthyism and anti-Semitism were ever-present nightmares as well. As a graduate student at Columbia, he was convinced that his Jewishness had cost him grant money that was awarded to other students. There’s evidence that years later, when he was teaching at the University of Maryland, he was denied a job at Johns Hopkins because the history department feared that the university’s president would “make difficulty when he found that Hofstadter was half Jewish,” as a friend of Hofstadter’s wrote. His Communist past also meant that he was always vulnerable to being hauled before congressional investigators. In 1941, after getting his first full-time teaching job at City College, he discovered that several previous instructors, including the historian Jack Foner, had been fired for being Communists. (The school was apparently unaware of Hofstadter’s past.)
This precariousness only increased when Felice Swados died of cancer in 1945, leaving Hofstadter to raise their infant son. Now a single father with a small child and an uncertain future, he pondered leaving academia for journalism. But then came a surprising opportunity: In 1946, as the country returned to peacetime, he was offered a job at Columbia. The following year he married Beatrice Kevitt, a war widow and gifted editor who would exercise a major role in shaping his prose. Out of these personally turbulent years Hofstadter emerged triumphant, publishing two major books that helped remake the writing of US history.
Historical debate almost invariably has an Oedipal dimension. To find their way in the world, historians define themselves against the predecessors who helped make them. Hofstadter’s formation as a historian took place under the tutelage of the so-called Progressive historians—most directly Charles Beard, with whom he corresponded, as well as Frederick Jackson Turner and Vernon Parrington—and it was their work that Hofstadter sought to overturn as a way of marking his originality.
In their pathbreaking works, Beard, Turner, and Parrington defined American history as a series of pitched battles between the people and the special interests. As Parrington explained in a draft of Main Currents in American Thought, “On one side has been the party of the current aristocracy—of church, of gentry, of merchant, of slave holder, or manufacturer—and on the other the party of the commonality—of farmer, villager, small tradesman, mechanic, proletariat. The one has persistently sought to check and limit the popular power, to keep the control of the government in the hands of the few in order to serve special interests, whereas the other has sought to augment power.”
Coming out of the radical left, Hofstadter was drawn to the Progressives’ vision of class conflict in American history, but he had two critiques of their account—first, that it did not address the divisions within the “commonality” of religion, ethnicity, and race and, second, that it failed to answer the question all Marxists grapple with: How does the ruling class stay on top in a class-riven society?
From Hofstadter’s perspective, the two main parties did not look like foes but appeared remarkably similar: Both consisted of white Protestants committed to property rights. The binary division of people and special interests also failed to account for the conflict between the white Protestant majority and various ethnic and racial minorities. Racism was a defining problem in American history, but so too was liberalism’s persistent allegiance to an individualism that thwarted the solving of social problems. To develop this argument, Hofstadter dedicated his master’s thesis at Columbia to a critique of the New Deal from the left, showing that Franklin Roosevelt’s agricultural policies entrenched the power of white landowners at the expense of Black sharecroppers. In 1944, Hofstadter went even further in an important essay in The Journal of Negro History, arguing that the work of the preeminent scholar of slavery, Ulrich B. Phillips, was riddled with racist assumptions. W.E.B. Du Bois and other Black scholars had already made this very point, but Hofstadter reaffirmed it and in his first book, Social Darwinism in American Thought, pointed out how these racist assumptions pervaded much of American social thought.
Hofstadter’s highlighting of ideology was central to his radical critique of the Progressive historians. They saw competition over material interests as the driver of conflict, while he insisted that this conflict also took place in the sphere of ideas. Ideology was crucial to explaining the paradox that the Progressives often ignored: If history is the battle between the people and the special interests, then how is a minority of capitalists able to dominate?
The most satisfying answer to this question by a 20th century Marxist was Antonio Gramsci’s concept of cultural hegemony, which he teased out in his Prison Notebooks. Gramsci argued that the seemingly noncoercive ways the public is trained to be loyal to the existing system are central to sustaining the capitalist order. Hofstadter doesn’t invoke this idea, since the Prison Notebooks had yet to be translated into English. Instead, like many of his contemporaries, he had to be a Marxist Robinson Crusoe, forced by his threadbare circumstances to craft a rudimentary theoretical framework with his bare hands. His version of cultural hegemony was the notion of consensus.
Social Darwinism in American Thought sketched one particularly decadent phase of this consensus, but it was in The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It, published in 1948, that he offered a full portrait of liberal consensus across the sweep of US history. On the surface, the book appeared to break from the conventions of political history only in terms of tone: Offering a survey of American history from the Revolution through World War II, The American Political Tradition presents everyone from the founding fathers to FDR through a series of acerbic and revisionist profiles, worthy of Mencken in their splenetic rudeness. But in his role as an American Gramsci, Hofstadter rendered a powerful indictment of the hegemony dominating US politics and considered the counterhegemony that was still emerging.
In a crisp and wide-ranging introduction, he summed up the book’s underlying thesis: “The sanctity of private property, the right of the individual to dispose of and invest it, the value of opportunity, and the natural evolution of self-interest and self-assertion, within broad legal limits, into a beneficent social order have been staple tenets of the central faith in American political ideologies; these conceptions have been shared in large part by men as diverse as Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Cleveland, Bryan, Wilson, and Hoover.” In an acute phrase, he labeled this patrimony “a democracy of cupidity rather than a democracy of fraternity.”
A deft hand with paradox, Hofstadter often flipped the popular stereotypes of the country’s leading figures on their head, finding a proto-Marxist class critique in John C. Calhoun’s defense of slavery and a hidden conservativism in Woodrow Wilson’s progressive program. In keeping with Hofstadter’s contrarian radicalism, the one figure who appears as almost wholly admirable is Wendell Phillips, the patrician agitator whose abolitionism and socialism took him outside the tradition.
While the book’s irreverence and radicalism may have offended conservatives, its nose-thumbing capsule biographies made it a classroom favorite, helping it sell more than a million copies over the course of seven decades. The American Political Tradition amounted to something far greater than the sum of its parts. Instead of being merely a series of profiles, it told the story of the rise and dominance of an ideology: liberal property-rights individualism. The founders had hammered it into the Constitution. With Andrew Jackson, the ideology adjusted itself in the face of mass democracy, at least for white males, and in the run-up to the Civil War, it faced its first existential crisis as it found itself divided into two camps, two theories of property and self-making—one held in the South (that the ownership of enslaved persons was an inalienable part of property rights) and one held in the North (that liberty could be grounded only in the acquisitive individualism of free labor).
The rise of corporate consolidation in the years after the Civil War created a crisis for property-rights individualism, and with the Depression, the initially opportunistic FDR responded with a hodgepodge of innovations that helped make space for a new liberal consensus more adequate to its times. After World War II, Hofstadter insisted, the United States appeared to be groping its way uneasily toward a new expression of freedom that recognized how, under industrial capitalism, the needs of the community could and should override the constraints of property-rights individualism.
More than seven decades after its publication, The American Political Tradition remains a compelling and broadly convincing telling of the American story. Written by a man still on the left, it argued that a reinvigorated New Deal liberalism might be able to fulfill the unmet promises of social democracy and racial equality, and it was hardly an accident that in 1965, John Lewis carried the book in his knapsack during the March on Selma. (Hofstadter joined the second march as part of a delegation of historians.) In The American Political Tradition, Hofstadter found a way to achieve a remarkable equipoise between his radical mind and conservative heart. He managed to be clear-eyed about the durability of liberal property-rights individualism while probing its weaknesses—a kind of middle ground between the Marxism of his youth and the liberalism of the midcentury. Had he carried his search for a new liberal consensus forward, The American Political Tradition might have marked the beginning of a compelling synthesis of postwar radicalism and liberalism. But instead it marked something of an end: By the time of its completion, Hofstadter had already become wary of the social movements necessary for this new synthesis to come to life, and in the books that followed—from The Age of Reform to Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and The Paranoid Style in American Politics—he began to beat an abrupt retreat into a cranky anti-populist centrism.
At first, Hofstadter’s anti-populism emerged from a place of fear. The rise of Joseph McCarthy as a national figure in 1950 terrified him. The Wisconsin senator’s success as a demagogue suggested that the consensus could easily shatter, giving way to a disorderly politics dominated by an enraged and vengeful rabble, with former radicals like Hofstadter particularly vulnerable. The historian William Leuchtenburg, then a graduate student at Columbia, recalled how “McCarthyism led [Hofstadter] to distrust the mass mind.”
Hofstadter’s shift to the liberal center was already apparent in his follow-up to The American Political Tradition, 1955’s The Age of Reform. In it he delighted in the increasing conservativism of American intellectuals. “The immense enthusiasm that was aroused among [them] by such a circumspect and sober gentleman as Adlai Stevenson in 1952 is the most outstanding evidence of this conservatism,” he wrote. “Stevenson himself remarked during the course of his campaign that the liberals have become the true conservatives of our time.”
Hofstadter was among Stevenson’s most starry-eyed supporters. The Illinois governor, he argued, “had the dimensions and the appeal of a major tragic hero, and intellectuals identified his cause with their own.” Stevenson had enough wit to describe this type of fanboy gushing among the profs as “egghead ecstasy.” But that didn’t deter Hofstadter, who insisted that Stevenson’s elegance and urbanity were a welcome contrast to “the embarrassments of the Truman administration,” such as the president’s “shameless baiting of Wall Street.”
Like many liberal eggheads, Hofstadter did not seem bothered by the fact that Stevenson was more conservative than Truman, on everything from civil rights (Stevenson once suggested that “anti-Southernism” was comparable to “anti-Negroism”) to labor issues (he supported the Taft-Hartley Act) to social democratic programs (he opposed public housing, federal aid to education, and federal health insurance). What made Stevenson admirable—at least as far as Hofstadter was concerned—was that in a polarizing America, he represented an image of comity, eschewing partisanship and going so far as to say of the man he would soon run against in the first of two presidential contests, “There’s no man around who can beat Eisenhower, and what’s more, I don’t see any good reason why anyone should want to.”
For Hofstadter, Stevenson was proof that liberals were the true conservatives, not just because they had come to appreciate the stabilizing necessity of tradition but also because their foes, the revanchists of McCarthyism, were the true radicals. In some ways, he wasn’t wrong; the McCarthyites were extremists. But in proposing this view, he inverted his consensus theory. The consensus, he now believed, was not so much a straitjacket as a shield, which stood between liberal intellectuals like him and his colleagues and the mob. “Ingenious as the American constitution originally was,” Hofstadter explained in Encounter in 1964, “it would still have been inadequate for the government of this sprawling continental nation, with its wide variety of interests and its unruly and often violent people, had it not been later supplemented by the two-party system.” Moreover, the “unruly and often violent people” could be tamed only by an enlightened elite committed to compromise and comity.
Hugging the center, he came to fear the very movements that he might have celebrated as a young radical—those that sought to fashion a new egalitarian consensus. “Populism” became his catchall term for these movements, which he saw as prone to extremism, conspiracymongering, and anti-intellectualism. Nor was Hofstadter alone in this: He joined a tightly knit community of scholars, mostly based at Columbia and Harvard and working in the social sciences, who came together in the 1950s to offer an anti-populist interpretation of McCarthyism. Daniel Bell was the leader of this anti-populist posse, often dubbed the pluralists because of their emphasis on comity, which included the sociologists Seymour Martin Lipset and Edward A. Shils.
Many of the pluralists had a political and social trajectory similar to Hofstadter’s: a youthful phase of radicalism followed by a period of left-wing alienation as they experienced the embourgeoisement of the postwar years and middle age. (By the 1950s, Hofstadter, at that point well established at Columbia, had a second home on Cape Cod and sent his children to private school.) These formerly radical intellectuals were now helping to shore up the liberal and anti-communist status quo. In the early 1950s, a CIA front group, the Fund for the Republic, even paid for the distribution to opinion makers of 25,000 copies of one of Hofstadter’s anti-populist essays.
Participating in the pluralist and anti-communist project of midcentury liberalism brought him into collaboration with some of the country’s leading social theorists, such as Bell and Lipset, and increasingly Hofstadter began to borrow from their work in sociology, adopting such notions as the authoritarian personality, paranoia, and status anxiety in his own works. These magpie borrowings helped push his historical work into the realm of cultural analysis. But they also showed him to be too hasty in applying poorly digested categories to historical actors, thereby blunting his ability to see them as agents in their own right. Further, he applied his theories in a selective way, using them to explain mass movements while discussing elites as if they were almost always purely rational and pragmatic.
The Age of Reform was Hofstadter’s first sweeping attempt to remodel American history in his increasingly anti-populist framework. A hostile portrait of the Populist Party of the 1890s and the subsequent small-p populist and progressive culture that emerged from it, the book caricatured one of America’s most important democratic uprisings as the product of a rabid, bigoted mob.
Previous historians took a largely positive view of the Populists, a radical reform movement that attacked the domination of America by plutocrats and bankers in the Gilded Age. Hofstadter countered that the Populists were often irrational and intoxicated by an untenable nostalgia for the lost days of the yeoman farmer, that their economic problems were largely their own fault, that they were prone to crackpot monetary theories like bimetallism, and that they often scapegoated city dwellers, especially Jews. The Age of Reform leaves the impression that the Populists were much like the backcountry characters in James Dickey’s novel Deliverance seeking to wreak vengeance on urban sophisticates.
Hofstadter didn’t deny that the experience of McCarthyism had fueled his animus toward the Populists and their heirs. “My own interest has been drawn to that side of Populism and Progressivism—particularly of Populism—which seems very strongly to foreshadow some aspects of the cranky pseudo-conservatism of our times,” he wrote. But he was also unwilling to give credit to the positive democratic flourishing that emerged out of the Populist—and populist—spirit in American politics, insisting, “Populist thinking has survived in our own time, partly as an undercurrent of provincial resentments, popular and ‘democratic’ rebelliousness and suspiciousness, and nativism.”
The more anti-populist Hofstadter became, the more he sounded like his first literary hero, Mencken. At its best, Hofstadter’s prose had Mencken’s clarity and forcefulness, its zip and zest. But at its worst, it was replete with the vices of the Baltimore sage: the burgomaster complacency, the tendency to let sarcasm and invective do the work of argument. The sheer brutality of late 19th century peonage is nowhere evident in the book. At one point Hofstadter suggests that if the farmers had been smart, they would have followed “the usual strategies of the business world.” That didn’t happen because “when times were persistently bad, the farmer tended to reject his business role and its failures to withdraw into the role of the injured little yeoman.”
The simple truth is that it didn’t matter whether the “injured little yeoman” was good at business. Farmers were being immiserated by an economy stacked against them by the ultrawealthy. The gold standard (supported by the bipartisan political elite) ensured decades of deflation after the Civil War, which meant farmers were going deeper into debt, no matter what they did—a situation exacerbated by the corporate consolidation of key industries like the railroads. Far from being drawn to magical thinking, the Populist movement promoted a range of monetary policies (paper money and bimetallism) that would have improved the lot of most Americans. Indeed, the Populists had better politics and better economics than their plutocratic foes.
Hofstadter’s most incendiary accusation was that “the Greenback-Populist tradition activated most of what we have of modern popular anti-Semitism in the United States.” He added, “A full history of modern anti-Semitism in the United States would reveal, I believe, its substantial Populist lineage.” There was, to be sure, anti-Semitism among some of Populism’s adherents and publicists, but as C. Vann Woodward wrote to Hofstadter in 1963, his book gives “the impression that nativism and racism are peculiarities of the unwashed and the semi-literate Populists. I think it should be pointed out that these prejudices were rife at the time among New England patricians and intellectual elite on the East Coast.” Woodward could have added that the anti-Semitism Hofstadter had experienced came not from populist farmers struggling against monopoly but from high-toned Columbia and Johns Hopkins, where Woodward was hired for the position denied to Hofstadter. Needless to say, it wasn’t the Populists who created anti-Semitic quotas in the Ivy League.
In a 1959 essay for The American Scholar, Woodward further argued that Hofstadter’s anti-populism led him to downplay the fact that the Populist Party was one of the rare post-Reconstruction political movements that brought white and Black Americans together. This cross-racial solidarity was fragile and didn’t last, but it flourished briefly. Hofstadter acknowledged this only in a single sentence that clearly functioned as a protective proviso.
All historical writing, of course, is provisional and subject to new evidence and arguments. But Hofstadter’s anti-populist works are more vulnerable than most because they rest on a shockingly thin evidentiary base. He wrote The Age of Reform more as an essayist in the Edmund Wilson mode than as a scholar; Hofstadter only rarely consulted primary documents and referred to those who did as “archive rats.” This was an acceptable practice when writing about presidents and political leaders, as he did in The American Political Tradition. But with a genuinely grassroots movement, the only way to make large generalizations was to go into the research trenches and dig through old newspapers and the organizers’ private papers.
Hofstadter didn’t do that, and it shows. Relying on popular writers who rode the Populist ferment but, as Hofstadter admitted, were often “country cranks” not necessarily “representative of the farmers themselves,” he painted an incomplete picture that displayed little sensitivity to the social and economic contexts in which the movement arose. Hofstadter’s procedure was comparable to someone writing a book about the political left in the Trump era and focusing on Marianne Williamson’s New Age theories, Louise Mensch’s conspiratorial tweets, and Michael Moore’s specious climate change documentary.
The spadework that Hofstadter avoided would be done by the cohort of historians that came after him. Major works refuting Hofstadter include Walter T.K. Nugent’s The Tolerant Populists, Lawrence Goodwyn’s Democratic Promise, Bruce Palmer’s ‘Man Over Money,’ Michael Kazin’s A Godly Hero, and Charles Postel’s The Populist Vision. As Goodwyn, whose book is a magisterial recovery of the Populists as radical democrats, noted in 1991, “Today Hofstadter’s interpretation lies buried under a mountain of countervailing evidence.”
Hofstadter’s work on the revanchist right proved to be equally flawed. Whether writing about McCarthyism, the John Birch Society, or Barry Goldwater’s presidential candidacy, Hofstadter would repeatedly cast these mass movements as gaggles of fringe extremists distinct from respectable mainstream conservatism. Thus he referred to “the Goldwater cult” and claimed that “Goldwater men infiltrated the [Republican Party] much as the Communists in their days of strength infiltrated liberal organizations in order to use them as front groups,” rather than consider that Goldwater conservatism was able to take over the GOP so quickly precisely because it drew on political ideas that were deeply rooted and widely shared in the party. After all, Goldwater’s libertarianism was merely the latest variation on the property-owning individualism that Hofstadter himself had shown was the consensus for the vast majority of American history.
In the decades since Hofstadter’s death—after Richard Nixon, after Ronald Reagan, after Newt Gingrich, after Dick Cheney, after Donald Trump—it’s touching to encounter the historian’s innocent faith that moderate Republicans are the true soul of the party. But Hofstadter’s cardinal error in his later years was not that he missed the connections between the far right and Republican conservatives but that he believed—much as today’s liberals do—that the bipartisan consensus of liberals and the center-right could serve as an effective bulwark against the far right. Then as now, the opposite proved true: It has almost always been a bipartisan consensus of liberals and the center-right that has created space for a revanchist right. As historians like Ellen Schrecker have taught us, McCarthy and the John Birch Society were merely florid examples of a tradition enabled by a political center that was focused on crushing the left. The first Red Scare was not a product of the extreme right but instead was initiated by Wilson’s liberal administration. The apparatus of McCarthyism—the Smith Act, the House Un-American Activities Committee, the loyalty oaths—was created under Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. J. Edgar Hoover, far more responsible for red-hunting than McCarthy, enjoyed the support of every president from Coolidge to Nixon. In 1952, Hofstadter’s hero Stevenson praised Truman for having “put the leaders of the Communist Party…where they belong—behind bars.”
The combination of Truman’s apocalyptic rhetoric about the dangers of global communism and the stalemate in Korea opened the door for McCarthy. Republican elites, including figures like Robert Taft whom Hofstadter praised for their sagaciousness, egged on McCarthy. Hofstadter helped prop up the Cold War consensus as well: For example, his refusal in 1949 to criticize the University of Washington for firing Communist professors wasn’t just a personal failure but part of his larger loyalty to Cold War liberalism. In 1957 he happily took on the writing of a Fund for the Republic analysis of the far right that was financed by the CIA. According to his biographer, David S. Brown, Hofstadter prepared a memo in which he argued that “the Far Right…was partially correct on many issues, and, he conceded, completely correct on several more. Communists had infiltrated the federal government; American foreign policy in Asia and Europe had experienced setbacks; and it was conceivable that a fresh set of conservative policies at home and abroad would have left the country no worse off.”
In his 1963 Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Hofstadter applied his growing conservativism to the history of education, arguing that rather than enabling intellectual flourishing in the United States, democracy empowered the country’s anti-intellectual tendencies. Anti-intellectualism, he argued, “is founded in the democratic institutions and the egalitarian sentiments of this country.” His argument was notable in other ways, too. Making only glancing references to African American activism—an odd omission in a book on education, given that Hofstadter started writing it in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education—he focused on white evangelical Protestant culture, the purported disdain of union leaders for learning that has no practical benefit, and the alleged tendency of the philosopher and reformer John Dewey’s followers to turn education into a merely instrumental task of skill acquisition.
The absence of Black American intellectual life is even more glaring, given that one of the themes of the book is the tension between vocational and humanistic education. Hofstadter completely ignored the debates between George Washington Carver, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. Du Bois. Dealing with African American history would have tested Hofstadter’s thesis that the main sources of anti-intellectualism in American life are “democratic institutions” and “egalitarian sentiments,” because racism has been a far more powerful engine. Before Emancipation, many states had anti-literacy laws forbidding enslaved people—and sometimes free people of color—to learn how to read. Schooling in general lagged in the South, and more subtly, white supremacy has often fueled a fear of learning. In an autobiographical essay, he admitted, “No doubt my disposition to push the fundamental realities of power somewhat into the background is one of the weaknesses of my writing.” The fundamental reality of how racism shaped American society was diminished in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life in order for him to further pursue his anti-populist account of US history.
In his later work, this whitewashing of American history became even more pronounced. In a 1964 essay he wrote, “The achievement of the Democratic party over the past thirty years has been testimony to the effectiveness of the consensual ethos. Since the days of FDR, for example, the Democratic party has been the chief vehicle through which the needs of American Negroes were met and through which their political aspirations have been expressed; and yet at the same time, it has been, despite some breaks, the party of the traditional South. Naturally, this arrangement has not been satisfactory to either side, and it has grown less so as time has gone on and racial tensions have grown.” It is remarkable how far this account of the New Deal years is from his master’s thesis at Columbia, which recognized how the consensus created by the New Deal often meant sacrificing Black interests to those of white Southerners.
Many of the compromises that made the American consensus work, in fact, have come at the expense of Black America—a point that Hofstadter now shied away from discussing. From the three-fifths compromise in the Constitution to the Missouri Compromise of 1820, from the Kansas-Nebraska Act to the Compromise of 1877, which ended Reconstruction, the most important accommodations in American consensus-making all ended up hurting Black Americans. Any honest celebration of consensus has to grapple with this reality. Hofstadter failed to do so.
For all his flaws, Hofstadter is a major figure and deserves to be in the Library of America. But part of the problem with the current volume is not just what it includes but also what it leaves out. Wilentz appears to have selected material intended to affirm the self-flattering image of liberalism that Hofstadter put forth in his later work: that 20th century liberalism formed a rational center besieged on both sides by extremist and anti-intellectual forces. Thus we get Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (a book that Hofstadter himself thought inferior to his earlier work), the collection The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays, plus a batch of selected essays, some of them previously unpublished. But The American Political Tradition—arguably his most important book and certainly his most radical one—is nowhere to be found. Neither is Social Darwinism in American Thought or his master’s thesis.
The essays, in particular, are an odd assortment. By reprinting The Paranoid Style in its entirety, Wilentz resurrects a 65-page essay on William H. Harvey, a cranky monetary theorist who is more justly dispatched in a few paragraphs in The Age of Reform. The Paranoid Style also includes an essay on Goldwater, but Wilentz gives us four more, as well as a previously unpublished piece that is an early draft of the title essay. All of this makes for a great deal of repetition. On page 633 we read, “Our chief foes—Indians, Mexicans, the decaying Spanish Empire—were on the whole easily vanquished.” On page 890, “Our foes—Indians, Mexicans, the decaying Spanish Empire—were easily vanquished.” And on page 913, “Our foes—Indians, Mexicans, the decaying Spanish Empire—were on the whole easily vanquished.”
In addition to The American Political Tradition, a proper Hofstadter anthology would include The Age of Reform—a flawed but important work—plus a selection of essays that show the full range of his thinking, including his more radical early work. (His master’s thesis would be particularly useful in highlighting how he anticipated the work of later scholars on the New Deal.)
Instead, Wilentz has produced a book that leans so heavily into Hofstadter’s later critique of populism that we lose sight of what made his work worth reading. Instead of the liberal who was also an acute critic of liberalism, we get a thinker who locates the problems of American society only on its fringes, as if all that was wrong with the United States could be blamed on fundamentalist preachers and tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorists.
This self-satisfied liberalism is not exactly an unfamiliar one today. Hofstadter’s fetishization of civility, his fears of the far right that led to a concomitant overvaluing of moderate Republicans, his tendency to visualize politics as a contest in which sane moderates are under attack on all sides by extremists, and his selective (and not wholly honest) rendering of social movements on the left—all are hallmarks of the resistance liberal, a social type that has come to the fore in the Trump era. Reading this collection, one can easily imagine Hofstadter penning essays for The Atlantic or The New York Times’ op-ed section, warning about the dangers of populism and anti-intellectualism and the need for all good moderates to rally together.
This, however, is only one aspect of Hofstadter and not his whole legacy. There was another, more radical Hofstadter all too aware of the dangers of a liberalism so besotted with the nostalgia of its past achievements that it cannot adapt to current realities or create a more democratic future. This Hofstadter expended energy and intelligence in demonstrating how easy it was for liberalism, without a push from the left, to freeze into a reflexive defense of the status quo. Moreover, without the full Hofstadter, we miss how so much of his early work focused on finding a middle ground between radicalism and liberalism.
Over the coming years, the United States will have to recover not just from Trump’s racist revanchism but also from the systematic failures of a liberal hegemony that allowed him to win by ceding critiques of the status quo to the right. The only viable way forward is with a revision of the liberal consensus that, as in the New Deal and Great Society eras, begins by incorporating the critiques of socialists and anti-racists and seeks to expand liberalism’s horizons, not shrink them. In his best work, Hofstadter showed us how to do so, and that Hofstadter is also worth a Library of America edition.