What Barack Obama Needs To Learn From Richard Hofstadter, Abraham Lincoln and FDR
Posted on Thu Jul 13, 2006 at 11:24:09 PM EST
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(Guest posted by Big Tent Democrat)
Richard Hofstadter was the most perceptive observer of our political history since DeToqueville. So perceptive was Hofstadter that even though he passed away 36 years ago, he still is more clear headed and penetrating than some of our finest current historians. Professor Sean Wilentz, one of our finest living historians and an extremely gifted writer, has written a wonderful quasi-review of a newly released biography of Hofstadter by David S. Brown that demonstrates his gifts while also showing that even the best we have today do not measure up to Hofstadter. Even Wilentz graciously recognizes this:
David S. Brown claims in this illuminating biography, Hofstadter retains an enormous mystique today, thirty-six years after his death from leukemia at the age of fifty-four. Phrases and concepts that Hofstadter invented to describe and to analyze American politics--"status anxiety," "the paranoid style"-- remain in currency among high-end journalists and pundits. His best books, The American Political Tradition and The Age of Reform, remain on graduate reading lists decades after their publication, models of dazzling prose and interpretive acuity. All but one of his half-dozen other major works remain in print.
In some respects, indeed, Hofstadter's standing has risen since 1970. His fascination with the history of what he called "political culture," the quirks in American politics beyond official platforms and speeches, is now very much in vogue. And no historian of the United States with the same combination of intellectual heterodoxy, literary brilliance, and scholarly sweep has replaced him. Amid the current dizzy political scene--with its snake-oil preachers, and anti-Darwinian Social Darwinists, and Indian casino rip-off artists, and a president whose friends say he thinks he is ordained by God--Hofstadter's sharpness about the darker follies of American democracy seems more urgently needed than ever.
Indeed, understanding Hofstadter is desperately needed. And not just by historians. By pundits, politicians, bloggers and citizens. Because failing to understand Hofstadter's analysis causes us to fail as analysts, historians, pundits and, most importantly, as politicians, especially politicians like Barack Obama.
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