What Barack Obama Needs To Learn From Richard Hofstadter, Abraham Lincoln and FDR
(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.
In his great piece, Wilentz writes an amazingly two obtuse sentences:
Looking back, they appear, in keeping with the political trends of their formative and middle years, to have badly overestimated liberalism's dominance of the American political tradition. Much of their writing through the 1970s did little to prepare readers for the conservative era that was to come.
Given the brilliance of Wilentz's piece, it stupefies to read him saying Hofstadter did little to prepare readers for the conservative era that was to come. For if there is one thing that can safely be said about Hofstadter it is that he absolutely described how the conservative movement would come to power. And how it has remained in power.
Wilentz himself writes:
[Hofstadter] became especially agitated in 1964 when the Goldwater campaign raised, in his mind, the specter of a new radical right that, he wrote in The New York Times, had already forced the Republican Party to surrender meekly, if only temporarily, "to archaic notions and disastrous leadership." Hofstadter took great--and, as it happened, premature--satisfaction when Goldwater lost in a landslide. He was overly confident in America's permanent liberal aegis.
The change in the historical questions that he asked grew from the widespread concerns of liberals and leftists shaken by the devastation of both fascism and Stalinism abroad, and, in time, by the success of Joseph R. McCarthy and other right-wing demagogues at home. The first substantial response from the young historians, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s The Vital Center, appeared in 1948--a political defense of what Schlesinger called "the free left" against the pro-Soviet fellow traveling exemplified by the Henry Wallace Progressive Party campaign of the same year. Hofstadter, at Columbia, was more attracted to the theorizing of diverse social scientists (including the Columbia sociologists Daniel Bell, Robert Merton, and C. Wright Mills) about the relative importance of psychological and even irrational factors in social life. Amid the McCarthyite eruptions of the early and mid-1950s, Hofstadter immersed himself in his friends' and colleagues' debates on the effects of symbolism, "status," and "latent functions" in political life, sometimes spurred by the writings of (among others) Freud, Mannheim, and Adorno. But Hofstadter's thinking also drew on his old suspicions, dating back to his days studying with Julius Pratt, that psychological and emotional pressures explained as much and maybe more about the past than economics did. He brought all those interests to bear in The Age of Reform.
What Wilentz unwittingly demonstrates is that far from failing to predict the conservative resurgence, Hofstadter in fact even predicted the political devices that conservatism would use to gain that power. And to maintain that power. From Nixon's appeal to the "silent majority" to Karl Rove's drive to save the country from gay marriage, Hofstadter anticipated the use of paranoia and status by conservatives in their drive for power.
The Age of Reform remains Hofstadter's most impacting academic work and presages his most famous writing the article "The Paranoid Style In American Politics." Wilentz writes:
Still one of the most influential books on twentieth-century America, The Age of Reform is a journey through the less savory, often hidden themes in protest and reformist politics from the Populist movement through the New Deal. The Populists come off the worst, driven by economic hardship to endorse all sorts of cranky, conspiratorial, and bigoted notions, some blatantly anti-Semitic, about the sources of rural oppression. Although every bit as commercially minded as other Americans, Hofstadter charged, the rebel farmers wrapped themselves in the fanciful mantle of the injured little Jeffersonian yeoman--an illusion that left Populism vulnerable to crude social nostrums and an anxious, destructive self-righteousness. Hofstadter saw the Progressive movement, at least at its core, as a collection of displaced patricians and intellectuals, fretful about their own social status. The Progressives were less flamboyantly conspiracy-prone than the Populists, but they were trapped nevertheless by nostalgic fantasies about restoring their own moral authority, and with it an imagined bygone America with "a rather broad diffusion of wealth, status, and power."
Wilentz takes issue with Hofstadter, arguing that:
Subsequent studies of Progressivism found that Hofstadter's sweeping claims about the loose-knit movement's motives and social origins were greatly simplified. More broadly, Hofstadter's efforts to make his material cohere into a dichotomy of "interest" versus "status" were far too pat, slighting the power of ideals about fairness and justice that had nothing to do with either economic self-interest or status anxieties.
With due respect to Wilentz, I believe he entirely misses Hofstadter's point - the language of "fairness and justice" were wonderful vehicles for selling tools for paranoia and self-righteousness. What better example than Joe McCarthy himself? Or Ronald Reagan? Or George W. Bush?
Wilentz misunderstands the power of what Digby calls resentment tribalism, and with permission, I will quote the piece at length:
I wrote about this tribal divide sometime back and I agree with Matt's analysis. This has its genesis in the original sin of slavery and is best illustrated by the fact that as the country has divides itself distinctly between the parties in a 50/50 fashion, the dividing line continues to fall along the same lines of the old confederacy. Once again, the best way to understand this is to go right to the heart of the beast and quote the first Republican president (who hailed from one of the bluest of blue states) Abraham Lincoln at the Cooper Union in New York in 1860:
And now, if they would listen - as I suppose they will not - I would address a few words to the Southern people.
I would say to them: - You consider yourselves a reasonable and a just people; and I consider that in the general qualities of reason and justice you are not inferior to any other people. Still, when you speak of us Republicans, you do so only to denounce us a reptiles, or, at the best, as no better than outlaws. You will grant a hearing to pirates or murderers, but nothing like it to "Black Republicans." In all your contentions with one another, each of you deems an unconditional condemnation of "Black Republicanism" as the first thing to be attended to. Indeed, such condemnation of us seems to be an indispensable prerequisite - license, so to speak - among you to be admitted or permitted to speak at all. Now, can you, or not, be prevailed upon to pause and to consider whether this is quite just to us, or even to yourselves? Bring forward your charges and specifications, and then be patient long enough to hear us deny or justify.
[...] Some of you admit that no Republican designedly aided or encouraged the Harper's Ferry affair, but still insist that our doctrines and declarations necessarily lead to such results. We do not believe it. We know we hold to no doctrine, and make no declaration, which were not held to and made by "our fathers who framed the Government under which we live." You never dealt fairly by us in relation to this affair. When it occurred, some important State elections were near at hand, and you were in evident glee with the belief that, by charging the blame upon us, you could get an advantage of us in those elections. The elections came, and your expectations were not quite fulfilled. Every Republican man knew that, as to himself at least, your charge was a slander, and he was not much inclined by it to cast his vote in your favor ... In your political contests among yourselves, each faction charges the other with sympathy with Black Republicanism; and then, to give point to the charge, defines Black Republicanism to simply be insurrection, blood and thunder among the slaves.
Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events.
This, plainly stated, is your language. Perhaps you will say the Supreme Court has decided the disputed Constitutional question in your favor. Not quite so. But waiving the lawyer's distinction between dictum and decision, the Court have decided the question for you in a sort of way. The Court have substantially said, it is your Constitutional right to take slaves into the federal territories, and to hold them there as property. When I say the decision was made in a sort of way, I mean it was made in a divided Court, by a bare majority of the Judges, and they not quite agreeing with one another in the reasons for making it; that it is so made as that its avowed supporters disagree with one another about its meaning, and that it was mainly based upon a mistaken statement of fact - the statement in the opinion that "the right of property in a slave is distinctly and expressly affirmed in the Constitution."
Under all these circumstances, do you really feel yourselves justified to break up this Government unless such a court decision as yours is, shall be at once submitted to as a conclusive and final rule of political action?
But you will not abide the election of a Republican president! In that supposed event, you say, you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, "Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!"
To be sure, what the robber demanded of me - my money - was my own; and I had a clear right to keep it; but it was no more my own than my vote is my own; and the threat of death to me, to extort my money, and the threat of destruction to the Union, to extort my vote, can scarcely be distinguished in principle.
A few words now to Republicans. It is exceedingly desirable that all parts of this great Confederacy shall be at peace, and in harmony, one with another...Judging by all they say and do, and by the subject and nature of their controversy with us, let us determine, if we can, what will satisfy them.
Will they be satisfied if the Territories be unconditionally surrendered to them? We know they will not. In all their present complaints against us, the Territories are scarcely mentioned. Invasions and insurrections are the rage now. Will it satisfy them, if, in the future, we have nothing to do with invasions and insurrections? We know it will not. We so know, because we know we never had anything to do with invasions and insurrections; and yet this total abstaining does not exempt us from the charge and the denunciation.
The question recurs, what will satisfy them? Simply this: We must not only let them alone, but we must somehow, convince them that we do let them alone. This, we know by experience, is no easy task. We have been so trying to convince them from the very beginning of our organization, but with no success. In all our platforms and speeches we have constantly protested our purpose to let them alone; but this has had no tendency to convince them. Alike unavailing to convince them, is the fact that they have never detected a man of us in any attempt to disturb them.
These natural, and apparently adequate means all failing, what will convince them? This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly - done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated - we must place ourselves avowedly with them. Senator Douglas' new sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. We must pull down our Free State constitutions. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us.
Lincoln had a keen understanding of the problem and he logically framed it in moral terms regarding the subject at hand, slavery. As it turns out this was not simply about slavery. It was about a deep and abiding tribal divide in the country that was originally defined by slavery but metastasized into something far beyond it, even then. Southern 'exceptionalism' was always justified by its culture, which was assumed to be unique and unprecedented.
You can apply Lincoln's arguments to any number of current issues and come out the same. There is an incoherence of principle that we see in every section of the republican party, the willingness to call to States Rights (their old rallying cry) when it suits them and a complete abdication of the principle once they hold federal power --- while still insisting that they believe in limited government! They blatantly misconstrue the plain meaning of long standing constitutional principles and federal policies (such as Brit Hume's abject intellectual whorishness in the matter of FDR's beliefs about social security privatization) and show irrational, rabid anger at any disagreement. They see Democrats as 'traitors' fighting for the other side, just as the Southerners of the 1850?s accused the 'Black Republicans' of fomenting slave revolts. They brook no compromise and instead repay those who would reach out to them with furious perfidy unless they show absolute fealty to every facet of the program. It is loyalty to "the cause", however it is defined and however it changes in principle from day to day, that matters.
. . . The civil war and Jim Crow deepened it and the Lost Cause mythology romanticized it. The civil rights movement crystallized it. A two hundred year old resentment has created a permanent cultural divide.
This explains why the dependence on hyper-religiosity (and the cloak of social protection it provides) along with the fervent embrace of "moral values" is so important despite the obvious fact that Republicans are no more "moral" in any sense of the word than any other group of humans. It explains the utopian martial nationalism. And although that map shows that the regional divide is still quite relevant (and why the slave states fought for the Electoral College at the convention) it explains why this culture has now manifested itself as a matter of political identity throughout much of the country. Wherever resentment resides in the human character it can find a home in the Republican Party. This anger and frustration stems from a long nurtured sense of cultural besiegement, which they are finding can never be dealt with through the attainment of power alone. They seek approval. . . .
They seek approval. And it is here where Digby has aptly applied the lessons of Richard Hofstadter and where Senator Barack Obama, most notably in his latest speech on faith has not and needs to:
For some time now, there has been plenty of talk among pundits and pollsters that the political divide in this country has fallen sharply along religious lines. Indeed, the single biggest "gap" in party affiliation among white Americans today is not between men and women, or those who reside in so-called Red States and those who reside in Blue, but between those who attend church regularly and those who don't.
Conservative leaders, from Falwell and Robertson to Karl Rove and Ralph Reed, have been all too happy to exploit this gap, consistently reminding evangelical Christians that Democrats disrespect their values and dislike their Church, while suggesting to the rest of the country that religious Americans care only about issues like abortion and gay marriage; school prayer and intelligent design.
Democrats, for the most part, have taken the bait. At best, we may try to avoid the conversation about religious values altogether, fearful of offending anyone and claiming that - regardless of our personal beliefs - constitutional principles tie our hands. At worst, some liberals dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical, or thinking that the very word "Christian" describes one's political opponents, not people of faith. (Emphasis supplied.)
So Obama acknowledges the divide, acknowledges the Republican exploitation of this "status resentment" and chooses to respond by embracing it and "apologizing," so to speak, on behalf of Democrats:
We first need to understand that Americans are a religious people. 90 percent of us believe in God, 70 percent affiliate themselves with an organized religion, 38 percent call themselves committed Christians, and substantially more people believe in angels than do those who believe in evolution.
. . . The path I traveled has been shared by millions upon millions of Americans - evangelicals, Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims alike; some since birth, others at a turning point in their lives. It is not something they set apart from the rest of their beliefs and values. In fact, it is often what drives them. This is why, if we truly hope to speak to people where they're at - to communicate our hopes and values in a way that's relevant to their own - we cannot abandon the field of religious discourse.
Because when we ignore the debate about what it means to be a good Christian or Muslim or Jew; when we discuss religion only in the negative sense of where or how it should not be practiced, rather than in the positive sense of what it tells us about our obligations towards one another; when we shy away from religious venues and religious broadcasts because we assume that we will be unwelcome - others will fill the vacuum, those with the most insular views of faith, or those who cynically use religion to justify partisan ends.
In other words, if we don't reach out to evangelical Christians and other religious Americans and tell them what we stand for, Jerry Falwell's and Pat Robertson's will continue to hold sway.
Obama has learned nothing from Lincoln and nothing from Hofstadter. As wonderfully talented a politician he is, until he does, he will not best serve the interests of progressives and the Democratic Party.
To conclude this piece, I want to discuss one overlooked insight of Hofstadter that is highlighted and yet curiously devalued by Professor Wilentz. To me it holds one of the central principles of a triumphant liberalism, one that even today's conservatives can not challenge:
The Age of Reform's greatest achievement, often overlooked, is in its reappraisal of the New Deal, reviving and reinforcing the more positive passages in The American Political Tradition. Whereas most historians (and many New Dealers) saw Roosevelt's reforms as a continuation of Populism and Progressivism, Hofstadter affirmed the New Deal as a sharp break with the past. The old sentimental, quixotic, and self-deluding forays against capitalism gave way to Keynesian policy and the provision of social welfare. Nineteenth-century individualism and anti-monopolism fell before a fuller appreciation of the inevitable size and scope of American business. Cities and urban life, including the party political machines, which had been the bane of Jeffersonian liberalism, became an accepted, even vaunted element in the New Deal coalition. Under FDR, in short, American liberalism came of age.
Following the long-term abandonment, at least philosophically, of New Deal liberalism by both major political parties, Hofstadter's account of the New Deal's spirit repays a new look--not as an exercise in nostalgia but in order to help recover and refurbish a suppressed but still essential American political tradition. As was his wont, Hofstadter overstated his case, underestimating both the intense social conflicts that helped push the reforms forward and the degree to which Progressive ideas (particularly in the area of labor reform) guided New Deal thinking. But simply by identifying the change and by portraying what Hofstadter called the New Deal's "chaos of experimentation" as a sign of vibrancy, not weakness, The Age of Reform concisely defined the transformation of modern American liberalism, two years before Schlesinger took up the issue, in much greater detail, in The Crisis of the Old Order, 1919-1933. For that, apart from everything else, Hofstadter's book retains some of its old luster--and has even acquired a new urgency.
Wilentz is both incisive and dull in this passage. Incisive in recognizing the sharp break that the New Deal represented and dull in misunderstanding that while the ideals of the progressive movements that predated The New Deal nourished it, the fundamental rethinking of the role of government, particularly the federal government was, in many ways, revolutionary. I think Professor Bruce Ackerman's conception of a "Constitutional Moment" best describes it.:
Under [President Bush]'s leadership, the American people would have initiated a new constitutional order that had self-consciously repudiated the regime founded by Franklin Delano Roosevelt; the era of Social Security and the United Nations was now dead, and the Court was going to build a new constitutional system based on very different premises.
There would have been nothing unprecedented in this scenario. This was precisely how Roosevelt created the modern constitutional regime in the first place. His eight appointments to the Supreme Court repudiated the laissez-faire constitutionalism of the preceding era and created the activist national government we know today. Indeed, if the New Deal-Great Society regime is going to die, there is a certain propriety in seeing it killed in precisely the same manner in which it was born.
To be sure, Roosevelt had far greater popular support in triggering his constitutional revolution than Bush could ever claim. When he filled his first seat with Justice Hugo Black in 1937, 76 out of 96 senators were New Deal Democrats. The New Deal Court's repudiation of laissez-faire constitutionalism proceeded with the support of majorities in every region of the country. This obviously would not be true today, even if the president's dreams had been fulfilled.
Professor Ackerman's theory is more complex than this short description - it requires the book length treatment he has given it. But the significance is the same. FDR changed our philosophy of government and the FDR liberal philosophy remains that which we follow today.
How did FDR do it and can Democrats defend FDR liberalism today? Maybe not by calling it FDR liberalism but they surely can and do when they have the courage of their convictions. The most prominent of these instances was the fight to save Social Security Faced with Media hostility, Republican demagogy and flat out lies, Democrats rallied to the FDR liberalism banner and crushed the Republican attempts to roll back the clock. FDR would have been proud of Democrats in that fight. No triangulation. Good old fashioned political populism won the day.
And that is FDR's lesson for Obama. Politics is not a battle for the middle. It is a battle for defining the terms of the political debate. It is a battle to be able to say what is the middle.
And I believe Hofstadter recognized this as well. Hofstadter understood what was liberalism's triumphs and how they were achieved and how they could be defeated. Hofstadter would have understood so well that the Republican triumphs since Goldwater are not ideological "ideas" victories but rather victories of the psychological paranoid style - the "What Is The Matter With Kansas" question.
FDR governed as a liberal but politicked like a populist. When LBJ rightly and to his everlasting credit removed one of the Dem pillars of paranoia - racism, the GOP co-opted populist racism, added the Jeffersonian notion of government and institutional hatred, throw in a dash of paranoid Red scare, now terrorism scare, and you get political victories.
The lesson of Hofstadter is to embrace liberal governance and understand populist politics. It may sound cynical, but you must get through the door to govern. Lincoln knew this. FDR knew this. Hofstadter knew this. I hope Obama can learn this.
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