The Use and Abuse of History   /   Summer 2022   /    Thematic: The Use and Abuse of History

The Tragedy of the American Political Tradition

Hofstadter as historiographer.

Nick Burns

Richard Hofstadter surrounded by various American political figures; illustration by Steve Brodner, courtesy of the artist.

There are not one but two Americas, or so we are told: Biden voters and Trump voters, city-dwellers and rural Americans, vaccine enthusiasts and anti-vaxxers, MSNBC habitués and Fox News loyalists, BLM cheerers-on and MAGA advocates—and, of course, blue states and red states. Everything passes through the filter of partisan allegiance, not just how you vote and what you watch and read but who you know, where you live, where you shop, what you say. Hatred of the Other and fear of being misidentified as a member of the opposite clique form the basis of our warring political cultures.

If they have quibbles with their own side, partisans are sure about one thing: Evil is on the other side. From the perspective of the historian, this is not a necessarily persuasive way of thinking about things. If, in a history of the Italian city-states, one encountered the claim that wrongdoing during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was overwhelmingly attributable to the conduct of the Guelphs and not the Ghibellines—or vice versa—it would be hard not to react with skepticism. Of course, it is possible that one faction was more vicious than the other, but probably not for the reasons the opposing faction believed it was. More likely, both factions, their differences now seemingly arcane, formed part of a single political system, which is best assessed as such. The writing of history has high moral stakes, and historical figures have morals, too, but history is not a facile or simplistic morality tale—or at least it shouldn’t be. The most effective historical scholarship has always been that which is most carefully attuned to interlocking sources of change, as well as to mutual misunderstandings and unintended, sometimes tragic, outcomes.

Those who bring such an approach to the analysis of contemporary politics typically draw accusations of cultivating a nihilistic bias in favor of an indefensible status quo, or of being a “useful idiot” for the other side. But evaluating the American scene from a certain remove does not require suspending one’s moral or political judgment of partisan figures and their actions. Nor does it require adopting the hyperproceduralism and worship of the opinion poll particular to the political centrist. Quite the opposite.

But it’s become more difficult to gain perspective on contemporary politics through the study of history—at least when it comes to US history. The American past has become a proxy battle for contemporary conflicts. One subfield especially prone to “presentism”—the importation of contemporary attitudes into the study of the past—is the history of conservatism. Liberal historians of conservatism often take opposition to the contemporary right wing as a starting point, then work backward to identify past culprits for contemporary ills—a kind of genealogy of evil that seldom yields much in the way of historical insight.11xSee, for an example of the genre, David Greenberg, “An Intellectual History of Trumpism,” Politico, December 11, 2016,

Across the political aisle, this historiographical tic has a parallel in the “decline and fall” narrative of a conservative school of history. The American republic—so goes the parable—departed at some point from its true course and is now facing destruction unless it can be restored to a rightist orientation. A familiar argument along these lines appears in the report of the 1776 Commission—formed by President Donald Trump to provide an opposing narrative to that of the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, whose series of essays emphasized the legacy of slavery in American history. The 1776 Commission report lists progressivism alongside slavery, communism, fascism, and “racism and identity politics” as principal historical threats to the Constitution and mourns the fact that the progressives’ “false interpretation” of rights continues to shore up a “shadow government” (i.e., the administrative state) that operates without democratic checks and balances—all in express contravention of the wishes of the wise founders.22xThe President’s Advisory 1776 Commission, The 1776 Report, January 2021, 13, The trope of corruption and political decay has characterized republican historiography at least as far back as the Roman historian Livy. But was Woodrow Wilson, whom the 1776 Commission singled out for particular condemnation, truly a bogeyman, a deluded progressive who misunderstood the founding and the role of tradition?

It might come as something of a surprise to learn that Wilson himself at times entertained doubts similar to those of his contemporary critics about the dangers of administrative bureaucracy. The midcentury American historian Richard Hofstadter (1916–70) reveals Wilson to have been as pure a conservative type as his age produced: Southern-aristocratic in origin, Anglophile in orientation, with an early and abiding predilection for Edmund Burke and Walter Bagehot. Hofstadter quotes a 1912 Wilson campaign speech:

What I fear most is a government of experts. God forbid that in a democratic country we should resign the task and give the government over to experts. What are we for if we are to be scientifically taken care of by a small number of gentlemen who are the only men who understand the job? Because if we don’t understand the job, then we are not a free people.33xWoodrow Wilson, A Crossroads of Freedom: The 1912 Campaign Speeches of Woodrow Wilson, ed. John W. Davidson (New Haven, CT: Woodrow Wilson Foundation, 1956), 83–84, quoted in Richard Hofstadter, “Woodrow Wilson: The Conservative as Liberal,” in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life: The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Uncollected Essays 1956–1965, ed. Sean Wilentz (New York, NY: Library of America, 2020), 235. Hofstadter’s essay was first published in 1948.

It was not the first time a candidate would betray his own campaign rhetoric after taking office, but Wilson’s is a special case: His presidency witnessed such an expansion of the federal administration that his name has become synonymous with a turning point in history—and has since become anathema to many conservatives.

Hofstadter sees Wilson’s reversal as more reflective of the times than the man: In The Age of Reform (1955), he casts the Wilsonian era as marked by a split between “indigenous Yankee-Protestant political traditions” and the party-boss politics of new immigrants. Wilson’s instinct, and that of his contemporaries, was to remoralize politics and protect the entrepreneurial model against new threats that had arisen from the concentration of industry and an influx of immigrants—many of them Roman Catholic, many from peasant backgrounds, many both—who supposedly lacked awareness of or sympathy with the incumbent political traditions.44xRichard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. (New York, NY: Random House, 1955), 11, 224–26. This was, in other words, the old American creed of laissez faire and the self-made man, only adapted to a changed material landscape—a “forward-looking return to the past.”55xRichard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (New York, NY: Random House Vintage, 1989), 328. First published 1948. Conservatives, who under Hofstadter’s formulation shared the progressives’ desire to preserve the old values, could fairly disagree with progressive methods but could not deny that the old methods were quaint and futile in a society where the yeoman farmer had vanished and the large corporation cast an ever longer shadow over the small businessman.

American Tradition?

That Wilson’s era was so transformative of the American political landscape, yet so retrograde in its mindset, suggests a deep current in US history. In The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (1948), his second book, Hofstadter offered what remains the best treatment of the peculiar endurance of this paradoxical tendency throughout American political history.

Son of a Jewish immigrant father and an American-born Lutheran mother from Buffalo, New York, Hofstadter became convinced by his dashing radical wife, Felice Swados, to join the Communist Party in 1938, though he quit before the signing, in August 1939, of the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact.66xJames Livingston, “On Richard Hofstadter and the Politics of ‘Consensus History,’” boundary 2 34, no. 3 (Fall 2007): 33–46, (He would later take the party to task for bossing around its intellectuals—however loyal to Moscow, it was quintessentially American in its disrespect for the work of the intellect.77xHofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism, 327.) Before finishing The American Political Tradition he had accepted a coveted post at Columbia University, moving there in 1946 from the University of Maryland on the merits of his first book, Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860–1915 (1944). Swados had died of cancer in 1945. Was it her loss—and the accompanying loss of what radical zeal the dyspeptic Hofstadter had succeeded in working up—that provided The American Political Tradition its tragic, gimlet-eyed clarity?

The argument that stitches the book together is as provocative now as it was then. A very limited intellectual repertoire, consisting in large part of the “bourgeois liberalism” of the founders, laissez-faire economics, and Protestant moral imperatives, had formed or deformed the trajectory of American society from one end of the country’s history to the other. “The major political traditions,” Hofstadter wrote,

have shared a belief in the rights of property, the philosophy of economic individualism, the value of competition; they have accepted the economic virtues of capitalist culture as necessary qualities of men…. They differ, sometimes bitterly, over current issues, but they share a general framework of ideas which makes it possible for them to cooperate when the campaigns are over.88xHofstadter, American Political Tradition, xxxvii.

Despite loud, constant argument, American society had developed a “mute organic consistency” within which dissenting ideas were “slowly and persistently isolated, as an oyster deposits nacre around an irritant.” Hofstadter chose to examine the effects of this narrow formation not in classical Marxist style, interweaving high politics with broad social and economic analysis, but through the prism of political-intellectual biography. The American Political Tradition is a collection of acid portraits of prominent figures from the early republic to the Second World War (at the time of the book’s writing, the very recent past). Most are presidents, with the exceptions of John Calhoun, Wendell Phillips, and William Jennings Bryan (with Calhoun and Phillips getting the most complimentary portrayals). Two chapters are devoted not to individuals but to influential groups nearly synonymous with their respective eras: the founders and the robber barons. Hofstadter claims, in the original introduction, to evaluate his subjects as “men of action in their capacity as leaders of popular thought,” to which he adds that this is “not their most impressive function.”99xIbid., xxxix.

That is, the book is a work of intellectual history whose subjects are not intellectuals (or not just intellectuals in some cases) but politicians. Their political careers are treated as trials of their political thought, in a manner not unlike that of Plutarch’s Lives, the series of short, morally preoccupied biographies of famous Greeks and Romans penned in the early second century. Hofstadter considers whether the demands of politics altered, conquered, or suspended his subjects’ philosophical attitudes—as he says happened in the case of Thomas Jefferson—or whether the opposite occurred, some dogmatic idea preventing these men from meeting a crisis, as he says was Herbert Hoover’s fate before the Great Depression. This approach allows Hofstadter to both concentrate and broaden his analysis. By focusing with psychological precision on American presidential minds straining to meet the demands of their moment, Hofstadter demonstrates a keen sense of the mental and political limitations that result from a successful founding. In relating the demands themselves, the author finds opportunities, often but not invariably brief, to sketch the social backdrop.

In his portrait of Abraham Lincoln, Hofstadter never loses sight of the sixteenth president’s signal contributions, even as he dissolves the hagiographic accumulations of Lincoln’s legacy. The chapter stands in contrast with leftist historian Howard Zinn’s portrayal, a sort of bowdlerized Hofstadterian treatment, in his People’s History of the United States. Hofstadter appreciates Lincoln for his ability to grapple with the countervailing “demands of Christianity and the success myth”1010xIbid., 123.—ambition versus pride—but despite his intellectual ability to meet perfectly the moment of emancipation, he emerges looking narrow and lawyerly. My own copy of the book, assigned to me in high school as it has been for so many other American children, bears my desperate Whiggish pleading in the margins against Hofstadter’s depiction of Lincoln’s cutthroat ambition and careful political calculation. Weren’t his prevarications in service of the greater good? Didn’t he resist the abolitionists only until he could more effectively champion their cause? Hofstadter is unsparing with Lincoln’s image but takes care not to tar him with undeserved accusations.

Unlike other scholars associated with consensus history—the midcentury sociological and historical school of thought that celebrated the continuity of the American story—the Hofstadter of The American Political Tradition finds tragedy in American homogeneity. The book is a warning against the tendency to mistake superficial divisions in American party politics for serious political and philosophical differences, when in most cases they mask a deeper shared commonality. Without an understanding of that commonality, no ideas that extended beyond this desperately narrow liberal ambit could be seriously entertained, and no political projects beyond the liberal one would have any chance of winning support. As he criticized the American consensus, Hofstadter had something socialistic in mind, indicated by a reference to hopes that “society may transcend eternal conflict and rigid adherence to property rights.1111xIbid., 21.

Dialectic of American Enlightenment

The tragedy of Richard Hofstadter lies in the fact that, in the second half of his career, he fell into the very pitfalls he had so carefully mapped in his early writing. In The Age of Reform, he still managed to see progressives and populists as two sides of the same coin, but he made little effort to cloak his scorn for the Agrarian Radicals and their causes. His Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) is a more complicated case. The book certainly deserves praise as an unflattering, honest look at the American national character. How could a country founded by and still largely reverent toward patrician intellectuals offer succeeding intellectual generations such a resolutely hostile reception? The answer lay in the dominance of business in American life, the persistent combination of the Protestant work ethic and classical-economic individual self-interest, and the rough-and-ready pragmatism of the frontier. Against these forces, Hofstadter vindicates New England intellectual culture, describing its originators, the Puritan clergy, in adoring terms—they “spread Enlightenment,” “provided models of personal devotion” and, to be certain, “earned their privileged position.”1212xHofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism, 70–71. Surely the Hofstadter of The American Political Tradition might also have remarked on the blinkered, self-obsessed austerity of these men and their contemporary liberal successors.

For all its supposed virtues, the Puritan clergy proved itself pusillanimous before the onslaught of the Great Awakening—the “first moment of militant success” for American anti-intellectualism. Hofstadter quotes Timothy Cutler, “a rather prejudiced Anglican witness” to the ranting of a barnstorming preacher:

[Then] came one Tennent—a monster! impudent and noisy—and told them all they were damned, damned, damned! This charmed them; and in the most dreadful winter I ever saw, people wallowed in snow, night and day, for the benefit of his beastly braying.1313xIbid., 78.

The contemporary inheritors of the legacy of the Puritan clergy—old-guard Ivy League-educated professors and Beltway courtiers—have put up even less of a fight for their brand of liberalism against insurgent moral movements emanating from the university. The new dispensation ascendant in American political culture has sometimes been tagged with an epithet derived from the religious revival of the eighteenth century: the “Great Awokening.” But today’s movement has no preachers, only consultants—the Elmer Gantrys de nos jours—of the likes of Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility. Americans have clearly not changed much in the interim. Many continue to take a slightly perverse enjoyment in being told they are damned or—through the kind of secularization of religious categories Hofstadter was always so perspicacious in tracking—racist.

The 1950s were a bitter decade for Hofstadter; the decade made him aggrieved on behalf of intellectuals, whose cause seemed worthier for being doomed. This compromised his judgment. He cast backward into his history his instinctive and perhaps pardonable allegiance to the hopeless Adlai Stevenson—and hatred of Joseph McCarthy. Intellectuals, as Hofstadter reminds us, form a class distinct from the people at large and have their own interests, habits, and allegiances. He cannot entirely be blamed for being self-consciously intellectual in his politics—he knew who he was. Many self-hating conservative and self-abnegating left-wing American intellectuals cannot say as much.

What Hofstadter can be blamed for is the knee-jerk ressentiment that colored his writing on “pseudo-conservatism” and the “paranoid style” of American politics. Liberals, he wrote with supreme confidence, have “well-rationalized systems of political beliefs,” while the right has barbaric Manichaeism.1414xHofstadter, The Age of Reform, 19. Taking cues from the worst impulses of Theodor Adorno—for instance, the temptation to pathologize opponents, as in The Authoritarian Personality—Hofstadter pored over American history in search of McCarthys and Barry Goldwaters. Now, he seemed almost to be aspiring to a highbrow conservatism—wishing no longer for social revolution but merely a more self-confident, responsible, and cultured American elite. The latter, as he ought to have known, is almost as unlikely a prospect in the context of American democracy as the former. Hofstadter’s trajectory calls to mind another work of Adorno’s, with Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), written, it is no accident, in exile in Los Angeles. What Adorno and Horkheimer had to say about capitalist society—that it relentlessly distorts and co-opts its most lucid and enlightened critics, transforming them into unreasoning pillars of the next stage of its development—could as easily be said of American political discourse.

If Hofstadter had had time to process the upheaval of the 1960s (he died of leukemia in 1970), he might have understood that McCarthyite anti-intellectualism was only one aspect of a reaction soon to manifest itself on the left, too. Had it been possible for him, applying the sensibility of his earlier works, to observe the West Coast–based hippie movement of the late ’60s, he might have recognized traces of the anti-intellectualism of the western frontier. Putting aside the temporary impairment to the mental facilities induced by the counterculture’s drug of choice, visible still in the contemporary culture of California, is a distaste for the intellect as something decidedly not “chill.” In this secularized, languorous evangelicalism, reading appears as an obstacle to direct communication, not now with Jesus Christ, but rather with the rhythms of the universe.

And while Haight-Ashbury was filled with a mellow haze, on the other side of the country violent attacks were being made on intellect and intellectuals by the student representatives of the New Left. Professors were held at gunpoint at Cornell University, and Columbia was shut down by protests during which Hofstadter himself was called on to mediate between students and professors.1515xJeet Heer, “At Liberalism’s Crossroads,” The Nation, October 6, 2020, Each such attack generated dozens of neoconservatives, a class of intellectuals disgusted with the apparent capitulation of their peers.

The remaining decades of the twentieth century offered further confirmation of Hofstadter’s original hypothesis of a permanent American tradition, witnessing even the rebirth of laissez faire in the person and politics of Ronald Reagan—presenting a perfect right-wing parallel to the progressive attempt at a forward-looking return to tradition, and contradicting Hofstadter’s overconfident assertion in The American Political Tradition that Hoover’s downfall had marked the end of this tradition.

What prospects are there today for assessing American politics and history from an early Hofstadterian remove? The Trump era, its grotesqueness capped off by a farcical criminal parade at the Capitol, obviously witnessed the magnification of the partisan instinct. But it also saw temporary fractures in both major parties and among their respective intellectuals. Socialists were emboldened to consider the two-party system as a mere feature of a political landscape they wished to transform with a new politics of class, not as an end in itself—while writers of the “heterodox right,” for a moment indifferent to the Republican Party, asked what good the state might be if put to conservative ends. The Biden era has so far presented a bleaker, more blinkered partisan landscape, as the left reluctantly repledges its allegiance to the Democratic Party and the right reassumes a familiar oppositional posture.

A truly independent intellectual mind, as was Hofstadter’s at his best, will always encounter great obstacles to its operation in American society, and the scene is perhaps less amenable now than at other times. The factional logic of American political discourse disciplines dissenting voices sometimes with exemplary punishments, but more often, and perhaps more ominously, by persuading dissenters to recant their own positions. In allowing his liberal allegiances and his factional distaste for an insurgent populistic right to overpower his capacity for deeper insight, Hofstadter illustrated even more poignantly in deeds than he had done in words the warping effect of American politics on even the country’s most talented and ambitious minds.