Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography

By David S. Brown | Go to book overview

10
The Trials of Liberalism

Newsweek:You have no doubt that this is a bad time?

Hofstadter: Oh I have no doubt it's a bad time,

and it's not over yet.

RICHARD HOFSTADTER, 1970

In the closing pages of The Progressive Historians, Richard Hofstadter made an eloquent plea for a “vital kind of moral consensus” to sustain the American political center. His counsel to clashing interests to respect the right of principled opposition was a message teeming with self-interest. The liberal sun was setting. The radical Right, Far Left, black power movement, hippies and yippies may have stood separately in small numbers outside the political mainstream, but combined, their challenge to the two-party system could not be ignored. Deeply concerned with the fate of comity in an era of political polarization, Hofstadter produced The Idea of a Party System: The Rise of Legitimate Opposition in the United States, 1780–1840. The work is both a blueprint of the birth of pluralism and a provocative rejoinder to those who dismissed liberalism as a spent force in American political life. As John William Ward cogently observed in a review of its contents, “If we are dissatisfied today with party politics, The Idea of a Party System is a fine place to begin to think about the sources of our discontent.”1

It is, in some respects, an unusual Hofstadter book. It lacks the bold revisionism and social-psychological insights that distinguished its author's most controversial scholarship. Published by the University of California Press (the manuscript was tied to a lecture series at Berkeley), it reads much like the kind of monographic history that Hofstadter typically avoided. Keeping in mind its 1969 publication date, one might assume that The Idea of a Party System was conceived in response to the political radicalism of the sixties, but its author's interest in the topic arose

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