Perspectives on 20th Century America: Readings and Commentary

By Otis L. Graham Jr. | Go to book overview

17.
Richard Hofstadter: The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt

At his death in 1970, Richard Hofstadter was widely recognized as the leading historian of American political ideas. His writing on the Popuand progressives (in The Age of Reform, 1955) won him his first Pulitzer Prize, and his study of Americans who have distrusted thought itself ( Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, 1963) won him his second. In the following essay, Hofstadter turned his attention to those formidable social critics of the 1950s, the pseudoconservatives of the radical right.

Hofstadter's main interest in this essay is not to demonstrate the irrationality of the pseudoconservative patterns of thought. He assumes that those who think the American government is riddled with traitors, who singlemindedly identify communism as the world's prime evil and the sole source of its problems, who equate the New Deal (and even Eisenhower's policies) with socialism, are citizens whose mental lives have only the most distant connection to reality. His purpose is not to argue with such views, but to account for the appeal they have for millions of Americans. The strains of life in the capitalist democracies are real enough, Hofstadter admits, ranging from the existence of Russian communism with its well-demonstrated enmity toward the West, through high taxes and an inefficient, complex and bureaucratic government. But Hofstadter thinks the fears of the radical right go so far beyond the facts of foreign danger and economic hardships as to require a psychological explanation. Why have masses of people become at once so politically excited and so hostile to the relatively benign if muddled institutions of their own society? Drawing upon empirical studies available to him in the 1950s, Hofstadter offers the interpretation that radical conservatives were responding not merely to the objective dangers of the Cold War but to strains they were undergoing as members of groups situated in places of unusual psychological stress in American life.

While making some use of the ideas of Theodore Adorno and his associates, who argue in The Authoritarian Personality ( 1969) that there appears to be a distinctive psychological type that is drawn to right-wing extremism, Hofstadter is more interested in social rather than individual psychology. He suggests that the radical right drew most of its adherents from groups experiencing severe cultural strain and status deprivations in America's fast-changing urban environment. In 1954, he thought such groups probably included a large number of second- and third-generation Americans of immigrant stock, who had not found secure American identities in the rootless, restless life of twentieth-century United States. Later, in a comment published in 1965, Hofstadter conceded that he had overestimated the number of immigrant-stock Americans drawn to the radical right and had failed to identify

From Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays, pp. 41-65. Copyright 1954 by Richard Hofstadter. Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

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