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What Richard Hofstadter Got Wrong

The late historian and author of “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” misdiagnosed the fate of modern conservatism.

Illustration by Steve Brodner

In another journalistic life, I worked at an estimable Beltway publication covering the daily business of Congress. One of the early directives I encountered there concerned the use of the word “reform” in connection with any pending legislation. The notion of reform, I was soberly informed, was simply too charged and incendiary to pass as a description of any agenda item seeking approval from the people’s representatives; the less loaded term “overhaul” was always and everywhere to be preferred.

Never mind that overhauls are far more ambitious in scale than reforms, as any long-suffering sports fan or construction professional can tell you. And never mind that reforms and reformers have always claimed center stage in the drama of our national politics—one can scarcely imagine the civil rights revolution, women’s suffrage, and Social Security (or, on the other side of the ledger, Prohibition, jingoism, and rampant nativism) without them. No, the larger point here was that reform was too wild and indecorous an idea for a respectable Hill journal to grace with serious or sustained treatment.

Library of America, 1,056 pp., $45.00

This point of style speaks volumes about discursive gatekeeping in Washington—but it also stands in no small measure as a legacy of the late historian of American politics Richard Hofstadter. Hofstadter was a deft, wide-ranging chronicler of American intellectual and political life, beginning with his landmark revisionist study, The American Political Tradition (1948). Across his too-short life and career, he produced indispensable monographs on American violence and the rise of social Darwinism, together with a pioneering body of analysis on the rise of the postwar American right. But it’s chiefly as a critic of the reformist impulse in American politics that Hofstadter lives on in today’s post-liberal order. Hofstadter argued that the reformers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century—Populist agitators, Progressive social planners, temperance and suffrage advocates—were engaged in a panicked bid to reclaim their diminishing status in public life. As the Protestant guardians of small-town America saw the forces of capitalist modernity overtake the world they knew, they lashed out, reasserting their waning power and prestige as defenders of an embattled cultural order.

Amid the present academic boomlet in anti-populist jeremiads, Hofstadter’s reading of the American Populist movement as a bigoted, nativist, and anti-Semitic insurgency, steeped in “status anxiety,” is arguably more influential than ever, half a century after his death in 1970. But as is the case with many intellectual legacies, a great deal has been lost in translation: Hofstadter envisioned reform as a prolonged revolt against modernity—not a particularly useful framework for understanding today’s demagogues, who, instead of trafficking in grievances about the world they have lost, augur a bold new turn in plutocratic governance. Meanwhile, Hofstadter’s crudest simplifications have endured: His latter-day anti-populist apostles tend to fall back on his caricatured accounts of the backward masses and their motivations, pointedly ignoring the social-democratic cast of American Populism of the Gilded Age.

Hofstadter debuted his argument in his Pulitzer Prize–winning 1955 study The Age of Reform, and as the Cold War drove American politics, on the right especially, into operatic new registers of derangement, Hofstadter updated and expanded this general theory of cultural lag into a diagnosis of the distempers of the reactionary anti-modern mind. The two works now anthologized by the Library of America, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) and The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964), showcase Hofstadter’s most ambitious efforts to supply a unified theory of the American romance with cultural reaction.

Of the two, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (which also won a Pulitzer Prize) is the more engaging study, and in its strongest sections the book lands a sharp argument for the autonomy of intellectual inquiry in an American educational tradition that’s proved all too vulnerable to philosophic fads and watery, low-cost brands of socially minded sloganeering. Like The American Political Tradition, it’s a synthetic interpretation of the full sweep of American history. But instead of disinterring the shared material interests of the American leadership caste, as he did in that book, here Hofstadter charts the shifting fortunes of intellectuals as a class and the life of the mind as a precarious redoubt of cultural privilege.

Not surprisingly, the book’s basic narrative is a tale of declension: From the British settlement of the New World at the direction of a learned and austere Puritan clergy, down through the nation’s founding at the behest of a remarkably educated and articulate corps of Enlightenment-age thinkers and politicians, the United States promised to be an Anglophone colony of ideas as well as economic interests and geopolitical ambitions. But under the later pressures from below—in the demotic revival preaching of the First and Second Great Awakenings, and the proto-populist political culture of Jacksonian democracy—intellectual endeavors took on a suspiciously elitist, anti-democratic cast.

Along the way, of course, there had been brief intervals when a significant political leader and/or an elite gaggle of thinkers revived some respect for the life of the mind, and provisional truces between the intellectuals and the plain, untutored masses appeared to take hold. But these did not last. By the time Joseph McCarthy launched his crusade against the far-flung threat of domestic communist subversion, American intellectuals were the quarry of “cultural vigilantes,” determined to extirpate the sinister and unmanly perfidy of foreign-inspired literary endeavors and political activism. Behind all the sound and fury of McCarthyism, Hofstadter saw a deeper cultural saga of the heartland’s flight from the blank, overwhelming terrors of modern life:

The McCarthyist era brought to a head several forces engaged in a long-standing revolt against modernity. The older America, until the 1890’s and in some respects until 1914, was wrapped in the security of continental isolation, village society, the Protestant denominations, and a flourishing industrial capitalism. But reluctantly, year by year, over several decades, it has been drawn into the twentieth century and forced to cope with its unpleasant realities: first the incursions of cosmopolitanism and skepticism, then the disappearance of American isolation and easy military security, the collapse of traditional capitalism and its supplementation by a centralized welfare state, finally the unrelenting costs and stringencies of the Second World War, the Korean War and the cold war. As a consequence, the heartland of America, filled with people who are often fundamentalist in religion, nativist in prejudice, isolationist in foreign policy, and conservative in economics, has constantly rumbled with an underground revolt against all these tormenting manifestations of our modern predicament.

As Hofstadter conducts the reader through the recent political and intellectual past, there’s a preserved-in-amber quality ascribed to the always potent, readily mobilized forces of anti-intellectualism. Backward farmers come in for the most ardent abuse; he doesn’t expect them to be full-on patrons of learning or the arts, but for God’s sake, “a receptive state of mind at least toward applied science would have been immensely useful to the farmers themselves.” Industrial workers scarcely fare any better, even as the modern labor movement burgeoned into a crucial cultural way station for a certain kind of committed left intellectual. In part, Hofstadter maintained, the problem was a clash of class-bound cultural values: Left intellectuals typically “disdained the middle-class respectability to which most labor leaders, and in fact most rank and file skilled workers, aspired.”

Such thumbnail indictments of the nonintellectual masses seemed to stem from Hofstadter’s own mounting sense of political and cultural homelessness in the postwar world. The left sympathies that informed his early work had hardened into a posture of arch distrust of anything resembling a socioeconomic version of popular democracy. The wayward reformers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries bequeathed to the modern liberal intelligentsia a “mugwump culture,” he argued, marked by an ethos of patrician scolding and disconnected from the chastening demands of modern life. This posture provided more fuel for attacks on intellectuals from practically minded, fundamentalist, and masculinist critics. “Intellect,” Hofstadter judged, “had become associated with losing causes and exemplified by social types that were declining in vigor and influence, encapsulated by an impermeable world.”

For Hofstadter and the other leading exponents of Cold War liberalism—Daniel Bell, Reinhold Niebuhr, David Riesman, to name but a few—the way out of this slough was for intellectuals to embrace the new power that the bureaucratic state endowed them with. The leftist sociologist C. Wright Mills—a Columbia colleague and erstwhile friend of Hofstadter’s in their academic youth—derisively dubbed these thinkers “balancing boys,” for their Goldilocks-style prescriptions for incremental social progress, be it “go slow” counsel on civil rights protest at home or chin-jutting interventionist efforts to contain the spread of communism abroad.

The balancing-boy ethos courted many hazardous ironies, as the Kennedy White House’s disastrous military errand in Vietnam—infamously a project of the nation’s best and brightest—was poised to demonstrate at the time Hofstadter’s book appeared. And within the domain of intellectual discourse, the Cold War liberal thinkers’ romance with power often played out into a derogation of the intellectual class, scarcely distinguishable from attacks from the right. Another close friend and intellectual ally of Hofstadter, Kennedy court historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., argued in his Cold War broadside The Vital Center (1949) for a mobilization of pragmatic “doers” in the embattled house of liberalism, to defeat the pusillanimous “wailers” on the sloganeering left.

It’s far from clear, in other words, how the remedies Hofstadter sketched in Anti-Intellectualism might safeguard against what Benjamin Ginzburg, in a 1931 TNR symposium, called “the anti-intellectualism of the intellectuals”—a tendency to substitute a chiefly rhetorical engagement with politics for the hard work of defining and refining freestanding intellectual values.

Yet if Hofstadter’s vision of the besieged calling of the liberal intellectual was an awkward fit with the New Frontier’s exuberant coming of age, his later work brought no course corrections. The year after Anti-Intellectualism was published, Hofstadter released The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. The title remains the work for which he’s best known; since a version appeared in the pages of Harper’s, it’s gone on to be a principal diagnosis of all the woolier features of our conspiracy-mongering polity, particularly (again) as it has found expression on the insurgent right. In anatomizing everything from the genuinely paranoid abuses of power perpetrated by Richard Nixon down through the Trump White House’s unhinged tirades against “deep state” cabals, the liberal commentariat has taken Hofstadter’s essay as a touchstone.

But in their breathless punditizing, latter-day apostles of Hofstadter have overlooked the many weaknesses of the argument in “The Paranoid Style.” Hofstadter’s essay set out to tie the most elaborate brands of conspiracy-mongering to the cultural obsessions sparked by status anxiety. Early American moral panics about Catholic debauchery and murder, he argued, formed a more-or-less continuous line of descent to the McCarthy anti-communist inquisition of the 1950s. Each of these episodes was expressed in the same “overheated” and “grandiose” manner; and in each case the paranoid stylist imagines that their enemy poses a near-complete threat to their way of life. An important feature of the paranoid style is its sense of urgency—“it is now or never in organizing resistance to the conspiracy”—which Hofstadter traced to a religious sensibility. “He expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last day and he is sometimes disposed to set a date for the apocalypse.”

As in culturally charged showdowns between the heavy-breathing masses and their sophisticated egghead oppressors, the paranoiac battle for power is an all-or-nothing proposition—a question of 100 percent partisanship, in Hofstadter’s formulation. “Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated,” an outlook that “leads to the formulation of hopelessly demanding and unrealistic goals.” This all-or-nothing worldview, and the failure it all but ensures, only heightens the paranoid stylist’s already-debilitating sense of abiding insignificance before the rigged dramas of world history: “Even partial success leaves him with the same sense of powerlessness with which he began,” Hofstadter writes, “and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.”

It’s easy to see why Hofstadter’s essay made sense to liberal intellectuals circa 1964. Barry Goldwater’s capture of the Republican nomination looked for all the world like a chiliastic revivalist hijacking of Cold War politics on the right. Indeed, in one of the uncollected essays on the Goldwater phenomenon reprinted in this new anthology, Hofstadter describes Goldwater as a “dreamer” and “visionary” steeped in “messianic idealism” who tapped into “a deep millennial strain in the American consciousness.” And Goldwater’s crushing defeat in the 1964 presidential balloting seemed to be just the sort of tragic-heroic political and cultural defeat that feeds lost-cause narratives—and terminally aggrieved fundraising appeals—among the diehard anti-government right.

But of course the entire subsequent history of the modern right’s ascension to power makes precisely the opposite point. The alleged retreat of fundamentalists from public life since the Scopes Trial debacle in 1925 has always been something of a liberal cultural lullaby, as Matthew Avery Sutton demonstrated in his 2014 study, American Apocalypse. And the paranoid style, far from being an expression of powerlessness, has become perhaps the most potent and reliable model of retaining and expanding power on the American right—particularly as its leaders continue to cleave to a governing agenda that is unpopular with the polled majority of American voters. Overheated reveries depicting the cultural and political persecution of the right no longer merely drive crank ideological fantasizing and end-time sermonizing; they now fuel vast swaths of online and broadcast reporting on the right, while building an astonishingly insular narrative of relentless and unappeasable persecution within the Oval Office itself.

Far from serving as a breakdown of the vigilante mind, the paranoid style would appear to be a leading-edge mode of adaptation to a civically denuded world of siloed and commercially deformed information flows. The explanatory power of Hofstadter’s best-known thesis has indeed become so weak that it’s tempting to reverse its polarity, and suggest that the armchair psychoanalysis popularized under the heading of the paranoid style is itself a compensatory fable of liberal powerlessness, bespeaking a failure of the liberal mind to adapt to radically altered cultural and political conditions.

The other essays collected in The Paranoid Style feature equally damning interpretive blind spots. An extended meditation on imperialism and the Spanish-American War manages to suggest that Populist reformers were ardent supporters of imperialism—a bald misreading of the historical record. A look back at the track record of antitrust enforcement suggests, in classic balancing-boy fashion, that the antitrust cause succeeded only once it ceased to be the intellectual plaything of the backward reformer class. “The problems of yesterday are not solved but outgrown,” Hofstadter coos in a transport of Whiggish hubris—one that, again, is uniquely ill suited to our own new millennial economic order of unregulated digital monopoly.

In both books, Hofstadter’s dim view of populism and its legacy rests on a willful misreading of the Populist insurgency’s actual history. Far from advancing a toxic synthesis of nativist prejudice, fundamentalism, and retreatist cultural politics, many movement Populists in the nineteenth century were radical innovators, proposing measures such as public ownership of utilities, the popular ballot initiative, and the direct election of senators that would come to pass under the highbrow ministrations of the later Progressive movement. The Populist Party also proposed instituting the Subtreasury Plan—a new currency system predicated on the labor value of commodities, which got appropriated and pressed into the service of finance capital with the Progressive-era founding of the Federal Reserve in 1913.

And very much contrary to Hofstadter’s portrait of Populists as xenophobes, bigots, and racists, the movement sought to forge cross-racial coalitions of farmers and workers in the former Confederacy; it was the creation of a Colored Farmers’ Alliance in the Southern and Western states that terrified the Southern plantocracy, which then proceeded to launch the vicious reign of modern white supremacy in the South, as C. Vann Woodward documented in his 1955 work The Strange Career of Jim Crow, and as Lawrence Goodwyn showed in his magisterial 1976 study Democratic Promise. Hofstadter only managed to rouse the image of an incorrigibly racist and bigoted Populist movement by selectively culling outbursts from movement leaders such as Thomas E. Watson, Ignatius Donnelly, and Mary Elizabeth Lease. Several of these figures—Watson chief among them—embraced such ugly sentiments in the wake of Populism’s abrupt collapse after the 1896 election, and in concert with the consolidation of the white supremacist regime in the modern South. To isolate Populists as the principal source of racist reaction in the region and the country at large, as Hofstadter and his many followers have done, is very much like blaming the medical profession for the rise of the coronavirus.

And yet amid the McCarthyist Red Scare a half-century later, Hofstadter evoked the same basic altar call of woeful rural and small-town anomie and forever-diminishing status, half-consciously expressed and palliated as racist and nativist rage and resentment in the postwar American right. Never mind that many other students of the postwar right have pointed up its affluent and modernist affinities, particularly in Sun Belt outposts of the new war and aerospace economy such as Southern California. In truth, the modern right was never backward-looking and mulishly anti-intellectual; it was, rather, Janus-faced, invoking a mythic and salvific vision of “pristine capitalism,” as historian Darren Dochuk has dubbed it, even in the booming suburbs created by massive subventions from the federal military and connected by the new Interstate Highway System (launched, by the way, by a Republican president with the national security aim of effectuating the rapid evacuation of cities in the wake of a nuclear attack on American soil).

Indeed, for all the close attention Hofstadter gives to McCarthy, fundamentalist right-wingers, and various lapsed Populist bigots, his large body of work on the postwar American right says virtually nothing about a far more consequential figure of the time—Ayn Rand, who was not merely a woman, a Russian immigrant, and a toweringly pompous intellectual, but also an ardent atheist and modernist. Rand teemed with resentments and anxieties galore, Lord knows, but they had far more to do with her insatiable ambition and her sex life than with any status anxiety harking back to the simpler village society of the mid-nineteenth century.

The Paranoid Style collection ends with an extended intellectual biography of William “Coin” Harvey, the lead propagandist of the Free Silver crusade that captured both the Populist and Democratic parties in 1896. The Free Silver insurgency had largely been a piece of reformist quackery, so naturally it and Harvey alike are prime sport for Hofstadter. The silverite faction held that remonetizing silver, and expanding the money supply, would provide an instant form of debt relief for farmers and workers traumatized by the successive financial panics of the 1890s, on the theoretically sound but practically overstated premise that currency inflation always benefits debtors over creditors. It’s not especially shocking to learn that Harvey, an autodidact who drifted across the Midwest and Colorado in search of a surefire path to fame and riches, peddled an easily disproved model of monetary theory.

Hofstadter also rouses some evidence of Harvey’s anti-Semitic leanings, which renders him another estimable addition to Hofstadter’s rogue’s gallery of Populist-affiliated bigots and xenophobes (even though, like many Victorian-age Protestants, Harvey was also given to transports of philo-Semitism, albeit ones still steeped in crude cultural caricature). But it’s Harvey’s late-career decline that clearly holds Hofstadter’s main interest. Ever restless and entrepreneurial, Harvey bought a tract of land in the Arkansas Ozarks, and opened a resort there he called Monte Ne (which he, poor sap that he was, mistook for a Spanish phrase meaning “mountain of waters”). After Harvey’s project met with some initial success—which included the founding of a Monte Ne bank—the homestead at the heart of the resort was destroyed in a devastating fire. Still, even in the face of that adversity, Harvey soldiered on, lobbying to create the Ozark Trails Association, which helped get the resort, and the region at large, on the fledgling American highway system. But as his reform career wound down, Harvey also alighted on a typically daft plan to preserve his legacy for posterity: He’d raise funds to build a great pyramid at the Monte Ne site, and preserve in a time capsule a collection of his own writings (together with a copy of the Bible) as an endowment of wisdom for future civilizations to erect their own ambitious programs of reform.

Not surprisingly, the project never got off the ground, thanks to funding and construction issues. All Harvey managed to launch was the construction of an area to surround the pyramid, which he dubbed the monument’s “foyer.” The photographic record of the project, Hofstadter writes, makes it look “like the village of some strange breed of midget Pueblos with disordered minds.” In another cruel little irony, the foyer itself became something of a local tourist attraction—“a substitute for antique ruins,” which drew thousands of visitors “paying admission fees to gaze upon the fragments of Harvey’s unrealized dreams.” Thus ends another classic Hofstadter-grade parable about the chastened outcomes history has in store for comically misguided reform.

Except that the real legacy of Coin Harvey’s late career lies entirely elsewhere. Around the time Hofstadter was writing, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took over the former Monte Ne site, and built an enormous dam and man-made lake there. These projects, and several others like them, sparked a boom in tourism and commercial development in the Arkansas Ozarks—together with the new interstate highways grafted upon the original Ozark Trails initiative Harvey launched in 1910. Beaver Dam and Beaver Lake—the projects occupying the former Monte Ne site—supply water for nearby Bentonville, which is now known worldwide as the headquarters for the union-busting, low-wage retail empire founded by the great Arkansas merchant prince Sam Walton.

So instead of conducting themselves into the sanctum of Coin Harvey’s great reformist pyramid, today’s Ozark tourists are far more apt to visit the Walmart Museum, which houses the corporate founder’s legendary 1979 Ford pickup, among other relics of his cost-cutting frugality. Or they might swing by nearby Searcy, home of the evangelical Bible school, Harding University, which is lavishly funded by Walton Family Foundation and showcases a notoriously far-right American Studies Institute (where Walton was a member of its advisory board) focusing on libertarian economics and laissez-faire propaganda. In the late 1970s, a conservative Arkansas manufacturing family endowed a Harding business school institute called the Belden Center for Private Enterprise Education, which publishes a quarterly pamphlet, The Entrepreneur, dilating on the wonders of capitalism, as they are “personified so well by Wal-Mart.”

In other words, Harvey’s stretch of Arkansas, like the rest of America’s vast and unequal interior, would have benefited greatly from some durable monuments to the honorable traditions of reform. And the broader intellectual lesson here would seem to be that even the most pragmatic, tough-minded, and irony-attuned narrators of our political past should choose their parables with a great deal of care.