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Understanding the Tea Party Half a Century Before It Was Launched
by Mitchell Abidor
IN HER COMMENT on the conversation Nick Jahr and I had at this website on Bernie Sanders, Anna Wrobel cited Richard Hofstadter’s analysis of populism. Not only do I agree with the paraphrased opinion of the great historian, but I have become increasingly convinced that Hofstadter (1916-1970) is perhaps the greatest guide there is to American political life and history, and that his books are a necessary part of any progressive’s library. Reading Hofstadter on our past does more to illuminate the trends of today than do most contemporary commentators.
I took to re-reading Hofstadter over the spring, and did so as a kind of corrective. I had just spent a year translating the notebooks of the great anarchist-Bolsehvik Victor Serge (189-1947), which he kept from 1936 until 1947, and the essays of the French libertarian communist Daniel Guérin. Whatever the virtues of both writers, what particularly struck me was just how wrong they almost always were. Guérin, speaking of May ’68 in France, said that it was “the first act of a social revolution of longue durée.” It wasn’t. Serge’s notebooks, particularly during the war years, are full of predictions of working-class revolutions that will occur at war’s end. (In fairness to Serge, by the end of the war and in the years remaining to him after the war — he died in 1947 — he realized that revolution was not only not in the cards imminently, but not in the cards at all.) The cause of Serge and Guérin’s misreadings of reality was, it must be said, the Marxism by which they lived: They viewed events through a certain lens that could only see revolution and working-class power at the end of it. The defeat of the working class, its general demoralization, had to be either underplayed or ignored, since history was moving in an ineluctable direction. It wasn’t, and they were horribly wrong about almost everything.
If, as we will see, Hofstadter was so well able to analyze American political life and foresee events and trends as clearly as he did, it’s because he had no teleological theory of history into which all events had to be plugged. If he had an overarching idea in his analysis, it was that of American politics being defined by consensus, which is a descriptive idea and not a prescriptive one. That American politics tends to consensus is an observation, and though Hofstadter thought it on the whole a good idea — describing it as “the wisdom of our ancestors, who believed that under the American system a plurality of interests, vigilantly pursued, would end by providing a rough counterpoise to each other, which would be more likely to yield satisfactory results than a general appeal to human virtue” — it was copious enough an idea to allow him to freely judge men and events, and, more importantly, to correctly diagnose the causes of the course of events and to see them in all their richness.
He was, after all, able to see that however positive a step it was that political conventions, the fruit of the reform movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, replaced the choosing of candidates in smoke-filled rooms, it made clear something we live with daily: “This brings us back to a central problem of the modern democrat: whether it is possible in modern society to find satisfactory ways of realizing the ideal of popular government without becoming dependent to an unhealthy degree upon those who have the means to influence the popular mind.” This in 1955!
In another instance, Hofstadter was not writing about the Iran treaty but could have been when he said that the rightwing
line is distinguishable... not alone in being more crusade-minded and more risk-oriented in its proposed policies but also in its convictions that those who place greater stress on negotiation and accommodation are either engaged in treasonable conspiracy... or are guilty of well-nigh criminal failings in moral and intellectual fiber.
In the aftermath of Goldwater’s crushing defeat in 1964, Hofstadter reiterated ideas he had developed ten years earlier, during the McCarthy period. He maintained that
in a populistic culture like ours, which seems to lack a responsible elite with political and moral autonomy, and in which it is possible to exploit the wildest currents of public sentiment for private purposes, it is at least conceivable that a highly organized, vocal, active, and well-financed minority could create a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible.
In 1954 Hofstadter saw the Tea Party in the making. He even foresaw how it would seize control of the Republican Party, saying that in 1965 “the professionals who have already repossessed the party apparatus have not yet had a final reckoning with its right wing.” This was so for several reasons, not least of which was what we would come to know as the Koch brothers and their ilk: “In the battle for public opinion the right wing has ample funds at its disposal.” But Hofstadter also saw that the right has “certain advantages that accrue from its rough-and-tumble tactics.” And those tactics which he limned have only become more rough-and-tumble:
the conservative label and the nationalist animus of the far right are handsome advantages: it can wrap itself in the symbols of respectability and Americanism, and yet it has no inhibitions about gaining what it can through intimidation, which it brings to bear with great effectiveness upon schoolteachers and school administrators, librarians, advertisers in the press and mass media, local merchants, and working politicians.
IT IS IN HIS ANALYSIS of the fundamental nature of this far right that he avoids the errors of the Marxists with which I began this discussion. Class and economic interests are not the sole or even the main determinants in the beliefs of those on the right. Hofstadter seeks an explanation for their beliefs and actions in psychology and in fears of status loss. For Hofstadter, whatever they might call themselves, they are not conservatives at all, but rather pseudo-conservatives. A conservative, after all, wants to conserve and preserve elements of American society. Hofstadter built on the work of Theodor Adorno, who said that “the pseudo-conservative is a man who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition.” Again, in passages that seem to have been written this morning, Hofstadter describes the mindset of the pseudo-conservative, who “feels that his liberties have been arbitrarily and outrageously invaded.” They are motivated by a politics constructed around status, and the ideas of the far right tend to be expressed “more in vindictiveness, in sour memories, in the search for scapegoats, than in realistic proposals for positive action.”
Less a worldview than an attitude, “status politics,” wrote Hofstadter, “does more to express emotions than to formulate policies.” The truth of this observation can be seen in the faces of the yahoos who attend Trump (or Huckabee, or Cruz) rallies.
The pseudo-conservative always imagines himself to be dominated and imposed upon because he feels that he is not dominant, and knows of no other way of interpreting his position. He imagines that his own government and his own leaders are engaged in a more or less continuous conspiracy against him because he has come to think of authority only as something that aims to manipulate and deprive him.
Hofstadter demonstrates that the anti-deficit mania of his day and ours had nothing to do with economic theory, of which most people are blissfully ignorant, but rather is based on morality. “They oppose [deficits] because their personal experience or training in spending, debts, and prudential management leads them to see in deficit spending a shocking repudiation of the moral precepts upon which their moral lives have been based.” In adopting deficit spending, the “thrifty... who have been managing their affairs by the old rules feel that their way of life has been officially and insultingly repudiated.”
Hofstadter’s genius resides in his insight into the way human personality interacts with the social to produce explosive mixes that would develop into the Tea Party and the right to break all the rules of American politics. And he knew it would not be going away any time soon: “The far right has become a permanent force in the political order because the things upon which it feeds are also permanent.”
Even when Hofstadter seems to fail to see what is coming, as he does in his essay on the anti-trust movement, where he underestimates the evil effects of concentration, he is still able to find the kernel that matters:
Today our greatest danger lies not in our failure to produce enough goods because we do not have enough competition, but in our failure to render humane, healing, humanly productive and restorative social services that are not comprehended at all in the ethos of competition. At its best, big business will not perform such services. At its worst, it can sustain a class of men who will prevent them from being performed.
Richard Hofstadter teaches us the value of history, of viewing our past with a gimlet eye, of seeing the complexity of human motivations, and of picking out the strands that dominate and will dominate for a long period. He is the historian as pundit. But a pundit malgré lui, one who, unlike those that proliferate like kudzu in America today, is almost always right.
Mitchell Abidor, our contributing writer, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his new translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His other new book is Voices of the Paris Commune.
Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.