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The American Political Tradition: and the Men Who Made It ()

Modern Library Top 100 Non-Fiction Books of the 20th Century (93)

There's an interesting definitional problem with these lists--the difference between Best and Greatest.  You see, there are a bunch of books here that are just godawful pieces of left wing propaganda, real liberal diatribes that have completely failed to withstand the test of time (Silent Spring, General Theory, Affluent Society, etc.).  There's no stretch of the imagination by which they should be considered the Century's "Best" books.  But, they are undeniably "Great" books, in the sense that they were extraordinarily influential.  Richard Hofstadter's book falls into this category too.  A product of post-War/post-Depression left wing triumphalism, it influenced an entire generation of historians and thinkers, but today reads like a pet project of the CPUSA (Communist Party United States of America).  It is really a quite loathsome piece of tripe.

The book's purpose is twofold: first, to delegitimize the historic American Left by portraying all of the nation's history as a mere argument on the margins of what was actually a broad conservative consensus; second, to pave the way for a new Left by painting that consensus as ideologically bankrupt.  In order to achieve the first goal, Hofstadter uses a trick familiar to every gadfly and pickle barrel orator; he simply argues the opposite of the accepted wisdom.  Thus, his chapter headings include: I. The Founding Fathers: an Age of Realism; II. Thomas Jefferson: the Aristocrat as Democrat; III. Andrew Jackson and the Rise of Liberal Capitalism; IX. Theodore Roosevelt: the Conservative as Progressive; and X. Woodrow Wilson: the Conservative as Liberal.  Get it?  The Founders weren't idealists but realists.  The liberal icons of the Left--Jefferson, Jackson, TR and Wilson--were actually all conservatives.  This continues right up to FDR, who despite a brief and half-hearted break from this past, refuses to go along with the most farsighted and sweeping aspects of the New Deal.   As this version of American history unfolds, we're treated to a kind of grand conspiracy theory whereby the leaders of the Left turn out to be wolves in sheep's clothing, secretly supporting the system and channeling discontent back into heterodoxy.

Then comes the hammer blow, because do you know what all of these schemers and dupes, either naively or maliciously, preached and believed in?  As Hofstadter scornfully informs us, all of them believed in individualism, free markets, competition, equality of opportunity and all of those hoary old shibboleths that had been totally discredited by 1948 and would surely never again see the light of day:

    The things Hoover believed in--efficiency, enterprise, opportunity, individualism, substantial
    laissez-faire, personal success, material welfare--were all in the dominant American tradition.  The
    ideas he represented--ideas that to so many people made him seem hateful or ridiculous after
    1929--were precisely the same ideas that in the remoter past of the nineteenth century and the more
    immediate past of the New Era had an almost irresistible lure for the majority of Americans.  In the
    language of Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln these ideas had been fresh and invigorating; in the
    language of Herbert Hoover they seemed stale and oppressive.  It is a significant fact that in the
    crisis of the thirties the man who represented these conceptions found himself unable even to
    communicate himself and what he stood for.  Almost overnight his essential beliefs had become
    outlandish and unintelligible.  The victim of his faith in the power of capitalism to survive and
    prosper without gigantic government props, Hoover was the last presidential spokesman of the
    hallowed doctrines of laissez-faire liberalism, and his departure from Washington marked the decline
    of a great tradition.

Hofstadter later asks of Hoover: "Could he have seriously believed that free enterprise might be restored to the postwar world?"  This is what we mean when we speak of hubris in Greek tragedy.  It would be amusing if Hofstadter and his ilk had not proceeded to do so much harm with their abandonment of American values and traditions and their eager embrace of a centralized planned economy.  It's really too bad that he died so young.  I'd have liked to have seen him explain away the rise of Ronald Reagan and the Opportunity Society.

This book is profoundly awful.  It is wrong in its major theses, informed by a really snide tone of self congratulation and, in celebrating the worst moment in the history of American governance (the rise of the Social Welfare State), fails to reckon with the fundamental tension in American history (indeed in all of human history), the ongoing struggle between the forces of freedom and the advocates of security.  I don't doubt that this book was influential, and in that sense great, but to call it one of the best nonfiction books of the century is to abuse truth, defile common sense and elevate partisan political loyalties over clear eyed analysis.


Grade: (F)


Richard Hofstadter Links:

    -ESSAY: The Paranoid Style in American Politics (Richard Hofstadter, November 1964, Harper’s Magazine)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: The Anti-Populist: Richard Hofstadter's civilized discourse. (Wilfred M. McClay, Spring 2021, Claremont Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: Hofstadter’s Paranoid Style Revisited (Michael J. Totten, 16 May 2022, Quillette)
    -REVIEW: of Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (Scott Yenor, Law & Liberty)
    -REVIEW: of Anti-Intellectualism (Chuck Chalberg, Imaginative Conservative
-ESSAY: At Liberalism’s Crossroads: The vexed legacy of Richard Hofstadter (Jeet Heer, OCTOBER 6, 2020, The Nation)

Book-related and General Links:
    -BIO: The Columbia Encyclopedia: Sixth Edition.  2000.  Hofstadter, Richard
     -ARTICLE: Richard Hofstadter's Tradition:  Fifty years ago, amid trying personal circumstances, an audacious young historian wrote a book of lasting merit about American Presidents and their politics (David Greenberg, The Atlantic)
    -ESSAY: by Richard Hofstadter THE FATE OF THE UNION: KENNEDY AND AFTER (Richard Hofstadter, NY Review of Books)
   -ESSAY: by Richard Hofstadter  A Long View: Goldwater in History (Richard Hofstadter, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: by Richard Hofstadter of The Available Man: Warren Gamaliel Harding by Andrew Sinclair (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: by Richard Hofstadter of George W. Norris: The Making of a Progressive, 1861-1912 by Richard Lowitt (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of   Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter  (Benjamin DeMott, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Turner and the Sociology of the Frontier edited by Richard Hofstadter and Seymour Martin Lipset  (John Higham,  NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington by Richard Hofstadter   (David M. Potter,  NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY:  Christopher Lasch: On Richard Hofstadter (NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: History: It's Still About Stories (James M. McPherson, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: Humpty Dumpty of Scholarship: History Has Broken Into Pieces (DAVID OSHINSKY, NY Times)
    -The Politics of Scholarship: Liberals, Anti-Communism, and McCarthyism (Athan Theoharis, The Literature & Culture of the American 1950's)
    -REVIEW: of   Liberalism and Its Discontents  by Alan Brinkley   (Fred Siegel, Culture Front)
    -THE TOP FIVE: Good books about Americans and God: Anti-intellectualism in American Life By Richard Hofstadter  (Mother Jones)
    -ESSAY: The Enemy Within:   What has come to be known as McCarthyism should, with more respect to chronology and power, be known as Hooverism (James T. Patterson, The Atlantic)
    -REVIEW: of The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood (Edmund S. Morgan, NY Review of Books)
    -EXPLANATORY BLURB: about the book Radical Beginnings: Richard Hofstadter and the 1930s (Susan Stout Baker)


The other reviewers' comments say much more about them than about Orrin. 'Neocon fascist'; that's playground name-calling as practiced by the slightly educated adult.

- Moon

- Mar-26-2005, 10:52


this book is awesome, the critic is just a jealous jerk who is sad because he didn't think of the ideas in the book first.

- krys

- Oct-17-2004, 20:09


What can I have been thinking? He said he had no agenda? Then obviously he didn't.

- oj

- Jun-08-2004, 16:38


Orrin's review of Hofstadter's book reveals more about Orrin than it does Hofstatdter. As Hofstadter himself asserted, he had no agenda in writing his book other than attempting to take a closer, more objective view of the political thoughts and philosophies of prominent American statesmen and assessing how those perspectives contributed to the American political tradition. Just because H's observations don't jibe with Orrin's neo-conservative brand of facism, he trashes him as a failed idealogue.

- Ron Evensen

- Jun-08-2004, 16:30