Tuesday, November 4, 2014

(Classic) book review: The American Political Tradition by Richard Hofstafter

 Richard Hofstadter: The American Political Tradition (Vintage Books, NY, 1948, various reprints), 456 pages, index, chapter notes, biographical essay (on sources consulted)

abbreviations used in this article:

APT - The American Political Tradition
FDR - Franklin Delano Roosevelt
RH - Richard Hofstadter
SMM - Self-Made-Man 

            Richard Hofstadter (RH) was a gifted (if somewhat prickly) American historian and public intellectual whose heritage was cut short by premature death at age 54 from leukemia. In later years RH referred to The American Political Tradition (APT) as "a young man's book" yet this work of youth served to break American academic history out of the Left-Right ideological ruts into which it had fallen during the war years and the subsequent rise of communism. It initiated a more empirical, evidence based, mode of doing history whose influence is still felt.


            RH's book filled a gap in my understanding of that most important of nations, the United States of America. (Nineteenth century prophets like Marx, Darwin and Jules Verne saw that the 20th century would be the "American century". The new century is following in the wake of the last though it is becoming more and more evident that "Nova Roma" has entered a Time of Troubles with unknown issue..)

            Although I was raised in the US, large areas of the American national character and history remained opaque. How could a people, so enamoured of their Founding Principles - Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, oppress their black fellow citizens? What did they think could be accomplished? Why did the people of my town support European colonial rule? - America, after all, fought a democratic revolution in order to free herself from colonial rule. I was puzzled..

           APT helped me answer some of these questions or, at least, understand better the nature of these questions and what they might actually signify.

           To illustrate the growth and evolution of the APT, RH picked ten federal political figures, presidents or contenders, spanning 150 years from founding father Thomas Jefferson to Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). 


           In my retrospective reading, sixty six years after the first edition, RH reveals two powerful, often opposing, drives at the heart of the American soul: Personal Liberty and Greed. The former is often / usually expressed as "property rights" while the latter is acquisitiveness, particularly the pathological form: acquisition for its own sake or as an ostentatious display of personal "worth".

           In the early days of the American republic, at the turn of the 19th century, democracy was generally restricted to land owners. This democracy was the vehicle through which Personal Liberty (conceived of as property rights) and Greed (which includes Power Lust) acquired and defended turf. Or rather, various classes and groups of people, motivated by these dominant culturally reinforced drives, contended for turf.

           While America began as a colony of craftsmen and landholding farmers, (proto-)industrial modes of production began to appear in the early 19th century. Industrialization shaped the ways in which Personal Liberty and Greed developed and conflicted. Industrialization favored large scale production, mass markets, large capital expenditures and high finance. These trends concentrated capital - hence political power - into fewer and fewer hands.

          Opposing these "concentrative" trends: the great American mythic hero, Self-Made-Man (SMM). He is the little guy who, through determination, integrity and ingenuity "makes it", that is, "proves he is a man", acquires status and worth in the social hierarchy. A particularly romanticized - and moralized - vision of  the oppressed yet noble SMM rose in the southern states in reaction to a perceived power imbalance between North and South. The agrarian, slave economy of the south was, in the long run, no match - economically, politically, demographically or culturally - with the emerging industrial states of the North. Ironically, slave-holding southern plantation owners saw themselves as Davids fighting the Goliaths of northern high finance. To embitter things, northern abolitionists decried slavery as moral evil before the face of God, heightening southern feelings of social and cultural inferiority. One suspects that much of the paradoxical nature of American society today is rooted in the foundational paradoxes of those early dramas and the stresslines and fracture faults they created.

           Over time, the first pole of the American psyche, the thirst for Personal Liberty, has degenerated due to the need of corporations to constantly expand markets to gain profits (their raison d'être). The Late Industrial Age culture that has evolved over the last century is characterized by a narcissistic, anomic and atomistic individualism (or perhaps pseudo-individualism). (See footnote 1)

           To maximize production, hence profits, people are "programmed" from birth - TV ads! - to consume! consume! consume! Today much, if not most, of our consumption in industrial societies is way beyond subsistence levels required to hold body and soul together. Consumption beyond mere subsistence is not in itself a bad thing, of course. Culture, in any "sophisticated" sense of the term, depends upon social surpluses being generated which are then canalized into non-subsistence (optional) activities. But today, profit driven consumption generates social, ecological and climatic pathologies. We, and our world, are sick - literally - from overconsumption. We are constantly encouraged to consume way beyond elemental biological needs, way beyond our personal needs for "self expression": books, tools, skills..  

            Our self-expressive drives - "programmed" by our evolutionary history - function, in part, to establish our "worth" or "rank" within our social matrix. This is simply basic Primate Politics as they express themselves through human beings, human hands, human voices, human thought..  So what makes modern consumer culture "pathological"? What went wrong?

             One problem: overconsumption or hyperconsumption is now taken as a sign of value, not the skills, values or truth that were discovered or expressed by the consumer. Consumption is no longer a necessity or a socially sanctioned compensation for services rendered to the community. The act of consumption itself becomes a sign of worth or rank: I am worth more than you because my car is worth more than yours.. In the final stage of alienation, the work of art is not appreciated for its own sake (or even the pleasure it provides) but for the price tag that indicates our personal (quantitative) "worth" relative to those who could not afford it. Such a culture of ostentatious, rank-assigning consumption necessarily invites competitive consumption all the way down the social hierarchy. Everybody consumes as much as they can to show their superiority over those father down the pecking order. In the (pathological) limit, our sense of worth is totally driven from the exterior, we have no center. This state of being - or lack of Being - is undoubtedly reflected in existentialist observations that we moderns lack "authenticity". 

             Many people in industrial countries do lead dull lives of drudgery where no fulfillment is found in the stultifyingly repetition of the assembly line or checkout counter. For these "wage slaves" (Karl Marx), as well as for the rich, consumption has become a (futile) act of self-affirmation: I consume, therefore I exist! But like all drugs, the fix wears off quickly and the craving soon returns hence we consume! consume! consume! - even if it is killing us. Like Alice in Wonderland we run madly to hold our place..
             Even the scale of modern industry makes it hard for SMM to achieve the autonomy and entrepreneurial ability his agrarian or artinasal ancestors took for granted. Aside from increasingly rare exceptions, the American Dream has become a lie and, at some level of consciousness, everyone knows it. Hence the hostility and fanaticism burning so intensely at America's core these days should surprise no one. (note 2)

            AS RH understood, SMM reached the natural limits of growth, or rather, competence sometime in the 19th century. The entrant entrepreneur was now no longer on a level playing field with his larger, long established corporate competitors. Indeed, as corporations devoured one another in periodic merger mania feeding frenzies, power and wealth become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. The little guy was left with the scraps. Thus many of the higher paying industrial - and now, increasingly, white-collar - jobs are shipped overseas as multinational corporations strive to maximize profits by reducing labor costs in globalized market economy. The results: middle class (especially lower middle class) economic stagnation, Mcjobs, increasing job insecurity, industrial "rust belts", urban dead zones, self-employment and contract labor, anomia (and it's evil twin, fanaticism)..

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              From my recent forays into world history and political theory, I conclude that "history" is a dynamic, evolving process, generating both transient and long lived entities. Humans are short lived. The "Institutions" of society like the State, the Church, markets, the political and economic systems,.. tend to be relatively long lived, lasting centuries without substantial change sometimes.
            Political theory is the attempt to generate a mental model of the Historical Process that we live as "society" at the present point in time. Political theories are only as good as they are useful at a given place and time.

              Political theories are not, however, passive, merely descriptive labels we attatch to "things" out there in the real world. Mental models of society also form and shape - to some unknown degree - the issues and processes they hope to elucidate. It's the old chicken or egg riddle: society creates political theory which then shapes the society that created it.. Once created, political and social "forms" (tensions, patterns, Institutions, values..) tend to acquire a life of their own and evolve according to poorly understood "laws" (some hard scientists - physicists and chemist especially - doubt that there are any "laws of social evolution" to be discovered, that societies are, in principle, too complex to be comprehensible in terms of law-driven behaviors and processes, the usual objects of science..)

              Idealists who associate the USA with democracy, civil rights and personal freedom will be surprised to see the degree to which democracy and socio-economic equality were really feared by many of the Republic's founders and their political inheritors. Many state and federal politicians, sons of ruling elites, openly or covertly feared the "mob". America's political elites have been and still are, on the whole, conservative - even reactionary - in their fundamental values regardless of their nominal political affiliation: Democrat, Republican, Liberal, Progressive.. After reading APT, I now understand that often repeated neocon proverb: the American Revolution was different from those in Europe and elsewhere, it was conservative revolution, fought for conservative values..

           Reform-minded presidents like FDR (his New Deal of the Great Depression years, 1929 - 1939) came from moneyed elites. Such reformers, RH argues, did not act from any real sens of identity with the common man but from general moral and ethical principles. They held and, to some degree, acted upon a Protestant - and Enlightenment - ethic of "good works" and "Progress". They did not really want radical change in the dominant socio-economic "System". They simply wanted to round off it's rough, discordant edges which offended their moral sensibilities (worse, the System's injustices provided ammunition to the Enemy, the radical socialists and the communists). American reformers were really social engineers not revolutionaries: the furthest they went was to label themselves "Reformers".

               Since APT's first printing in 1948, the Protestant Work Ethic with its emphasis on personal integrity has been deeply eroded and replaced by more reactionary "Social Darwinist" ideologies: Ayn Rand's Objectivism, Libertarianism, Neoconservatism.. (note 3) In a blatant fashion these new social philosophies move personal self interest, selfishness, greed and narcissistic status flouting front and center. Lip service is still given to SMM, the great American hero and idealized self image, but he is now a morally hollowed figure. The primary function of his cult today is to justify policies which "make the rich richer and the poor poorer", regardless of their relative merit or any real positive social contribution. Thus, funding is cut to the public school system while well-to-do parents move their kids to private schools. The expected result occurs of course: the public schools degenerate which, of course, "justifies" further cuts in the poorly performing public system.. (note 4)

               Published less than a century ago, APT already merits the title "classic". Like a good wine, it has aged rather well. RH's writing remains fresh and engaging, he makes history a page turner, a rare gift in an academic historian! His analyses of the historical evolution of the American political process remain valid though the final stage he described  (consensus politics) has long since been replaced by the contemporary phase of ideological gridlock. (note 5)   

                I recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand the great nation and power that is America and above all, some of those puzzling paradoxes that mark her social and political life.


1- rise in the culture of narcissism: scores on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory in the USA among college students have increased 30% from 1979 - 2006:


          Former Le Monde environmental reporter, Hervé Kempf, has studied the pernicious effects of a greed driven society on the environment:

2- American Dream: from wiki:

"The American Dream is a national ethos of the United States, a set of ideals in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, and an upward social mobility achieved through hard work."

          Over the last 4 decades, neoconservative ideology has radically cut social services and social goods because anything having to do with the public sector (except the police and the military) is bad, evil, wasteful, counterproductive, inefficient, etc. Result: the social "playing field is less level" than it used to be. The initial advantages provided by familial wealth grow stronger over time, upward social mobility declines. SMM will not get as far in life as he was taught to believe he could. The American Dream, if not dead, is at least on life support.. 

The American Dream, a lie?

If the American Dream is defined in terms of upward social mobility (reward for competence and personal initiative), then, at the present moment, the Dream is more alive in Scandinavia than in North America!

3- Social Darwinism: The idea is simple: social and economic classes correspond to some general notion of "genetic fitness". Curtly - the poor are not oppressed, as Marx would have it, they are just inferior. Such views function, in practice, to rationalize or justify current social injustices. Darwin, to his credit, pre-emptively rejected such interpretations of his work on natural selection. For him, as is now accepted by legitimate scientific inquiry, natural selection favored co-operation and mutual aid between humans, not oppression. Thus he argued that the amount of co-operation in "even the most primitive human cultures far exceeded that seen even among the great apes", our closest living relatives.
4- American student performance relative to other countries:

Not good, not good..

5- Consensus history: While Hofstadter did not invent consensus history or politics, he became a major spokesperson and popularizer of the position, particularly after the publication of APT. This approach to history and politics downplays class or group struggle and seeks to define the common values that define and structure the American political process. Hofstadter argues that political opponents tend to face off over "peripheral" issues while sharing a common set of core values: belief in democracy, property rights, free enterprise, the Protestant Work Ethic,..

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