The American Political Tradition: The Unpublished Introduction

Photograph of Richard Hofstadter, ca. 1948

Richard Hofstadter, ca. 1948.

Hofstadter's analysis in The American Political Tradition was shaped by his interest in the role that mythology, self-deception, and the irrational play in American political discourse. The historians Daniel Walker Howe and Peter Elliott Finn have even characterized Hofstadter as "a psychiatrist for American society," with all of the clinical detachment that this term implies [58]. This description dovetails with Hofstadter's revealing remarks in an unpublished version of the book's introduction, which is reproduced in full here (scroll down to "Document Viewer" to read the entire essay). Here, Hofstadter writes at length about politics as theater, as artifice, as illusion. The task of the historian, he writes, consists of separating out appearance from reality, of concentrating "on the actors behind the parts, look[ing] closely into the work of the unseen authors of the script, and inquir[ing] into the part of the producers with their less artistic, often gross, sometimes sinister motives... His place in the wings is disenchanting, of course... For him the goal of history-writing is not to reproduce the contents of the plays but to analyze the many things on which the drama depends" [59].

The differences between the two introductions are considerable. Unlike in the published introduction, in this document we see Hofstadter taking a deep dive into the psychosocial dimensions of political life, with the aid of Freud and Weber, and dispensing caustic observations like: "An incurable habit of self-deception is the primary occupational disease of politics" [60]. Where the earlier, scrapped version contains an epigram from the Hungarian sociologist Karl Mannheim stating, "Politics as politics is possible only as long as the realm of the irrational still exists," the final version begins with a comparatively reassuring quotation from the American novelist John Dos Passos: "In times of change and danger when there is a quicksand of fear under men's reasoning, a sense of continuity with generations gone before can stretch like a lifeline across the scary present" [61, 62]. Of course, anybody who read further than this epigram would soon realize that any "sense of continuity" with the farcical parade of figures populating Hofstadter's narrative is neither tenable nor desirable.

Cover page of <em>The American Political Tradition</em>, unpublished introduction.

Cover page of Hofstadter's unpublished introduction.

The unpublished introduction also offers a far more pessimistic appraisal of the New Deal. While echoing the criticism of Roosevelt that appears in the published edition (to the effect that, despite a variety of practical innovations, a deficit of fresh ideas and clearly communicated values has left American liberalism "rudderless and demoralized"), Hofstadter ends his introduction by darkly speculating that this deficit has left the American public "more receptive than ever to dynamic personal leadership" [63].

Hofstadter's concern with the authoritarian and even latent fascist potential opened up by the New Deal is even more apparent in a fascinating unpublished essay, "The New Deal and American Liberalism," the full text of which is also available as part of this exhibition. That essay, and this unpublished introduction to The American Political Tradition, together clarify Hofstadter's politics in the late 1940s. While it is clear that he has left behind whatever commitment to revolutionary socialism he once had, it is by no means evident that he has rushed to accept liberalism [64]. Far more accurate would be to say that these essays are written from the perspective of a Marxist manqué who offers a nuanced critique of an inherited liberal tradition and, in the absence of a vital radical tradtion that might oppose it, tepidly supports an evolving, collectivist liberalism for an age of large-scale corporate enterprise. His main target, therefore, is the American "reverence for the past," the national nostalgia for a bygone age of market competition that offers no insights for dealing with the crises and possibilities of the modern world [65].