The Age of Reform (1955)
Among Richard Hofstadter's best known works is The Age of Reform, a Pulitzer Prize-winning study of the Populist and Progressive movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The book, which, in Hofstadter's words, served to "reveal some of the limitations of [the liberal reform tradition] and to help free it of its sentimentalities and complacencies," forever changed the terms on which Americans discussed Populism and Progressivism . Although Hofstadter claimed to be "criticizing largely from within" that tradition, his revisionist arguments stunned and angered its defenders on the Left .
In the first section of the book, which focuses on the Populists, Hofstadter again takes aim at the American nostalgia for a happy agrarian past, mercilessly punching a thousand holes in a narrative that depicts rural, small-town folk as engaged in a virtuous struggle against greedy elites and the destructive forces of industrial modernity. "The modern liberal's obeisance to the pathos of agrarian rhetoric," he writes, leaves the realities of rural America in the nineteenth century in a haze of myth . Far from struggling against the encroachment of market relations into the countryside, for instance, the American farmer in fact embraced "progress" and industrial development with entrepreneurial zeal. Moreover, the heartland hardly consisted of settled, homogeneous communities beholden to traditional values: by the middle of the nineteenth century, perpetual resettlement, mobility, immigration, financial speculation, and mechanization were all characteristics of rural life. Rural society, in other words, was far more individualistic and market-oriented than Americans like to think. "The characteristic product of American rural society," Hofstadter summarizes, "was not a yeoman or a villager, but a harrassed little country businessman who worked very hard, moved all too often, gambled with his land, and made his way alone" .
Hofstadter also challenges the common understanding of the Populist movement as having gone down in defeat, arguing instead that it had generated a powerful and enduring interest group - what we now call the "farm lobby" - that even today enjoys strong ties to industry and enshrines its privileges in federal policy. While pointing out that the farm lobby acts in the service of elite agricultural interests, and not those of the struggling and dispossessed farmers whose plight it invokes, Hofstadter claims that the Populist movement marked the first step in its development. Once again, as in The American Political Tradition, Hofstadter deploys paradox and irony to explode conventional understandings of the past. "The dialectic of history," he writes, "is full of odd and cunningly contrived ironies, and among these are rebellions waged ony that the rebels might in the end be converted into their opposites" .
Finally, he takes this myth-destroying narrative even further by dwelling on some of the ugliest aspects of the Populist movement -- its moral absolutism, its xenophobic intolerance, and its "tincture of anti-semitism" -- at times appearing to blame it for more recent forms of ethnic nationalism and jingoism . This controversial and problematic aspect of the book would, to a large extent, define its place in the canon of American historical literature, and it would attract attention away from some of Hofstadter's more compelling and empirically grounded claims.
The second part of The Age of Reform deals with the Progressive movement, which Hofstadter redefines as a revolt against the new social and economic conditions that emerged after the Civil War. In particular, the rise of the large corporation, with its bureaucratic, impersonal structure and its separation of management from ownership, presented a cultural and political challenge for Americans who believed that prosperity came about through hard work, competition, and personal merit.
While Hofstadter acknowledges that the Progressive movement appealed to a wide range of groups who feared the passing of conditions that had made the United States a land of opportunity where individual initiative was rewarded, he largely focuses on the role played by affluent, highly educated, WASP urbanites in the Northeast. These Progressives, he explains, were in no way economically deprived: they were, in other words, not simply protecting their class interest. Still, they were, in a sense, victims of the upheavals of the period, which had reduced their cultural authority and overall social power. In response, they turned to the state to rein in big business "within a capitalist framework" -- believing, in part, that moderate regulation would help to defuse class resentments and undercut radical arguments for more drastic reform, or even revolution .
Finally, Hofstadter compares and contrasts the expansion of the American state that occured in the early twentieth century, under the Progressives, and the New Deal of the 1930s. Revisiting much of the material in The American Political Tradition, he argues that whereas the earlier wave of reform had been aimed at restoring a world of competition, entrepreneurial capitalism, and smaller-scale organization, the architects of the New Deal ignored "the problem of size" and the needs of "smaller competitors" altogether, instead applying a "severely managerial" approach to the direction of the economy with an eye toward stimulating consumer spending . Where the Progressives viewed their policies as contributing to the nation's moral health and to the restoration of civic virtue, New Dealers like Thurman Arnold were efficiency-seeking bureaucrats who eschewed moralism and fetishized rational organization. But Hofstadter concludes by issuing a clear-eyed warning to those who would bemoan the disenchantment of the liberal creed: "we may sympathize with the Populists and with those who have shared their need to believe that somewhere in the American past there was a golden age whose life was far better than our own. But actually to live in that world, actually to enjoy its cherished promise and its imagined innocence, is no longer within our power" .
Although The Age of Reform was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, it was, and it remains, controversial for a number of reasons. Hofstadter claimed to have used only the findings of social science, and not its methods, but critics accused him of psychologizing his subjects, portraying them as irrational, and thereby robbing them of their agency . As William Appleman Williams wrote in a review that appeared in The Nation, Hofstadter's subjects "are not actual personalities, groups, or classes; they are abstracted ideal types... prancing about as the hirelings of a master martinet . His overreliance on theoretical constructs, such as "status anxiety," also struck many historians as unsupported by any empirical evidence. "[Hofstadter] seems to overlook the fact," continued Williams, "that such outsized abstractions are not the stuff of History. It is possible, and often fruitful, to establish factually based categories and to draw broad conclusions from a viable historical inquiry. But it is not possible to write valid History by using social-science concepts or contemporary political discretion as substitutes for facts" .
Hofstadter later admitted as much, writing: "In [The Age of Reform] I allowed my taste for speculation and hypothesis to range freely. In consequence it contains an unusually large number of ideas and an unusually small apparatus of fact" . After all, the book was written at a moment when a growing number of historians were using the social sciences to understand not only the content of mass politics, but the motivations and emotions behind it. The events of the previous two decades (Stalinism and Nazism abroad, and McCarthyism at home) seemed to require a deeper exploration of the psychological roots of political attitudes and behavior than historians had previously undertaken. Hofstadter speculated, around the time of publication, that historians might be able to use the social sciences to make sense of "individual and social character types, ...social mythologies and styles of thought as they reveal and affect character, and...politics as a sphere of behavior into which personal and private motives are projected" . Accordingly, the citations in the book reflect his exploration of critical sociology, especially works by thinkers, such as Theodor Adorno, Leo Löwenthal, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Daniel Bell, who had applied psychoanalytic theory to the study of fascism and right-wing extremism.
Hofstadter's use of social science served the additional purpose of furthering his longstanding critique of the progressive historians. In his chapters on the Populists, he challenges Frederick Jackson Turner's influential frontier thesis with historical evidence of social conditions in the rural heartland (see above), thus reading myth against reality. Elsewhere in the book, he goes a step further, supplanting the psychologically shallow framework of the progressive historians, which tended to reduce politics to a clash of opposing economic interests, with more sophisticated social theory. For example, he turned to Max Weber's distinction between "status politics" and "interest politics" to explain why certain groups, especially the reformers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, would have thought and acted in ways that did not necessarily reflect their material concerns. One of the most discussed insights that Hofstadter brought to the study of the period was in fact the "status anxiety" of genteel reformers during the Progressive period.
Notes taken by historian Eric L. McKitrick, Richard Hofstadter's research assistant, for The Age of Reform.
A formidable array of critics, among them the historians David Potter and C. Vann Woodward, were especially dissatisfied with Hofstadter's portrayal of the Populists. They felt that he had overstated those aspects of Populism that most effectively evoked the dangers of mass politics in their own time, and that he too easily waved aside what was genuinely radical about the movement. Some worried that readers would dismiss the Populists as irrelevant bigots, and that a usable past would be lost. Woodward made this clear in an impassioned and eloquent review: "For the [radical democratic] tradition to endure, for the way to remain open, the intellectual must not be alienated from the sources of revolt... The intellectual must resist the impulse to identify all the irrational and evil forces he detests with such movements because some of them, or the aftermath or epigone of some of them, have proved so utterly repulsive. He will learn all he can from the new criticism about the irrational and illiberal side of Populism and other reform movements, but he cannot afford to repudiate the heritage" .
Other responses to the book were less measured: according to the historian Norman Pollack, Hofstadter had issued "a blanket endorsement of industrial capitalism and a consequent denial that conditions of oppression and concrete economic grievances ever existed" . Pollack may have been exceptionally blunt, but The Age of Reform certainly reflected the moderation of Hofstadter's politics in the 1950s .
Hofstadter's portrayal of Populism, moreover, registers a changing view of the masses since the radical upsurge of the 1930s, when he, like many American intellectuals, had embraced the labor movement and its militant assault on elite control. According to Daniel Bell, by the mid-1950s "a fear of mass action" haunted Hofstadter's thinking as he increasingly came to believe that those fundamental ideals, such as rational debate and free inquiry, that are necessary to sustain a democratic society, were under attack . The experience of McCarthyism, moreover, had demonstrated a dangerous conformism lurking in the popular mind, and it had exposed the alarming contempt with which many ordinary citizens regarded democratic norms. Still, it is not quite accurate to suggest that Hofstadter had adopted an elitist and condescending attitude toward the American public, or to say that he was an apologist for the status quo. Rather, he remained ambivalent about popular movements while, at the same time, dissatisfied with the cultural stagnation bred by liberal consensus .
In the end, The Age of Reform spawned a large (and still growing) literature, much of it directly responding to Hofstadter's revisionism. Sixty years after it earned its author his first Pulitzer Prize, it continues to shape our understanding of American politics as few books do, down to the language that we currently use to describe different political styles or groups, for better or worse. The frustratingly imprecise term "populist," for instance, has acquired sinister overtones and, at times, an association with irrationality, provincialism, conspiracy theory, and mob violence.
Hofstadter's foray into the social sciences raised eyebrows at the time. To William Appleman Williams, Hofstadter had merely arranged information to suit his perspective, and in so doing, he had obscured the distinction between assertion and established fact. "[I]mplicit in Hofstadter’s methodology," Williams wrote, "is the view of History as a body of information to be manipulated. And that literally makes a myth of History" . Sixty years later, the same methodological problems that The Age of Reform threw into relief continue to vex historians. What, for instance, is the relationship between empirical evidence and generalizing social theory? How much is history a science, attaining to a kind of factual precision, and how much is it an art that engages the imagination? How accurately can we write history that is present-minded -- that is to say, topical in its inspiration? What range of factors, besides economic interest, affect human behavior?
The Age of Reform is many things: enduring, profound, and deeply flawed. It is, as Alan Brinkley writes, "a book whose central interpretations few historians any longer accept, but one whose influence few historians can escape" .
Reviews of The Age of Reform, 1955-1956.