- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 22, 2006


By David S. Brown

University of Chicago Press, $27.50, 291 pages


At a time when the nation is ideologically polarized, centrist liberalism seems to be out of

fashion. That is unfortunate, given the valuable contributions to the political discourse made by advocates of that philosophy.

Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter was one of the most prominent liberal intellectuals of recent times and examining his work sheds some light on contemporary politics. That’s why David S. Brown’s “Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography” is especially timely in view of the problems facing those on the left side of the ideological divide.

Mr. Hofstadter, a stylish writer whose work won acceptance in both scholarly and popular circles, focused on American and intellectual history. And while his work had an ideological tone, he was not prone to writing polemical pieces.

In some ways, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner was a collection of contradictions. He was a liberal who was a big fan of order and tradition and distrusted populism and student protests.

Mr. Brown, a historian at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, summarizes and analyzes his subject’s work in a sympathetic, though not uncritical, style. The author concludes that Mr. Hofstadter’s books were “of such erudition and consequence that they remain in our own day symbols of the artistry and influence that historical writing can achieve.’

Earlier in the book, however, Mr. Brown concludes that “(E)ven a cursory reading of Hofstadter’s books reveals that he frequently — and sometimes carelessly — overplayed his findings.’

Mr. Brown, whose workmanlike prose could make it hard for the book to appeal to a general audience, contends that Mr. Hofstadter was too eager to see the worst in his political foes, such as 1964 Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater. That’s a fair conclusion in view of an article that Mr. Hofstadter wrote in the fall of 1964, when he concluded that the nomination of the Arizonian “gives him a strong position to form a new kind of political union, which will be based on jingoism, economic ultra-conservatism, and racial animosity.’

Mr. Hofstadter’s tendency to attribute less-than-honorable motives to others reached its pinnacle in his 1964 book “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” He excused some of President Johnson’s actions in Vietnam by arguing that he was a prisoner of the American political culture’s crude anti-communism. By contrast, Mr. Hofstadter viewed conservatives as being too eager to have a conspiratorial view of world events.

That attitude may be explained by his own son, Douglas, who called his father a “cheerful melancholic’ whose “cheerfulness held his melancholia in solution, as salt may be dissolved into water.’

Mr. Hofstadter, who died of leukemia in 1970 at age 54, did not live to see what happened when his adversaries gained control of the government, which began in earnest when President Reagan was elected in 1980. One wonders how Mr. Hofstadter would have tried to steer liberal thought back into favor.

Despite his rhetorical excesses, Mr. Hofstadter was right about many things. His strong support for civil rights, skepticism about the Vietnam War and distrust of ideological extremism on both the left and right amounted to a balanced and nuanced world view. Mr. Brown describes that vision as “inclusive and pragmatic.’ He also rightly notes that Mr. Hofstadter “never suspected liberalism’s vulnerability to self destruction.’

Liberalism fell into decline for a variety of reasons, some of them attributable to the views of Mr. Hofstadter and his soulmates. They often had a condescending opinion of the abilities and values of average Americans that led to a “government knows best’ approach that dismissed out of hand the concerns of conservatives. Further, those on the left did not see the limits of trying to expand the influence of their views and overreached.

“The Johnson administration’s crusade to end poverty at home and create a New Deal in the Mekong Delta overloaded the system of liberal reform,’ Mr. Brown writes. “When the consensus shattered in 1968, radicals could claim only limited credit. Rather, the politics of the party in power hastened its end.’

Mr. Brown’s well-researched book, which focuses mostly on his subject’s professional rather than personal life, has the tone of a frustrated liberal who wishes the last several decades had turned out differently.

Though Mr. Hofstadter was a progressive, he had little sympathy for the radicals, especially those who led the riots on the Columbia campus in 1968. The unrest at many of the nation’s colleges and universities caused many people to further distrust the actions of those who claimed to act in the name of liberalism.

The left’s inability to contain these excesses helped fuel the rise of conservatism. In some ways, liberals haven’t healed from those wounds.

Even the good intentions of people like Mr. Hofstadter were insufficient to prevent liberalism’s waning influence in American politics.

Claude R. Marx writes a political column for the Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Mass. He is the author of a chapter on the presidential campaign of Howard Dean that appears in the book, “The Divided States of America.”

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