Or, On Richard Hofstadter’s “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt,” Third Foray.
Change a few examples, and the decades old essay could be republished today as a commentary on current politics. Almost. The essay revokes its uncanny impression of contemporary presence as soon as it enters the mires of its intellectual milieu.
“My generation,” Mr. Hofstadter reflected, “was raised in the conviction that the basic motive power in political behavior is the economic interest of groups,” but economic interests, he maintained, did not motivate the pseudo-conservatives. Their political motivations appeared so different and so novel that Mr. Hofstadter struggled, and in his first attempt failed, to describe them adequately.
As he saw it, “pseudo-conservatism is in good part a product of the rootlessness and heterogeneity of American life, and above all, of its peculiar scramble for status and its peculiar search for secure identity.” Within the country’s “prestige hierarchy,” American identity binds together with personal status, and yet neither is given. The population is heterogeneous, and the hierarchies of caste and class have tended toward fluidity. A man cannot take for granted his “relative place” within the community, and his “rudimentary sense of belonging to the community — that is, what we call his ‘Americanism’.” These are all uncertain and contestable.
“Political life,” Mr. Hofstadter surmised, “is not simply an arena in which the conflicting interests of various social groups in concrete material gains are fought out; it is also an arena into which status aspirations and frustrations are … projected.” And project the pseudo-conservative did. But “status politics” alone, he later added, did not fully explain pseudo-conservatism. “In our political life,” he continued, “there have always been certain types of cultural issues, questions of faith and morals, tone and style, freedom and coercion,” that are distinct, or at least distinguishable from economic and status concerns, and which yet often “become fighting issues.” Pseudo-conservatism joined status politics with cultural politics.
Today it is commonplace to acknowledge that economic interest conflicts and combines with both status politics and cultural politics to shape American political life. If Mr. Hofstadter perceived this complex as a novel and radical intellectual departure, this is perhaps only because he apparently forgot, at least momentarily, the actual character of American political life throughout the country’s first century.
From Mr. Hofstadter’s perspective, the country experienced “relative ethnic homogeneity” into the 1870s, and the loss of this homogeneity prompted and promoted much of this seemingly new anxiety and uncertainty. But this narrative of loss only makes sense if this “relative ethnic homogeneity” ever truly deserved the appellation, and it certainly did not. America’s first century was an uninterrupted stream of regional quarrel, which was hardly confined to economic interest. It was saturated with contentions over culture and status. These conflicts began before the country formed, and they turned violent more than once. The Civil War was an extremity, not a disruption of the ordinary course of American political life.
If Mr. Hofstadter’s essay feels contemporary, it is not simply because we still harbor pseudo-conservatives in our midst. It is because he described the ordinary condition of American political life. If he perceived something novel in that condition, that is only because he came of age when a succession of wars and depression displaced that normal order. He witnessed not a previously unseen phenomenon, but the reversion to the norm.