I’m so grateful to E.J. Dionne for writing that insensible column dissing Richard Hofstadter. Otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered to find and read Hofstadter’s work. Truly, the man was a genius (Hofstadter, I mean). This morning I want to look at something Hofstatder wrote more than 50 years ago and then add to it to something I read in today’s Washington Post.
In the mid-1950s Hofstadter embarked on some lectures and essays about pseudo-conservatism. To understand this fully, keep in mind that in the mid-1950s the New Deal coalition was the establishment. New Dealers had been in power for 20 years. Moreover, Hofstadter wrote, the “jobless, distracted and bewildered men” of the Depression had become comfortably middle class — well fed, well clothed, well housed — thanks to the New Deal, the GI Bill, postwar mortgage subsidy programs, and solid economic growth.
Hofstadter quotes Adlai Stevenson:
The strange alchemy of time has somehow converted the Democrats into the truly conservative party of this country — the party dedicated to conserving all that is best, and building solidly and safely on these foundations.
Yet in those days there were dissenters. We recognize that dissent now as the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy in fetal stage. Here is how Hofstadter described them — note I am adding some boldface and breaking up the long paragraphs into smaller bits to make it easier to read —
Representing no more than a modest fraction of the electorate, it is not so powerful as the liberal dissent of the New Deal era, but it is powerful enough to set the tone of our political life and to establish throughout the country a kind of punitive reaction. The new dissent is certainly not radical — there are hardly any radicals of any sort left — nor is it precisely conservative.
Speaking of what is or isn’t radical — you must read this new post by Billmon. (If you want to read to the end of this post first, I’ll remind you about Billmon again later. But do read that post and this one together.)
Unlike most of the liberal dissent of the past, the new dissent not only has no respect for nonconformism, but is based upon a relentless demand for conformity. It can most accurately be called pseudo-conservative — I borrow the term from The Authoritarian Personality, published in 1950 by Theodore W. Adorno and his associates — because its exponents, although they believe themselves to be conservatives and usually employ the rhetoric of conservatism, show signs of a serious and restless dissatisfaction with American life, traditions, and institutions.
Sounds familiar, eh?
They have little in common with the temperate and compromising spirit of true conservatism in the classical sense of the word, and they are far from pleased with the dominant practical conservatism of the moment as it is represented by the Eisenhower administration. Their political reactions express rather a profound and largely unconscious hatred of our society and its ways — a hatred which one would hesitate to impute to them if one did not have suggestive evidence both from clinical techniques and from their own modes of expression.
I haven’t read John Dean’s new book on authoritarian personalities and the “conservative” movement, but if any of you have, let me know if this sounds familiar —
From clinical interviews and thematic apperception tests, Adorno and his co-workers found that their pseudo-conservative subjects, although given to a form of political expression that combines a curious mixture of largely conservative with occasional radical notions, succeed in concealing from themselves impulsive tendencies that, if released in action, would be very far from conservative.
I like the part about “concealing from themselves.” One of the most consistent traits of rightieness is their utter blindness to where their own ideology is taking them. And us, too, of course.
The pseudo-conservative, Adorno writes, shows â€œconventionality and authoritarian submissivenessâ€ in his conscious thinking and â€œviolence, anarchic impulses, and chaotic destructiveness in the unconscious sphereâ€¦ The pseudo conservative is a man who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition.â€
Hofstadter tries to identify exactly who these pseudo-conservatives were. Pseudo-conservatism appealed to people across social classes, “but its power probably rests largely on its appeal to the less-educated members of the middle classes” (many of whom, please note, wouldn’t have been middle class were it not for Franklin Roosevelt). Further,
The ideology of pseudo-conservatism can be characterized but not defined, because the pseudo-conservative tends to be more than ordinarily incoherent about politics. The lady who, when General Eisenhower’s victory over Senator Taft had finally become official in 1952, stalked out of the Hilton Hotel declaiming: “This means eight more years of socialism,” was probably a fairly good representative of the pseudo-conservative mentality.
Compare/contrast something Joe Scarborough wrote (yeah, I know, it’s Joe Scarborough, but it’s not that bad) about right-wingers calling Bill Clinton a Marxist.
The restlessness, suspicion and fear manifested in various phases of the pseudo-conservative revolt give evidence of the real suffering which the pseudo-conservative experiences in his capacity as a citizen. He believes himself to be living in a world in which he is spied upon, plotted against, betrayed, and very likely destined for total ruin. He feels that his liberties have been arbitrarily and outrageously invaded. He is opposed to almost everything that has happened in American politics in the past twenty years. He hates the very thought of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He is disturbed deeply by American participation in the United Nations, which he can see only as a sinister organization. He sees his own country as being so weak that is it constantly about to fall victim to subversion; and yet he feels that it is so all-powerful that any failure it may experience in getting its way in the world — for instance, in the Orient — cannot possibly be due to its limitations but must be attributed to its having been betrayed.
This ties in to what I wrote in this post, about how the Right usurped the Left’s credibility on national defense and foreign policy through lies and hysteria. And it ties very nicely into “Stabbed in the Back!” by Kevin Baker in the June issue of Harper’s.
Hofstadter goes on for several very rich paragraphs about the social-psychological elements of pseudo-conservatism, and this essay is followed up by two more in this book. Right now I’m going to skip over several pages and quote one more paragraph, from the essay “Goldwater and the Pseudo-Conservative Revolt,” which Hofstadter wrote in the mid-1960s.
Writing in 1954, at the peak of the McCarthyist period, I suggested that the American right wing could best be understood not as a neo-fascist movement girding itself for the conquest of power but as a persistent and effective minority whose main threat was in its power to create “a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible.” This still seems to be the true potential of the pseud0-conservative right; it is a potential that can be realized without winning the White House, even without winning the Republican nomination.
The Right did indeed create “a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible.” Unfortunately, once they had accomplished this they were able to seize political power as well. And now the very people Hofstadter wrote about 50 years ago have seized both the White House and Congress and have refashioned themselves as the mainstream, the center, the true patriots, the defenders of the American ideals they undermined and all but destroyed in order to gain power.
The pseudo-conservative movement started out as an intellectually incoherent reaction to the New Deal and the ideals and values that were mainstream 50 and more years ago. It was based on a complex of fears — fear of foreigners, fear of Communists, fear of the powerful forces in the world that they didn’t understand. Most of all, they were beseiged by doubts that they fit into a world that was rapidly changing but which they didn’t understand. They feared they were being pushed out of what they saw as their rightful place in American life. Exactly what that place was, and who was pushing them, cannot be clearly defined. Often they lashed out not at real enemies but at the very institutions that protected them and enabled social and economic stability. Theirs was an irrational attempt to erase the previous several years of world history and go back to an earlier time — before the Depression, before World War II — when they had felt more secure. It didn’t sink in that that old feeling of security had been delusional.
At some point, however, the Right managed to invent an ideological facade in which to hide their fears. In the 1950s they seized upon scholar Russell Kirk — I’m not sure Kirk was really One of Them, but they seized upon him, anyway — and William Buckley. Under Goldwater’s influence the pseudo-conservatives increased their influence within the Republican Party, which they re-invented as the “Party of Ideas.” Their “ideas” were the standard pseudo-conservative agenda of dismantling the New Deal while somehow becoming both more aggressive and more isolationist in foreign policy — neoconservatism is, at its core, proactive isolationism — but through their growing infrastructure of “think tanks” they figured out how to package their incoherent agenda to make it look like ideas.
But their “ideas” are all based on the conceit that if they could just brush away all the liberal crapola — dismantle the New Deal, deregulate everything in sight, and lower taxes to shrink government in order to drown it in a bathtub — that we would find ourselves living in Utopia. Somehow.
And this takes us to Harold Meyerson’s column in today’s Washington Post.
Wasn’t it just a couple of years ago that Republicans were boasting that they were the party of ideas? They would privatize the commonwealth and globalize democracy, while Democrats clung to the tattered banner of common security in both economics and national defense. The intellectual energy in America, it seemed, was all on the right.
That, as they say, was then. In 2006 the campaigns that the Republicans are waging in their desperate attempt to retain power are so utterly devoid of ideas that it’s hard to believe they ever had an idea at all.
With fewer than 60 days remaining before the November election, the only two Republican strategies left standing are to scare the public about the Democrats collectively or to slime the Democrats individually. There’s nothing new about these strategies, of course, but this year they exist in a vacuum. Having run both the executive and legislative branches for the past two years with nothing but failure to show for it, the Republicans can no longer campaign as the party that will balance the budget, reform entitlements, lower energy costs, fix the immigration problem, create a more secure world or find a suitable way out of their endless war of choice in Iraq. What’s left is a campaign of scaring and sliming, with the emphasis on the latter. ..
…What’s a party to do when its high road leads nowhere but down? The Republicans tried privatizing Social Security, but their numbers never added up. They tried spreading democracy with unilateral, preventive war but instead unleashed a sectarian bloodbath. So the party of big ideas, of Milton Friedman and the neoconservatives, is now just one big Swift Boat flotilla, its ideas sunk of their own dead weight, kept afloat solely by its opposition research. For their part, the Democrats still champion common security; they call for a government that can build dikes and reduce the costs of college and medication and that knows that remaking the world becomes more plausible when some of the world is actually willing to go along with us. Those are, in the campaign of 2006, just about the only ideas in play.
We lefties are pragmatists who think that nothing is ever perfect, but through democratic government We, the People, can at least make improvements. (Bill Clinton spoke about this at length yesterday, but I want to wait until I get the transcript to quote him.) But pseudo-conservatives are utopians who have long believed that, if they could only have their way, they could create a perfect America and a perfect World.
Well, folks, they got their way. And they failed. That’s because their “ideas” were never really ideas at all; just fantasies that grew out of their fears. And fear is not an idea.
The Right can’t see that yet. As Richard Parker wrote here,
For America’s ”party of ideas,” it is still only their opponents’ ideas which have failed. To the fatal contradictions inherent in their own utopian principles, they seem to remain impervious.
But the facade is crumbling, fast.
I want to hop over to the Billmon post I mentioned above.
I see no reason to doubt the ultimate aim of Rovian politics is to dismantle the remaining framework of New Deal/Great Society liberalism. But most Rovians understand it’s a long-term project. And if offering the seniors a third-rate drug benefit (and greasing Big Pharma in the process) helps the vanguard party tighten its grip on power here and now, so be it. A revolution is not a dinner party at the Cato Institute.
Of course, such compromises (for the good of the movement, you understand) are also how radicals gradually morph into reformers and refomers turn into comfortable establishmentarians. And the Rovians, particularly the congressional branch, are obviously pretty far down that road. But there’s a difference between betraying your principles and not having any, and I think most conservative cadres within the Cheney Administration, like their brethren on K Street, are still loyal — in their hearts, if not their wallets — to an explicitly radical agenda.
Maybe the best way to put it is that the Rovians are radical reactionaries — so reactionary their aspirations to turn the clock back to circa 1896 actually sound like something fundamentally new, in the same way that “globalization” sounds so much more hip and modern than good old Manchester Liberalism. The conservative “Great Leap Backwards” probably isn’t attainable (and, considering the death toll from Mao’s attempt to jump in the opposite direction, thank God for that) but I’d be willing to bet there are Cheney Administration staffers who will be scheming, or at least dreaming, of “the day” until the day they die.
Unfortunately, as Billmon concludes, just throwing the bums out will not solve our problems. We will still have to deal with the pseudo-conservatives’ chief accomplishment — the political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety are impossible. I’m not sure even where to start.