Saturday, December 6, 2008

The American Political Tradition, Hofstadter's Introduction

Hofstadter intended something much more modest than his publisher’s had in mind. They weren’t satisfied with his mere collection of essays. They asked him “if there was not in fact some single and distinctive angle of vision from which [his] cast of characters had been seen and which might not be generalized in a brief introductory passage.

“And so I hazarded my six page introduction, which has probably made as much trouble for me as any other passage of comparable length.”

I just read that “six page introduction,” and can’t from it see what trouble it could have caused Hofstadter, but people by and large resist new ideas and Hofstadter was rethinking what he read as opposed to merely accepting it. Perhaps the following passage (from his 1946 introduction) caused him the “trouble” he referred to. It probably comprises a good definition of the Consensus theory of History:

“It is in the nature of politics that conflict stands in the foreground, and historians usually abet the politicians in keeping it there. Two special interests, striving to gain control of government policy, will invoke somewhat different ideas to promote their cause. The material interests in good time will be replaced by others as the economic order changes, but their ideas, which already have wide acceptance, will be adapted again and again with slight changes to new conditions. Later generations, finding certain broad resemblances between their own problems and those of an earlier age, will implicitly take sides with the campaigners of former years; historians, who can hardly be quite free of partisanship, reconstruct the original conflict from the surviving ideas that seem most intelligible in the light of current experience and current conviction. Hence the issues of the twentieth century are still debated in the language of Jefferson’s time, and our histories of the Jefferson era are likewise influenced by twentieth-century preconceptions that both Jefferson and his opponents might have found strange. While the conflicts of Jefferson’s day are constantly reactivated and thus constantly brought to mind, the commonly shared convictions are neglected.

“These shared convictions are far from unimportant. Although the Jeffersonians and Federalists raged at each other with every appearance of a bitter and indissoluble opposition, differences in practical policy boiled down to a very modest minimum when Jefferson took power, and before long the two parties were indistinguishable. If their ideas are to be tested in action, we must give due weight to the relatively slight differences in policies that they gave rise to. This seems to me to be one of the keys to historical analysis because it leads us to consider the common end at which, willy-nilly, both Jefferson and the Federalists arrived. The same principle can profitably be extended to the rest of American history. And if it is true of some of the more serious conflicts, how much more true will it be of the innumerable presidential campaigns in which the area of agreement was so large and the area of disagreement so small that significant issues could never be found!”

COMMENT: The other night, I watched Alan Colmes interview a lady of the Left who seemed bewildered by Obama’s cabinet choices. She still “hoped” he would follow through on what he promised “the people.” Colmes couldn’t get her to concede that Obama had moved toward the middle. His “Change’ had not been what this Leftist Lady had hoped and expected it would be. This lady hoped that “Change” would mean for Obama what she meant by it. Also, there has been bewilderment on the part of many Democrats over Obama’s selection of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. They saw big differences between Obama and Clinton, but now that the election is over, “significant issues [cannot] be found.”

Earlier Hofstadter wrote, “In Material power and productivity the United states has been a flourishing success. Societies that are in such good working order have a kind of mute organic consistency. They do not foster ideas that are hostile to their fundamental working arrangements. Such ideas may appear, but they are slowly and persistently insulated . . . They are confined to small groups of dissenters and alienated intellectuals, and except in revolutionary times they do not circulate among practical politicians.” They certainly don’t seem to be circulating among Obama and his newly formed cabinet.

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