1955, Books, Non-Fiction

The Age of Reform (1955) by Richard Hofstadter

When I picked this up I wondered, “Why the hell am I reading a history book written in 1955?” My experience with much older history is that it is incomplete, lacking more modern insights that have since become general knowledge. But I knew of Hofstadter’s reputation, I’d read his most famous article at some point in the past (or parts of it?) and I trusted that I must have added it to my list for some reason.

This is a fascinating intellectual history of the Populists and the Progressives, with brief notes on the New Deal. The book apparently encouraged a new approach to understanding political actions – status politics – but I have no idea if that’s true or not.

What’s relevant to me, and to you, is the stuff about the motivations and attitudes of the Populists in particular. It is absolutely striking the similarities between the Populists of the 1880s and 1890s and the Populists of the 21st century. In some ways it’s like not a lot has changed: rural (and, notably, suburban) voters have the same distrust of urban voters now that they did 130-140 years ago, when the United States was far, far, far more rural. (I should note this appears true in Canada as well; we also have a stupid myth of the citizen farmer that appeals, currently, to the Right.)

For example, Hofstadter mentions how rich presidential candidates at the end of the 19th century would pose for pictures doing farm work. We are not far removed from Bush Junior having himself filmed working on his ranch. This stuff still works, and it’s striking. (Conversely the Progressives would never have supported Trump because he resembles their chief enemies, but that could be a book in itself.)

There’s so much here of value to understanding the American political psyche, whether it’s this myth of the American citizen farmer that still seems to linger, or whether it’s the way in which the movements tried (and often failed) to influence mainstream politics.

One really fascinating part is Hofstadter’s description of the change in values between conservatives and reformers between the Progressive Era and the New Deal – the reformers went from being moral absolutists to pragmatists trying to solve the worst economic problems the country had ever seen, while the conservatives went from pragmatists to moral absolutists. It’s a dynamic that still seems to be true: the Democrats claim to want to solve actual political problems while the Republicans claim to stand for virtues and values. In other stuff I’ve read, the major switch in parties happens in the ’60s and ’70s but, at least in this account, it actually happened in the ’30s, at least in part.

My biggest criticism of the book, and the reason I don’t want to rate it any higher than I have, is that this book is written for people who know these eras in US history really well. I read a TR biography recently so I had a little more background knowledge than I might have. But for anyone who has never read anything about these eras in American politics, you will have no idea about what is happening. Hofstadter assumes a knowledge of presidential and congressional election results and familiarity with state politicians that I can’t imagine most of us have. It’s a rather big hole in what is otherwise an excellent intellectual history of a couple of eras, which are still relevant today.


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