Sean Wilentz, Princeton’s George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History
Sameer A. Khan
“Hofstadter believed that intellectual values were crucial to a democratic society,” says Professor Sean Wilentz

Columbia University professor Richard Hofstadter (1916-1970), one of the preeminent historians of the 20th century, is the subject of a series published by the Library of America that’s edited by Sean Wilentz, Princeton’s George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History. The first volume of that series, Richard Hofstadter: Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Uncollected Essays 1956-1965, was released in April. Wilentz spoke with PAW about Hofstadter and why he is still worth reading today. 

Many people today might not be familiar with Hofstadter. Who was he and why publish a collection of his writings? 

Richard Hofstadter was perhaps the greatest American historian of the mid-20th century, who twice won the Pulitzer Prize. Accordingly, he was an extraordinarily powerful stylist. I had felt for some time that the Library of America, which exists to celebrate the best of American writing, underrepresented historians, especially modern historians. History, after all, is a literary art.

Hofstadter was a liberal, but he was skeptical even of the liberalism that he found most attractive. His book, The American Political Tradition, which came out in 1948, is very caustic; he wrote that American democracy was based less in fraternity than in cupidity, which is a wonderful phrase. He debunked the traditional liberal views of Jefferson and Lincoln and what they stood for, but without ever saying that the men themselves were not honorable or valuable. He admired the liberalism of the New Deal while also examining its shortcomings. 

The Library of America is publishing three volumes of Hofstadter’s writings, but you chose to publish the volume covering the middle period of his career first. Why? 

Because it includes perhaps his two most famous works, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, which was published in 1963, and The Paranoid Style, which appeared in 1965. Those are highly relevant to what’s going on in 2020. There’s no question that Donald Trump is the culmination of a lot of things Hofstadter was writing about more than 50 years ago. 

Can you summarize Hofstadter’s views in those two books? 

By the end of the 1950s, Hofstadter had begun to study the irrationalities of American life, one of which was a fundamental strain of anti-intellectualism that runs throughout our history and crosses the political spectrum. Some of it comes out of evangelical Protestantism, which we can certainly see today, but in a sense there is an anti-intellectual quality latent in democracy itself, such as a distrust of elites and people who think they know better than others as well as more than others. Hofstadter believed that intellectual values, including an appreciation of skepticism and nuance, and a rejection of absolutism and dogma, were crucial to a democratic society. 

His next book, The Paranoid Style, built off of this. He saw a strain of conspiratorial thinking running through American history, sometimes in very good causes but mostly in very bad ones. In his own time, Hofstadter found it in the John Birch Society and the Goldwater campaign. We see a lot of it today in Trump and the far right, but also, to a growing extent, on the left. 

Are cable news and social media the modern drivers of anti-intellectualism and the paranoid style? 

Fox News is something Hofstadter might have imagined, though it would have horrified him. Twitter is something else entirely. The degree to which hitherto honorable institutions pay such inordinate attention to Twitter has astonished me. Social media turns into mob rule after a while, but the mobishness of Twitter is instigated by wacko conspiracy theories and fueled by outrage, which now spread instantaneously. Yet it affects not merely the credulous but people and organizations you’d think would know better. 

In some ways these things are much worse today than they were in Hofstadter’s time, in part because they have acquired a more aggressive, even militaristic tone. Say what you will, but Barry Goldwater didn’t whip up violence at his campaign rallies or encourage armed shutdowns of the Michigan state capitol. Since Nixon, the Republican Party thought it could ride the back of this paranoid and sometimes-violent tiger, and it has ended up being swallowed by it. 

Should we be concerned about anti-intellectualism today? 

Hofstadter was very concerned about the destruction of institutional and intellectual authority in American society, which goes hand in hand with a growing attack on the very idea of objectivity. Towards the end of his life, he saw that happening at Columbia, where he spent practically his entire career, but universities have continued to lose a lot of their credibility since then. 

Unfortunately, those of us in higher education have ourselves to blame for some of it. When we elide and even attack the concept of objective truth, we attack something that has liberated humanity from political tyranny as well as rank superstition. Internet libertarians may applaud that there are no longer social or cultural gatekeepers, but gatekeepers are what a civilization needs — creditable people who can distinguish between fact and fiction. The public can’t always do that on its own, and there are plenty of demagogues, hustlers, and fanatics on both political extremes who are eager to fill the void. 

Can universities still fill their traditional role as intellectual gatekeepers?       

Universities themselves are now a battleground, but also a kind of matrix. You see it, for example, in the growing assumption that racial categories and racial identities so ineluctably define who we are, individually and collectively, that the very idea of a universal human experience is a racist cover for white privilege. That’s not what we’re about as a nation, at least not in aspiration, and it’s not what we fought for back in the ’60s or are fighting for now. Unfortunately, a lot of that ideology, what Barbara and Karen Fields call “racecraft,” has come out of the universities. I would love for some widely respected university leader to make an eloquent plea for objectivity, enlightenment, and universalism, both scientific and humanistic. It would cause trouble, sure, and be misrepresented and misunderstood, but what the hell is leadership for? 

Where do we go from here? 

On the one hand you have Trump standing up for the Confederacy, and on the other hand you have people tearing down statues of Ulysses Grant as a symbol of racism. And now Trump is trying the lump the extremists with those who believe the time has come to take down statues erected purposefully to celebrate the Lost Cause of a slaveholders’ republic. Fortunately, the vast majority of Americans are not at either extreme. 

As you noted, protesters recently tore down a statue of Grant in San Francisco, purportedly because he was a slaveholder. Why do you oppose that? 

Look, Grant was raised in an abolitionist family, and when he was given a slave by his father-in-law, he promptly released him from bondage. Grant also, of course, led the army that destroyed the Confederacy and then, as president, fought the Ku Klux Klan, helped secure passage of the 15th Amendment, and signed the Civil Rights Act of 1875. So, some perspective, please. 

But there’s a broader point at stake here. As Richard Hofstadter and historians throughout the ages have shown, the purpose of studying history is to try to understand how different people in different times struggled with challenges that were as great or greater than the ones we face, and with no more or less wisdom than we possess. Removing Confederate monuments is one thing; they were erected for no other reason than to celebrate white supremacy in the long aftermath of Reconstruction. But unless we can learn to distinguish between people who practiced and preached evil and people who were flawed but also achieved great good, history becomes nothing more than dogma and self-congratulation.

Interview conducted and condensed by M.F.B.