New View of American Reform
by Daniel J. Boorstin
The Age of Reform: From Bryan to FDR. By Richard Hofstadter. Alfred A. Knopf. 328 pp. $4.50.
No service of the historian is more valuable, or less rewarded, than his helping us to identify and break up the stereotypes through which we have been seeing our past. It is a service, moreover, which the historian must often render indirectly, by influencing the ideas of other historians; he must first persuade his fellow scholars, and through them his views will eventually reach the public mind. Professor Hofstadter’s book is in some ways an epoch-making reinterpretation of the Populist and Progressive eras in American political life. But because of its subtlety and originality, its hostility to cliché, The Age of Reform is unlikely to have the wide appeal of books that tell people what they already know or wish to believe.
During the New Deal era, it was customary for American “liberals” to look backward through American history and see a long straight corridor in which stood the heroes of American reform and revolt. FDR, of course, as the champion of the forgotten man dominated the foreground, with Wilson and his New Freedom just behind. Still further back came Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressives, and right behind them the Populists. Way down the corridor where the shadows of the past gather, the line trailed off with Lincoln, the Abolitionists, Jackson, and Jefferson. All these different figures were supposed to be, in something like the same sense, champions of the “little man,” the “underdog,” “minorities,” or the “underprivileged” against the forces of lucre, power, and social status. Professor Hofstadter’s volume forces us to realize how naive a conception this was. The truth may be that the gallery was an attempt to give the New Deal historical depth and respectability.
In Professor Hofstadter’s account, the various reform movements emerge not as a coherent series of tactical engagements forming the large strategy of a “liberal” or “reform” tradition, but rather as numerous disconnected battles fought for different, and sometimes conflicting, objectives. To put them all under a common banner of “reform” and “protest” was, then, to obscure the peculiarity of each. The circumstantial approach of the present volume thus reveals some distinctive features of American political life, and especially the atomistic character of our different protest movements.
Professor Hofstadter begins with the Populists of the 1890’s, whom he describes as the heirs of “a larger trend of thought, stemming from the time of Andrew Jackson, and crystallizing after the Civil War in the Greenback, Granger, and anti-monopoly movements, that expressed the discontents of a great many farmers and businessmen with the economic-changes of the nineteenth century.” Populism was in large part a market phenomenon, rooted in the bewilderment of the farmers, who were suddenly discovering the complexities of their economic position. Their protest was “not . . . a product of the frontier inheritance, but . . . another episode in the well-established tradition of American entrepreneurial radicalism.” The folklore of the movement contained strong apocalyptic and anti-Semitic elements. And the Populist spirit survived not in the New Deal but in the later “undercurrent of provincial resentment, popular and ‘democratic’ rebelliousness and suspiciousness, and nativism.”
The Progressives, on the other hand, can only be understood as men who came of age during the depression of 1893-97. Unlike the farmer, they had suffered less in income than in status: “not through a shrinkage in their means but through the changed patterns in the distribution of deference and power.” The Progressive ranks were swelled with groups which had possessed local eminence in the age before “nationwide sources of power and prestige” began to loom large. But where did they fit in the new gargantuan scheme of things? “Lawyers, physicians, professors, merchants were classes,” Henry Adams wrote in describing the era before 1850, “and acted not as individuals, but as though they were clergymen and each profession were a church.” These were the new déclassés, bereft of their local power and influence, a loss all the more difficult for them to take because their economic means had not declined at the same rate. But as they were in a position not to suffer this loss in silence, they protested loudly against the shift of power into the hands of political bosses whose strength came from the new urban immigrant masses, and who were naturally held up as symbols of “corruption.” For the new immigrants interpreted political life in terms of personal relations, and not by the “rules-of-the-game.” “The Progressive mind . . . was pre-eminently a Protestant mind. . . . The more the muckrakers acquainted the Protestant Yankee with what was going on around him, the more guilty and troubled he felt. The religious institutions of Protestantism provided no mechanism to process, drain off, and externalize the sense of guilt. American political traditions provided no strong native tradition of conservatism to reconcile men to evils that could not easily be disposed of.”
After the Progressive protest, American life underwent a marked change. In the early years of this century a system of private welfare capitalism began to emerge; large-scale organizations—both of capital and labor—became an accepted fixture on the American scene. In the years following the First World War, movements of “reform” grew more and more diffuse and miscellaneous. Prohibition, while it had long been in the air, now “was a means by which the reforming energies of the country were transmuted into mere peevishness.” The Ku Klux Klan (with a peak membership of around 4,000,000) was itself another expression of “reformist” malaise.
But the New Deal—characterized by Professor Hofstadter as “The New Opportunism”—was perhaps the most novel and decisive of recent political phenomena, precisely because it marked a reversal of the old roles of conservative and reformer. “During the New Deal . . . it was the reformers whose appeal to the urgent practical realities was most impressive. . . . It was the conservatives, on the other hand, who represented the greater moral indignation and rallied behind themselves the inspirational literature of American life.” Utopianism, in that era, flourished in the usually unfertile soil of conservatism. Except for the writings of Thurman Arnold, Professor Hofstadter concludes, there was little articulate political theory in the New Deal that could speak to a later age.
What is perhaps most remarkable about The Age of Reform is that it uses the methods of the sociologist and the social psychologist—in particular, the concept of status—to gain new insights into the American past, without losing the old insights of the humanist. Professor Hofstadter remains concerned with the predicament of individual, highly differentiated men. And his style is unaffected by both “disciplinary” and “interdisciplinary” jargon.
But while his work must cheer us about the present state of historical writing in this country, its implications for the future of our political thinking are by no means so clear. Professor Hofstadter’s own technique, if applied to the present situation of quondam “liberals” of New Deal vintage, suggests some fresh questions.
During the two decades of New Deal-Fair Deal administrations, many of these liberals had a sense of sitting near (or even in) the seats of power. They had a novel status in American political life, of which they have recently felt deprived. Now the growing sophistication in interpreting American traditions of reform and protest—of which this book is a brilliant example—has deprived American “liberals” of their tradition by disintegrating it into heterogeneous fragments. Meanwhile a number of other writers have been laboring to construct a new tradition of “conservatism” which, in its sophisticated form, draws heavily on the literary and academic resources of the Western European past. Much “liberal” criticism of the “New Conservatism” is cast in the personal and slightly resentful language of people who dislike being reminded of their own sins.
For the “New Conservatism” itself is perhaps another effort to construct an American tradition from a useable (in this case primarily a European) past; much as the New Liberals of the Age of FDR patched together a tradition from the supposedly homogeneous past of American reforming movements. But the sins of the “New Conservatism”—whatever they may be—cannot whiten the sins of the old New Liberalism. What they both teach us is the need to face anew in the facts of our history the peculiar possibilities of American political life.