Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Even Richard Hofstadter Would Be Amazed


Back in the 1950s and 1960s, when new forms of right-wing extremism began to make an impact in American life, historian Richard Hofstadter published essays that drew attention to the “symbolic aspect of politics.” Hofstadter acted in the fashion of an amateur psychologist, attempting to make sense of “non-rational” factors. His judgments about the mentality of leaders and followers on the right, based on emerging social science research of the time, were highly speculative. Nevertheless, some of his observations still excite interest. Historians and pundits often refer to Hofstadter’s ideas about the “paranoid style.” Much-overlooked, however, is a sub-theme in Hofstadter’s writing. That discussion focused on the emergence of “fundamentalism” in American politics. Individuals who seek a broader understanding of the present political standoff in Washington may find Hofstadter’s judgments thought-provoking. Richard Hofstadter recognized that evangelical leaders were playing a significant role in right-wing movements of his time, but he noticed that a “fundamentalist” style of mind was not confined to matters of religious doctrine.

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