Phillips-Fein opens the essay with a provocative question: Has anyone come closer than Hofstadter did at mid-century to nailing down modern conservatism?
The late Richard Hofstadter famously described "pseudo-conservatives" as dwellers in an unreal world, practitioners of a "paranoid style" of politics. They were, he argued, downwardly mobile lost souls, at sea in the mass-consumption economy of midcentury America, who turned their economic rage into an irrational attack on the intellectuals and liberals they believed responsible for their problems. They were victims of the American dream who did not know "who they are or what they are or what they belong to or what belongs to them." Out of their desperate search for status came a striking penchant for a Manichaean politics of good and evil, which scripted the elitists of Washington as the insatiable persecutors of virtuous small-town America. Ever since Hofstadter wrote his essays, historians have been criticizing his dismissive tone and his interpretation of conservatism as something akin to mental illness; in retrospect, Hofstadter's detractors have argued, he erred badly by making the right seem a declining force in American life at the very moment it was poised to sweep into power. But for all the obvious condescension in Hofstadter's argument, he captured, as few others have, the sheer strangeness of the conservative movement, and the way its rage manages to concoct a shadow America always on the brink of revolution or worse. Have modern scholars been able to do much better?Phillips-Fein ends on another provocative note -- by suggesting that no historical account has explained adequately the trajectory and tenor of today's conservative movement, a movement that, in her view, is both more "mainstream" and more extreme than its predecessors: "To get a sense of how today's conservative movement has transformed the fringe vision of a rapacious, violent state that Hofstadter chronicled at midcentury into a mainstream political refrain, it's not enough to read about the right," Phillips-Fein concludes, "you've got to go straight to the source.
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Image credits: Hofstadter; No Right Turn.