Title: The Age of Reform: From Bryan to FDR
Author: Richard Hofstadter
Categories: Reform, Populism, Progressivism, New Deal
Place: United States
Time Period: 1890s-1930s
Hofstadter exams the path of reform from the 1890s through the 1930s. He periodizes it into three pieces: Populism (1890s), Progressivism (1900-1914), and the New Deal (1930s). Instead of seeing a clear lineage connecting the three, he argues that while Populism and Progressivism were of the same cloth, the New Deal was a sharp departure - going against Progressive historiography that tried to trace an unbroken path of reform. Hofstadter was interested in social science inquiry of the 1950s, particularly things like psychology, and also wrote from the self-admittedly biased perspective of intellectual landscape of the fifties (particularly McCarthyism). He also operated under the consensus school of history, which narrowed the band of available action in American history so that radical departures were all but impossible - national history marked by consensus rather than conflict.
Hofstadter sees the Populists as farmers torn between two impulses - the "Hard" side of being commercial-oriented businessmen and the "Soft" side of seeing themselves as aggrieved victims of capitalism firmly rooted in the agrarian myth of America's past. The Soft side won out in the 1890s, and with it came bad things: a conspiracy view of history that pitted the people vs. the interests (linked to Anti-Semitism) and a kind of moral absolutism that made it difficult for them to ever accomplish much. The Progressives emerged after the Populist defeat in 1896 and tacked back a bit towards the "hard" side of populism. The challenge they faced was how to mobilize reform despite the fact that economically, they were doing pretty well - this leads Hofstadter to his "status revolution" argument, in which displaced elites were less concerned with their material condition (economics) and more with the loss of class status brought about by an increasingly impersonal society (this goes directly against Charles Beard and other Progressive historians' interpretation of economics as the overriding factor). Although better than the Populists, Hofstadter criticizes the Progressives for their embrace of minority politics and of their alliance with the individual, agrarian myth. He points out the disconnect between harkening back to an individual agrarian nostalgia in the face of a world that demanded new forms of organization. Finally, Hofstadter sees the New Deal as a radical departure from the earlier strand of Populist/Progressive reform. Instead of being steeped in ideology, it was pragmatic and experimental and geared towards actually solving immediate and pressing economic problems.
Hofstadter has been roundly criticizes from all angles. He didn't actually use very many sources, making many of his Populists and Progressives grossly unrepresentative of the movement as a whole. He had far too charitable view of capitalism and the inevitability of its forces (which led him to see the Populists as inherently backwards looking). Wiebe argues with his "traditionalist" conception of elites in favor of a more positive reform-minded middle class.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Hard vs. Soft identity of Populists - hard side of farmer's business orientation vs. soft side of aggrieved agrarian populism (soft side unfortunately won out during 1890s)
- Agrarian myth - both Populists and Progressives deceived selves into thinking they were part of a pastoral past and not active members of political economy
- Conspiracy-driven nature of Populists - people vs. the interests
- Status Revolution of Progressives - "Displaced elites" less concerned with material economics but decline in their class status brought about by growing complexity of society
- New Deal as pragmatic departure from ideology of Populists/Progressives
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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