Saturday, August 01, 2020

When Are You Going To Deal With The Fact That Liberal Elites Keep Failing?

theanalysis |  There’s this fascinating moment, Paul, where the word itself, populism, gets flipped and it goes from being a positive thing, you know, the sort of left-wing worker, farmer/worker movement in the 1890s, it goes from that to be a very negative thing to being, something fearful and dreadful. You know, something that’s paranoid and suspicious, and pathological and anti-Semitic. And that moment when that happens is in the 1950s. It’s a really fascinating place where the writing of history intersects, with history itself, with the making of history.

And the man who is probably single-handedly most responsible for this is Richard Hofstadter, the greatest American historian of his day, probably of the 20th century, and aside here. I got a Ph.D. in American history, that’s what I had meant to do with my life when I was young. I was a big admirer of Hofstadter when I was younger and really looked up to him. He’s an elegant writer and an elegant thinker. You know, he brings together these two, these sort of two great functions of a historian, and I thought he was absolutely wonderful. I really looked up to him when I was younger. But now I’m an adult, and I look back at his masterpiece, which is a book that came out in 1955 called, ‘The Age of Reform’, and now as an adult see very clearly what this book is. It was meant as a history of different reform movements in American life. And, you know talking about which ones succeeded and which ones failed. And it was a vicious attack on populism, on the populist movement of the 1890s. But now, as an adult, I can see that it was something else at the same time. It was a manifesto for Hofstadter’s generation, so it was these two things at the same time.

And let’s begin by saying this is the book that really turned the tables on populism and made it into a negative term, a term that you applied to authoritarians and to people like Donald Trump. Hofstetter went back and looked at the original populist movement and said it was, “it was pathological. It was an expression of status anxiety. Farmers were people who were on their way down, and because they were on their way down, they imagined all these scapegoats for their problems, and, you know, they were cranks. They rejected expertise, they were anti-intellectual, and above all, they were anti-Semitic”. And he actually tried to blame anti-Semitism in America, all of it, basically, on populism, which is ridiculous, which is utterly fatuous, but he said that. This book was massively influential, it was a big bestseller. It won the Pulitzer Prize, it has been described as the most influential work of American history ever published. And Hofstadter’s larger idea, as I said, it was a manifesto for his generation and his sociological cohort.

What I mean by that is he said there are two models for reform. One of them is the populist model, a mass movement of working-class people. And that’s how you get reform by bringing together people at the bottom, and he said that doesn’t work. We can see that doesn’t work because populism was a pathological movement that was delusional. They were all hypnotized demagogues, anti-Semitism, scapegoating, et cetera, all of which turned out to be wrong.

But he said there’s another way to do reform, and that other way is to bring highly educated people together and put them in charge of all the different “organs” that go to make up government and society and business and the military. And they will all get together and sit around a big mahogany table in Washington, D.C. and come to an agreement with one another. And that’s how you get things done. And he said this at the very moment, of course, this is how things work in, as we know in the world of ideas. That was, in fact, what was happening. That his generation of intellectuals was coming out of the Ivy League schools, top flight schools and were taking over the corporations. Up until then, corporations had been run by people who inherited them or people who built them, entrepreneurs, that sort of thing. But now they were going to be run by people with MBA’s. people with economics degrees. People with advanced degrees were running the big departments of the government. People with advanced degrees were running the Pentagon. And Hofstadter and his friends, if you think of the other intellectuals of the time, such as Daniel Bell, that’s what they were celebrating. Remember Daniel Bell had a famous book called. ‘The End of Ideology’. You didn’t need ideology or you didn’t need mass movements, you didn’t need millions of people in the streets like you had in the 1890s and the 1930s. You needed people like Daniel Bell, sitting around a big table and making decisions on your behalf. That was the model in the 1950s and Hofstadter’s great book, ‘Attacking Populism’. By great, I mean spectacularly influential book, ‘Attacking Populism’, was a manifesto for that way of understanding the world. You know, The Organization Man, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, you know what I’m talking about. And so this book is hugely influential. All sorts of other intellectuals at the time start copying it. They start writing about populism and the word takes on this life of its own. It becomes a stereotype. Now, here’s what Hofstadter never admitted in his book. His stereotype comes directly from the democracy scare of 1896. Remember, we talked about that in the last episode. All of the elites in American society getting together and denouncing William Jennings Bryan. Hofstadter just basically took that picture that they assembled and said, Yeah, that’s what populism really was. It really was a bunch of crazy farmers who really had no idea what they were doing and were rejecting the consensus expertise of their day.