Blogging is a strange occupation - a solitary writer in search of the sort of communion with others that used to happen in the pub, on the corner, on the bus is now engaging with others electronically instead. So much for progress.

THIS blog is about ideas - big and small - connected with one of the things I care about with a passion, namely the future of liberal thought in this country. I am instinctively a radical liberal, with a grudging belief in the value of markets but an abhorrence of statism and indifference, and a strong belief in social justice. I find Labour bankrupt of ideas, and the Tories intellectually flacid. This is my response.

I am intending always to stick to the point: there will be no rabble-rousing talk, and no wasted jibes at other parties and political philosophies.

Comments will be moderated, but anyone can leave one.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Richard Hofstadter

Wednesday sees the anniversary of the birth in 1916 of Richard Hoftstadter, American historian and thinker who, perhaps more than many others, gave shape to the liberal centerist critique of American affluence and its politics in the post-war world. Brilliant and engaging, his writing on a wide variety of themes (party politics, radicalism, political paranoia and populism, academic freedom and social darwinism to name a few) influenced a generation shaped by totalitarian conflict on the one hand and political conceit and self-satisfaction on the other.

I first read him in my teens and thought the pure unfussy cadences of the American east coast made him approachable, easy to read and engaging. After years away from the books I happened to dip into my two favourite the other day (The Paranoid Style in American Politics(1965) and Anti-intellectualism in American Life (1963)), and my view of him has changed, slightly.

Let me explain. Yes those easy cadences were still there and yes the essays in Paranoid Style were as engaging and interesting as ever. But 'easy to read'? Perhaps not quite. Now I don't mean by that that the style or the substance was difficult. Rather, that more than 40 years after they were written these books provide an eerie echo of an era (the 1960s) straddling the uneasiness of a Cold war world and the burgeoning hope for a better future - an era in which politicians could hope to win elections by pure, unadulterated populism, from the cynical right and the calculating left. Hoftadter showed, possibly more acutely than any other historian of American thought, just how close to the surface of democratic life are the impulses to punish the non-conforming, to deny reason in order to hijack voters' anger, and to divide in order to rule. Democracy can hurt when it embraces populism, and it is uncomfortable to see just how.

In Anti-intellectualism in American Life, perhaps the most challenging argument of the two, Hofstadter showed that Americans had become used to denying the force of special knowledge, expertise and know-how. It wasn't just that intellectuals had been regarded since colonial times as dangerous but anyone setting themselves apart from a created orthodoxy or a manufactured populist concensus was deemed to be 'un-American'. Hence - and it hardly needed to be pointed out to readers - the vitriol of McCarthyism but also the hatred of the technocrat among many on the left.

Hofstadter only on rarely touched on the roots of anti-intellectualism and populism in Britain. but is it too far fetched to believe that he would have found - in the resurgence of the New Right from the 1970s, in the populism of Blair and Brown - the very same forces that shaped the condemnatory and heckling politics of the US for generations?

And is Barack Obama, perhaps, an antidote for liberals?

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