The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F. D. R. by Richard Hofstadter

When you go to Rome the first time you should tour the Vatican Museums. Seeing them once, as a non-Catholic (or non-medievalist or non-art historian) it’s questionable if you ever go back to the museums on your second trip to the Eternal City. Similarly, all US historians should read Hofstadter[1]. But once is probably enough. 

Hofstadter makes an important contribution by attempting to connect the Populists, the Progressives and the New Dealers together in a narrative spanning 40 years. But like the countless statutes and paintings of popes and saints at the Vatican, you get the feeling there can be too much of something, and for Hofstadter it is his extensive analysis of the farmer’s role in history. Agrarian Populists—commercial farmers[2] steeped in the myth of the yeoman[3]—had mobilized under an innovative public policy agenda (income tax, a central bank, farm support programs, regulation of trusts). To explain the causes of this movement, Hofstadter delves into the farmers’ political economy and the speculative (capitalistic) nature of the business of farming,[4] building the rationale for the farmers’ revolt against the political parties dominated by urban and industrial interests. However, though offering ample detail about farmers, Hofstadter manages to portray Populist farmers as an indistinct mass with simple pecuniary motives. As if a statement of its shallow politics, Populism suddenly dies when commodity prices go up.[5] In contrast, Charles Postel’s intervention in Populism’s historiography reveals a complex, forward-looking, multivariate political movement.[6] 

There are also aspects of Progressivism and the New Deal that Hofstadter should have explored in more depth. The Progressives are characterized as urban elites (“Mugwumps”) who call for reforms against the trusts and political machines at the national level. The Mugwumps are concerned about plutocracy yet conservative at heart, advocating continuity with Protestant, Anglo-Saxon, middle class values.[7] Delving into motives sounds like oversimplification, and one scholar described Hofstadter’s approach to the Progressives as “methodologically flawed insistence on status anxiety.”[8] Furthermore,  the focus on national politics, specifically the Roosevelt and Wilson Administrations, provides short shrift to state-level and city-level reforms in public safety, labor conditions, and efforts to create more direct participation in democracy. Moreover, only passing mention is given to US foreign policy to open up markets and secure natural resources, including the push to gain colonial possessions and enforce the Monroe Doctrine. Additionally, F. D. R. and the New Deal receive glowing praise for innovation and pragmatism. Meanwhile, Hofstadter dismisses the possible influence of contemporary, competing examples of state command and control taking place in Germany, Italy, and the USSR.[9]

Ironically, the New Deal finally provided price supports to the farm industry that the Populists had originally called for, so that, “[I]ndustrial America goes on producing the social surpluses out of which the commercial farms are subsidized.”[10] By the New Deal era commercial farming was as much a corporate interest as oil and banking. Given continued Federal support to farmers to this day, it appears political interests continue to make use of the “myth of the farmer” Hofstadter described so thoroughly.

Notes

  1. Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R.  (New York City, 1955).
  2. Hofstadter, The Age of Reform, 38-39.
  3. Hofstadter, The Age of Reform, 23-36.
  4. Hofstadter, The Age of Reform, 45.
  5. Hofstadter, The Age of Reform, 168 – 171.
  6. Charles Postel. The Populist Vision(New York, 2007).
  7. Hofstadter, The Age of Reform,139-145.
  8. Robert Johnston, “The Age of Reform: A Defense of Richard Hofstadter Fifty Years On,” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, 6(2) (2007), 134.
  9. Hofstadter, The Age of Reform, 325 – 328.
  10. Hofstadter, The Age of Reform, 120.