We all know of “consensus history,” also remembered as “pluralist social theory,” a theory that Americans, although having political disagreements, some of which sparked violence, had nonetheless always operated within a framework of agreement on basic principles, namely political and economic liberalism. We all know this mode of analysis dominated the historical and social science disciplines during the long political and cultural “fifties” (1947-1965), when most Americans agreed on the premises of the Cold War consensus. We all also know that, in the wake of the political and cultural “sixties” (1965-1974), when this Cold War consensus fell apart, many academic disciplines, especially history, largely rejected the central theses of the consensus school, and instead came to reemphasize political and cultural conflict, much like their progressive forebears (Beard, Becker, Parrington, etc.) Every graduate student of history memorizes this conventional narrative as a rite of passage, usually in the course of reading Peter Novick’s paradigmatic That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession.
My purpose here is not to undermine this conventional narrative, true as far as it goes. But I would like to return to one of the larger questions posed by the pluralist thinkers. It is my informed guess that most historians no longer read the consensus school, rather, most of us (aside from a few intellectual historians) customarily and unthinkingly cite it as a straw man. If I am correct in such an assumption, this is problematic, for we as a discipline have yet to conquer the central consensus question: To what degree are the political actions of Americans derived from unconscious, often irrational desires?
In other words, the consensus school asked the correct questions, even if their answers often had serious problems. In perhaps the most influential collection of pluralist work, The Radical Right (1963), an updated version of The New American Right (1955), edited by Daniel Bell, with essays by Bell, Richard Hofstadter, Nathan Glazer, David Riesman, Peter Viereck, Talcott Parsons, and Seymour Martin Lipset, among others, these intellectuals sought to understand the irrational roots of McCarthyism and other variants of the far right, including the John Birch Society. They assumed that, since Communism was largely a non-issue in the United States by the time McCarthy rose to fame in 1950, the political passions of the McCarthy movement (or “mob,” as they characterized it) must have been fired by irrational and unconscious motives. For example, in his chapter titled “Social Strains in America,” Parsons argued that McCarthyism was a “symptom” of shifting domestic and international structures, and the “radical right” was comprised of those who either did not understand or enjoy these massive changes—those who “resented” the changes, who resented those Americans who benefited most from such changes, the educated elite that tended to reside in the universities and bureaucracies that dotted the landscape of the east coast.
Such psychological reductionism served as an easy target for later historians, such as Michael Rogin, who correctly pointed out that McCarthyism was less a petit-bourgeois groundswell and more the result of elite Republican manipulation, since the primary targets of McCarthy and his ilk were Democrats and other political opponents.
Simple psychology is not a substitute for serious historical and political analysis, and the consensus thinkers should have known as much, especially much-lauded historian Richard Hofstadter. Hofstadter’s contribution to The Radical Right, “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt,” was probably one of his most influential pieces of writing, and this includes his two Pulitzer winning books, The Age of Reform and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. In this essay, Hofstadter essentially helped mainstream the psychoanalytic idea that some political movements, especially during relatively good economic times, are derived from issues of “status” rather than class. People anxious about their status in society—an anxiety on the upswing in the 1950s, when how status was conferred upon people changed rapidly (for instance, an emphasis on educational credentials spiked)—strike out politically against those they resent.
In essence, Hofstadter extrapolated individual psychological diagnoses to explain social and political phenomena. This is not to say that psychology does not play an important role in understanding political behavior. As I said before, posing the question of the political unconscious is that aspect of the consensus school that we need to return to. However, Hofstadter reversed the proper formula. Instead of using the psychological framework meant for individuals—Freudian psychoanalysis—to explain the political behavior of groups (a trick he borrowed from Theodore Adorno’s edited collection, The Authoritarian Personality), he should have rooted his understandings of individual behavior, sometimes irrational, in social, political, and historical phenomena. The best example of someone who conducts such proper psycho-historical analysis is Christopher Lasch, who, in his bestselling The Culture of Narcissism, analyzed psychological trends found in many individuals—why had such a preponderance of Americans become clinical narcissists?—to understand the broad and sweeping historical changes endemic to a capitalist society.
This is not to say that psychological reductionism is the only problem with The Radical Right. Bell, Hofstadter, and their colleagues also suffered from political reductionism, a position proper to Cold War liberalism, or what fellow pluralist historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., termed the “vital center.” They believed that moderate liberals and moderate conservatives like themselves were rational, pragmatic, pluralist, democratic, and, as such, properly American. They thus conceptualized the “radical right” as being outside this consensus, much like their left-wing counterparts, Communists and fellow travelers. As such, the pluralist theorists saved their psychological reductionism for those outside the consensus, the radical left and radical right. The rational, vital center did not demand psychological analysis.
As is clear, I am not asking for a return to those areas of the consensus school that have since rightly been unmasked as false. But I am asking that we return to the basic question formed by Bell and his colleagues: Where is the political unconscious in historical explanation? And if this is not motivation enough to return to reading the likes of Bell and Hofstadter, perhaps it would help to consider how their ideas still resonate in the larger political culture. Upon re-reading The Radical Right, I could not help but notice that the authors often use the verb “cling” to describe why some of their fellow citizens have not given up on God, guns, and other such pre-modern vestiges!