U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Radical Right, Revisited: The Ghosts of Consensus History

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!

Andrew Hartman

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andrew,
    Interesting post. I’m not sure, thought, about the notion of a “political unconsciousness.” It sounds to me too much like “false consciousness.” Are you asking, why do people not vote their supposed economic interests? Or why do they prioritize certain things over others? Or why they are susceptible to demagoguery? I’m not sure. Would you say more?

  2. Thanks for the comment David. In calling for attention to the political unconscious in historical explanation, I am not attempting to repeat the reductionism of the consensus historians–or of those like Thomas Frank–in making a “false consciousness” argument about people not voting their supposed economic interests (although I believe false consciousness is real in that most people don’t recognize their interests, economic and otherwise). I do not assume that anything non-“rational” in an economic sense is “irrational”–irrational being a pejorative, especially since some of the best things in life are not rational. People are not homo economicus. I am merely implying that political behavior cannot be explained purely by studying the conscious motives of people/political actors. Unconscious motives–motives unknown to people–drive political action and, more generally, human behavior.

    Cheers. AH

  3. Andrew,
    I’m still not sure. Granted that people do not always act from rational motivation in the voting booth or in public life. Granted that the non-rational is not always irrational. The problem that I have is the idea of unconsciousness motivations. If they are unconscious, presumably the actors do not have access to them. If they do not have access to them, how are we supposed to have access to them? The only way I can come up with is by reading their supposed interests, which we define rather than the actors. This all seems to lead headlong into false consciousness, which is pretty much license to abuse our subjects, as far as I can tell. They have interests, but they are deceived about those interests, residing as they do in the unconsciousness (which makes their consciousness false). But we are supposed to know their interests and point those interests out after the fact. How do we define their interests? How do we access their unconsciousness?

    Thomas Haskell first made this point in his critique of David Brion Davis. He says this: “The impossibility of confirming our hunches about the existence of unconscious intentions is only an aspect of a larger problem: the absence, even in principle, of any empirical evidence that would permit us to distinguish between the unconsciously intended consequences that the self-deception explanation requires and the unintended consequences that make up so much of what happens in human affairs.” [Thomas Haskell, “Capitalism and the Origins of the Humanitarian Sensibility,” in Objectivity is Not Neutrality (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1998), 248.)

    Am I misreading you, or do we disagree? If we do disagree, can you provide an example of an unconscious political motivation that we can have access to but that the actors cannot?

    P.S. I’m sure it is obvious, but the word “thought” in my first comment on this thread should read “though.”

  4. This is probably obvious, but the consensus historians were hardly the first people to bring this kind of analysis into American thought.

    In the 1930s, totalitarian movements were frequently understood by intellectuals in the U.S. as being the result of inchoate and unconscious political urges.

    See, for example, Hadley Cantril’s interpretation of the panic that attended the Orson Welles “War of the Worlds” broadcast (The Invasion from Mars) or Erich Fromm’s surprise 1941 surprise bestseller Escape from Freedom.

    I also second the notion that there is a relationship–in certain cases a genealogical relationship– between Marxist ideas of false consciousness and the idea of unconscious as an explanation of political behavior.

    Certainly Fromm was trying to link up Marxist ideas of false consciousness with Freudian ideas about the human psyche.

    And there are also important links between the work of other Frankfurt School thinkers, such as Horkheimer and Adorno, and the later work of the consensus school about the new American right.

  5. David– I’ll try to better explain, but I think we disagree. I’m probably walking a tight rope in asking for attention to unconscious motives, especially in calling attention to consensus-school psychological reductionism. The difference between my understanding of a political unconscious and that of Hofstadter’s is that I believe we are all motivated by unconscious desires, not just those who operate on the so-called political margins. As historians, we can’t know for sure what is unconsciously motivating any one historical subject, so in that sense I agree with you David–to impute such motivations at the individual level is unfair and, again, reductionist. But as historians, we can detect larger social phenomena that are not always rooted in the stated desires of the mass of actors.

    I’ll give an example from my book. I discuss how, during the 1950s, large numbers of people opposed progressive education. Many joined local school boards to rid the curriculum of such pedagogy. These people, as I argue, formed an early version of the grassroots conservatism that would help form the modern conservative movement of Goldwater, Reagan, and Bush II. I partly attribute this phenomenon to unstated motives, due to the act that hardly anyone involved understood progressive education, especially in the context of the Cold War, when progressive education had in fact become fairly conservative (by the standards of capitalism and nationalism). Thus, antipathy to progressive education acted as a proxy for antipathy to a host of other political and social changes, such as demographic shifts, including desegregation, rising taxes, changing sexual mores, etc. Of course, like McCarthyism, some people (including some academics) exploited such a trend for very rational-political reasons.

    Call me old fashioned in my anti-postmodern belief that historical “agency” has been completely overestimated in the profession for the past few decades, but I think false consciousness is a very real thing. I take my cue from Terry Eagleton on this matter, who writes in _Ideology: An Introduction_ that “falsehoods are significantly bound up with the reproduction of a dominant political power” (14). Eagleton also writes, “False consciousness may mean not that a body of ideas is actually untrue, but that these ideas are functional for the maintenance of an oppressive power, and that those who hold them are ignorant of this fact” (24-25). I can’t argue with such logic, even if it means that I would then have to describe most of my family, friends, students (and even to some degree myself) as suffering from false consciousness.


  6. Andrew,
    I agree: we disagree. The disagreement probably runs deep enough that we could not really begin to hash it out in this venue (we’ll have to do it over a beverage or meal at the next conference that we attend together).

    We do have one agreement, of sorts. I have always thought that Marx was onto something fundamentally right, even though I think he was wrong in the particulars (as I’ve said before, I prefer to get my Marx through Weber).


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