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Consensus History

History: On learning from and writing history

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Edited: Apr 22, 2011, 5:36pm Top

I am new to Consensus historians and am adding this in the event that others might be as well.......

Consensus historian

After 1945, Hofstadter philosophically broke with Charles Beard and moved to the right in his leadership of the "consensus historians". In 1946, he joined the Columbia University faculty; in 1959, he became the DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History.

In 1948, he published The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It, incisive interpretive studies of twelve major American political leaders from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. Besides critical success, the book sold nearly a million copies at university campuses, where it was used as a history textbook; critics found it "skeptical, fresh, revisionary, occasionally ironical, without being harsh or merely destructive".9 Although, as Bruce Kuklik notes, it still "owed much to Hofstadter's leftist background", it was ironic and paradoxical in dealing with political leaders from the Revolution to the present. Each chapter title illustrated a paradox: Thomas Jefferson is "The Aristocrat as Democrat"; John C. Calhoun is the "Marx of the Master Class"; and Franklin Roosevelt is "The Patrician as Opportunist".10

As a consensus historian, Hofstadter rejected Beard's interpretation of history as a succession of socio-economic group conflicts. He thought that all historical periods could be understood as an implicit consensus, shared by antagonists, explaining that the generation of Beard and Vernon Louis Parrington had:

...put such an excessive emphasis on conflict, that an antidote was needed.... It seems to me to be clear that a political society cannot hang together, at all, unless there is some kind of consensus running through it, and yet that no society has such a total consensus as to be devoid of significant conflict. It is all a matter of proportion and emphasis, which is terribly important in history. Of course, obviously, we have had one total failure of consensus, which led to the Civil War. One could use that as the extreme case in which consensus breaks down.11

source: wikipedia

Edited: Apr 22, 2011, 6:48pm Top

The label "consensus" history probably doesn't capture well the nuance in Hofstadter. I find Rogin's distinction between "realists" and "symbolists" to be more analytically musical. There is lack of consensus in Hofstadter's various historical narratives, it is just of a different order than that found in Beard. Hence Rogin:

The realist, instrumental approach is logically compatible with both radical and conservative politics. But for historical reasons it was originally employed by Progressive scholars like Charles Beard who were critical of dominant elites, scholars who uncovered buried special interests beneath the claims to national virtue. The symbolist approach developed in reaction to the interest-oriented exposés of the American political tradition. It shifted attention not only away from reason and interest and toward symbol and myth but also away from dominant American institutions and toward oppositional, fringe, and mass movements. This division in perspective split the American political tradition in two. Realists saw political repression when they examined countersubversion; symbolists saw paranoia. Michael Paul Rogin, Ronald Reagan, The Movie, 273

The writings of Hofstadter and a generation of social scientists emerging from left-wing politics of the 1930s on their way to the neo-conservatism of the 1970s (Daniel Bell, Seymour Martin Lipset, etc.) leavened in social scientific concepts of status honor and status conflict from Max Weber and psychoanalytic insights drawn from Freud (who was the rage in the early post-WWII era). This comes out especially clearly in the symbolists' analysis and critique of McCarthyism (see Hofstader The Paranoid Style and Daniel Bell ed. The Radical Right). In their analyses, a rational political center, organized around overlapping interests (see David Truman The Governmental Process) and an institutional disincentive towards ideology-driven politics (see Bell The End of Ideology; and Robert Dahl Who Governs?), faced ongoing challenges from the social and cultural margins, whether radical laborites or those groups exhibiting downward status mobility who were driven by uncompromising interests, beliefs, and values.


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