These days, whenever Richard Hofstadter comes up, it’s almost always in connection with “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (Harper’s, 1964), the title essay in his collection that helps explain the idiots who cannot accept that President Obama was born in the United States, is a Christian, is not a Marxist and does not plan to place right-wingers in concentration camps.
But understanding the mess state Sen. Steven Horsford recently created for himself requires another Hofstadter classic, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (Vintage Book, 1947).
Horsford devised a fundraising plan for his political action committee, which is designed to expand his 12-9 Democratic majority in the state Senate: dinner with himself and various committee chairs for contributions of $25,000 or more. Once the offer became known, he apologized, gave assurances that no one needs to pay to speak with him and promised to return all resulting donations.
To his credit, Horsford didn’t attempt the defense that everyone does it, which would have brought more criticism despite having the virtue of being truer than we wish. He also is taking his lumps from advocates of public campaign financing and better ethics in politics, who should include everybody.
His connection to Hofstadter comes through the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian’s set of essays on a dozen key political figures in American history, ranging in approach from “Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth” to “Franklin D. Roosevelt: the Patrician as Opportunist.” Hofstadter introduced them by saying, “The fierceness of the political struggles has often been misleading; for the range of vision embraced by the primary contestants in the major parties has always been bounded by the horizons of property and enterprise.”
Hofstadter saw the rise of industrial capitalism as crucial to understanding American history. Because he denied that political leaders had been all that deeply conflicted on this subject, some wrongly saw him as advocating a view of our past as one of agreement and consensus.
It’s no disrespect to leaders from the Founding Fathers to Obama to say the golden rule always has been that he who has the gold makes the rules. Some have fought it, but most have accepted it and tried to work within that rule—as Horsford did.
Nevada and Horsford fit into the tradition Hofstadter defined. In its early years, mining and railroads controlled much of the government, especially buying legislators to assure favorable state taxes and regulations, and the election of U.S. senators who would carry that attitude to Capitol Hill. In recent decades, casinos usually have wielded the most power in the Legislature, but even when the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce wound up in a cold war of sorts with casinos for a few years, both sides did well in Carson City with both major parties. Historically, representatives of major industries even sat next to legislators on the floor and provided the benefit of their wisdom.
The politician who attacked gaming or, before that, mining and railroads wound up on the endangered species list. Most Nevadans have depended on these industries in some way for their livelihood. Thus, most sing these industries’ praises even when citing their faults or, on rare occasions, trying to rectify them—just as Hofstadter found consensus generally on the wonders of capitalism in his examination of American politics.
Horsford tried to make the existing system work for him and took a position that all of us who believe in capitalism dislike, although it reflected capitalist ideology and Hofstadter’s arguments about the ties between politicians and the economic leaders of the moment.
If that bugs you, don’t blame Horsford. He did something stupid, but his loudest critics either don’t get enough of your support to change the system or do their best to keep things as they are—or don’t associate with anyone who couldn’t pay the freight anyway.
It wasn’t Horsford’s first bad move and it won’t be his last. But what made it bad wasn’t dishonesty; it was the bald-faced honesty of it. Anyone who believes calls from large donors don’t get returned faster than those of less affluent constituents, please see me about the Hoover Dam bypass bridge I’m offering for sale, cheap. But no dinner with it.
Michael Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada and author of several books and articles on Nevada history and politics.