Waxing Hoffer, Waning Liberal

Eric Hoffer, the author of True Believer, was an odd guy by all accounts. People just assumed he was thinking about the Nazis and their capture of Germany in the 1930’s, but no one every really knew for sure.  His official biography says he was born in New York, but there’s evidence he moved to America in the 20’s or 30’s. He was dodgy about a lot of details, including what he had in mind when he wrote the book.

My sense is Hoffer really never had any one group in mind. He was familiar with unionists, communists, fascists, progressives of various types, as well as the full spectrum of religious types in America. Having been around working class progressives that you find in union movements, I always suspected that was his inspiration. He worked on the docks and longshoremen are unusually fanatical in their unionism. Even today these guys are the truest of true believers in the union way.

I was thinking about this when I saw this last week. E.J. Dionne is a B-list talking head, but a committed member of the Left. He’s a very smart guy, but a fanatic. In his youth he was a rabid Catholic and then he transferred that to political liberalism. This is not uncommon, as Hoffer pointed out. People who join mass movements tend to move from one to another. John Podhoretz explains this phenomenon with Jews.

Dionne’s column has the usual things you see with the fanatic.

The several dozen people gathered at a street corner just off the main square of this southeastern Kansas town of 5,600 were polite and friendly in the Midwestern way. They did not look in the least like a band of counterrevolutionaries intent on reversing the direction of the government in Topeka.

Yet the results of the tea party rebellion four years ago have led these civic-minded, middle-of-the-road Kansans to a quiet but fierce determination to take their state back from those who once talked incessantly about taking their country back.

What brought them together this week was a visit from Paul Davis, the Democratic candidate for governor. Davis has generally been running ahead of Republican incumbent Sam Brownback in one of the country’s most consequential showdowns on Tuesday’s ballot.

The Left has an obsession with Kansas. I suspect they look as Kansas as typically American. If they can succeed there, it validates a big chunk of their mythology. After all, they are members of the vanguard leading the people to the promised land, so what better group to use as a test of their strategy. Alternatively, they may just view Kansas as emblematic of whiteness, which they truly hate.

Brownback set things up this way by launching what he called, proudly and unapologetically, a “real, live experiment” that he hoped would provide a model of red-state governance. He pushed steep income and business tax cuts through the legislature, insisting that his program would spur unprecedented economic growth. The results have been less than inspiring: large budget deficits, credit downgrades and substantial cuts in education spending, some of which were reversed only because of a court order. Only rarely does an election pose such a clear philosophical and policy choice.

Brownback often cited low-tax Texas as his model, prompting a ready reply from Davis. Voters “don’t want to be like Texas,” he said in an interview at his storefront headquarters here. “They just want to be Kansas.”

What it means to be Kansas is precisely what’s at stake, and it’s why Davis’s campaign uses #RestoreKansas — a traditionalist’s slogan, when you think about it — as its Twitter battle cry. The choice Davis is offering is not between liberalism and conservatism but rather between two kinds of conservatism: the deeply anti-government tea party kind, and an older variety that values prudence and fiscal restraint but also expects government to provide, as Davis put it, “the basic services that are essential to the state’s vitality.”

Setting Brownback up as a Tea Party guy is necessary to make this election fit the narrative. Brownback is a conventional Republican. Similarly, the Democrat must be cast as an earthy, tribune of the people. Davis is a career hack and about as populist as Mr. Burns from the Simpsons. None of this really matters as the fanatic only sees what confirms his fanaticism. In this case, lunatics like Dionne imagine a world where entitled snobs like themselves are saving the rubes from the clutches of the non-believers they call the Tea Party.

I’ve noticed Hoffer getting mentioned more often by popular writers who are either rediscovering him or learning about him for the first time. There was a Hoffer revival in the late 70’s and early 80’s too. I suspect it corresponds to the waning of a liberal cycle. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Americans would go through periods of religiosity. When Christianity began to fade in the 20th century, this cycle transferred to the new religion of America. Now we have periods of Progressive Awakening. My hunch is the rediscovery of Eric Hoffer corresponds with the waning of a Progressive revival.

5 thoughts on “Waxing Hoffer, Waning Liberal

  1. The existence of the Left is dependent on appropriating money from Producers to give to Consumers using the muscle of the State. It’s a bribe, no? Vote for us and we will give you Free Stuff. What happens when there is no longer enough money for all the promises? What happens when the State itself goes belly up? Or is forced by the economics of the situation to become a much smaller version of itself, unable to provide Free Stuff? What will make people fall into line behind Leftism then? I think that whoever has made the most promises that will not be kept is going to see its future waning. So, James Wilson, I think we will just have to agree to disagree.

  2. It will not happen that way Kathleen. Cycles occur within like environments. The environment has changed. Universal suffrage is a revolutionary instrument, and nothing but. Both public and private discussion is continually corrupted until no one can learn even from disaster. The left has won because they understand what democracy actually is. They may not understand that they too are committing suicide, but they may not care.

  3. James Wilson: it is typically human to believe that since something has continued for some time that it will continue for the foreseeable future. We are always fighting the last war. But movements come, have their heyday, and eventually recede. Another movement takes it’s place and the cycle is repeated. Leftist thought and policy has infected the nation for about a hundred years now, slowly gaining ground until it has reached the pinnacle of power. It may have another few years to enjoy the fruits of its poisonous labor, but the seeds of its destruction have already been sown. We are broke, and once everyone acknowledges that, once reality is in everyone’s face, then the State, and the symbiotic relationship with Leftism cannot survive in its present Leviathan form.

  4. Oh, no, Kathleen. The disease is gaining ground, and not incrementally. There is no longer a benefit to be had by learning from failure. Centralization never had a good day, but it had a heyday when it could still exist on the momentum of a great civilization. We’re eating the seed corn now.

    I hadn’t read those questions which Zman raised about Hoffer’s life, so I may simply not have very good information. But what I have read is that he claimed his mother died while holding him in a fall down the stairs in their home when Hoffer was five, after which he lost his sight for several years. I had taken the great leap to assume that he caused his mothers death and developed hysterical blindness as a result. So far as I am aware, he had no relationships with women other than prostitutes.

    My reading of Hoffer’s works suggest to me that he had identical views to your own about blue collar union men as well as professional progressives. Also, although he was an atheist he was more kindly disposed toward the religious than he was toward atheist in general.

  5. I agree. Just like centralization, Leftism has seen its best days. The apex has been reached and it’s all down hill from here. Until another generation or two passes and people forget just how much of a failure Leftist policies are. When times are good and people think the future looks bright, they will let their guard down and once again allow the Leftists to go for the brass ring. Who says history doesn’t repeat?

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