Over dinner in Brooklyn with Dr. Fred Siegel, about five years ago, a spirited discussion about Herbert Croly, a founder of American liberalism and historian Richard Hofstadter’s treatment of the progressive era, led Siegel to say to me that he would have to write a book about liberalism to expose misleading interpretations.
After reading Siegel’s "The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class," I can say he delivered on his promise. In 200 pages, he has explained the real history of modern liberalism.
Siegel makes it clear that early 20th century progressives and liberals were not confreres. “The new liberalism was a decisive cultural break with [Woodrow] Wilson and progressivism. While the progressives had been inspired by a faith in democratic reforms as a salve for the wounds of both industrial civilization and power politics, liberals saw the American democratic ethos as a danger to freedom home and abroad.”
Liberals despised the middle class morality, culture and economics of the progressives. These intellectual snobs, in the words of leftist historian, Vernon Parrington, wanted to “rid society of the dictatorship of the middle class.”
Liberalism’s leading proponents Herbert Croly (1869-1930), Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951), Randolph Bourne (1886-1918) and H.L. Mencken (1880-1956), influenced by Nietzsche’s concept of a true aristocracy, wanted the nation to be governed by highly educated and talented administrative and technocratic experts.
These secular priests who were to have a disinterested take on public affairs would employ scientific methods that would “transcend the crass culture created by a largely unregulated capitalism.” This new caste — “a political, economic and social aristocracy” — would transcend the conventions of middle class Victorian morality and halt the Progressives aim to create a “middle class paradise.”
The ringleader, Croly, despised Hamilton’s concept of a commercial republic and Jefferson individualism, as well as the Constitution, courts and political parties. He wanted a centralized administrative state manned by the intellectual class because “the average American individual is morally and intellectually inadequate to serious and consistent conceptions of his responsibilities as a democrat.”
Croly ally Randolph Bourne, the prophet of multiculturalism and the ideologist of “perpetual youth,” viewed America’s urban population as people “without taste, without standards but those of the mob.”
Another member of the click, H.L. Mencken, who The New York Times described as “the premier social critic of the first half of the twentieth century” despised American democracy and referred to the people as “a rabble of ignorant peasants.” To rid the nation of perceived undesirables, Mencken supported the eugenics movement that called for “the selective breeding of man.”
For inspiration in the 1920s, Siegel writes, the liberals looked to British novelist and social critic H.G. Wells. His 1,400-page bestselling tome, Outline of History, which was a Darwinian creation story in which “elites would form a global, peace-loving government”, became their secular Bible. He too despised democracy because “the common uneducated man is a violent fool in social and public affairs.”
The liberals of the 1930s generation continued the drum beat against the middle class who they viewed as “proto-fascists ‘boobs,’ peasants and a menace to the Republic.” Novelist Sinclair Lewis, in his 1935 novel, "It Can’t Happen Here," made the ludicrous claim that Nazism and Fascism in the U.S. is “the product of backslapping Rotarians, Elks, and Masons, as well as various and sundry other versions of joiners that Tocqueville had once celebrated as the basis of American self-government.”
A review in The New Yorker described the book as “one of the most important books ever produced in this country.” FDR's top aide, Harold Ickes, when attacking New Deal critics as “big business fascists” referred to the book.
In the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, liberals continued their crusade against the common man. A leading one, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., characterized a significant part of FDR’s coalition — blue-collar Americans — “as the most frightening people on this planet.” He, like economist John Kenneth Galbraith, argued that the nation should turn for guidance to an “intelligent aristocracy” — ivy-league university men like themselves.
The new class that liberals supported was university-trained managers who they believed “would reshape the American economy.” Managers, scientists, technicians “uncorrupted by the entrepreneurs’ excessive self-interest” would work “for the inherent pleasure of their endeavors.” They would carry out H.G. Well’s blueprint which called for “a declaration of war on the masses by … higher men … an elite of intelligent, creative-minded people.”
In the 21st century, Siegel points out, elitist liberals united with identity-political activists (i.e. ACORN) and public employee unions to fight “middle-class morality.”
Small town voters in red states who opposed John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 are hated by this coalition because, in the words of novelist Jane Smiley, “red-state types, above all, do not want to be told what to do — they prefer to be ignorant. As a result they are virtually unteachable.”
In Siegel’s final chapter “Obama versus Main Street” he concludes that not much has changed since Croly et. al, were spewing their invectives against Main Street America. Obama was embraced by an American elite “which melded Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Wall Street, Washington, and the prestige press. This new alignment, with its whiff of old-world snobbery, bore a striking resemblance to the British establishment, which looked down on manufacturers and shopkeepers. The new configuration was united by its disdain for people aspiring to achieve or hold on to a private-sector middle-class life, people who didn’t shop in farmers’ markets or know the difference between rice and risotto.”
To understand the un-democratic character of liberalism, read Siegel’s terrific book.
George J. Marlin, a former executive director of the Port Authority of N.Y. and N.J., is the author of "The American Catholic Voter: Two Hundred Years of Political Impact." He also is a columnist for TheCatholicThing.org and the Long Island Business News. Read more reports from George J. Marlin — Click Here Now.
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