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A CRB Discussion of Modern Liberalism's Origins

By: Marc Landy, Wilfred M. McClay, Fred Siegel
Posted: April 1, 2014

In the Winter 2013/14 issue of the Claremont Review of Books, Wilfred McClay reviews The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class by Fred Siegel. Siegel and McClay have agreed to pursue here some of the questions raised by the book and review. Their discussion is joined by Marc Landy of the Boston College Political Science department. Prof. McClay holds the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma. Prof. Siegel is a senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for State and Local Leadership and scholar-in-residence at Saint Francis College in Brooklyn.


Marc Landy:  Fred Siegel has written a truly important book and Bill McClay’s excellent review focuses on its central insights. Bill sees that the most important contribution of The Revolt Against the Masses is to provide an alternative narrative for explaining the rise of modern American liberalism. The conventional narrative sees modern American liberalism as rooted in progressivism. It treats progressivism a necessary, positive response to the economic rapacity and oppression wreaked by 19th-century industrialism and the robber barons who came to control and exploit much of the economy. It views aggressive government as the appropriate antidote to such immoral corporate greed and oppression. As Bill says, “Siegel is asking us to reconsider the history of the last century or so through a different lens—the lens offered by our tracking the moves and motives of the aspirant intellectual class.”

This alternative lens has the great virtue of placing human agency at the heart of the story of liberalism’s rise. In Fred’s narrative, the ideas and policies that American liberalism championed did not constitute an inevitable response to objective economic forces. Rather, those principles and programs arose from the thoughts and longings of identifiable individuals exercising their own free will. Since the key political and policy developments of the 20th century were not inevitable, Fred invites us to revisit them and re-contest them. Most importantly he wants us to see how a seminal group of thinkers during the 1920s set liberalism along the path it has followed ever since, a path rooted in fear and loathing of common opinion and disparagement of the accomplishments of business enterprise.

This highly influential group included such otherwise disparate thinkers as H.L. Mencken, Herbert Croly, Sinclair Lewis, and their English soulmate H.G. Wells. Their negative appraisal of America (and in Wells’s case Britain as well) stemmed as much from the successes of American free-enterprise economics and democratic politics as from its shortcomings. In their view, the prosperity and political stability that America had achieved deserved no celebration because those very accomplishments bred a numbingly boring culture, political timidity, and social life dominated by small-minded, parochial, vulgar nincompoops. If this depiction makes this cadre of intellectuals sound like minor league Nietzscheans, so be it. But, though they shared Nietzsche’s contempt for bourgeois life, they had a much less cataclysmic vision of how it was to be transcended and transformed. Their Ubermenschen were not Teutonic superheroes but rather social engineers, people of superior intellect and taste who could manage away the banalities and inefficiencies produced by competitive, profit-driven economics and disorganized, dysfunctional democratic politics.

Not only does Siegel demonstrate the essential role of these intellectuals in spawning modern liberalism, he makes a critical distinction between them and the progressives with whom they are normally conflated. These liberals did not share the progressive preoccupation with taming capitalist excess nor did they identify with the bourgeois moralism, religiosity, and majoritiarianism that pervaded progressivism. Progressives celebrated “the people.” Liberals despised the people. Whereas progressives were often willing to use government as an instrument of coercion, liberals were much more protective of personal privacy and suspicious of government compulsion.

Siegel highlights the distinction between liberalism and progressivism via the writings of a much overlooked but deeply influential pioneering liberal, Randolph Bourne. Bourne is best known for his opposition to U.S. intervention in World War I. But, as Siegel points out, that opposition stemmed not from a hatred of war per se but from an overweening admiration of German culture, especially its powerful romantic streak. Bourne, said his friend Van Wyck Brooks, wanted to “think emotions and feel ideas.” Bourne favorably compared “the sheer heroic power” of German ideals to the “shabby and sordid” life of Americans. Presaging the 1960s, he looked to the youth of America to throw off the shackles of conformism and stultifying morality and to strive to create a new civilization devoted to personal fulfillment and the pursuit of beauty.

Thus, Siegel is able to show that key tenets of contemporary liberalism—especially its cultural condescension, anti-majoritarianism and quest for the liberation of the individual—are rooted in the watered-down Nietzscheanism of 1920s intellectuals rather than in the progressivism that preceded those intellectuals. This naturally leads to the question that will perhaps be the subject of Fred’s next book: why did this not very impressive brand of thinking become so dominant in American life and thought? It is not surprising that some intellectuals would scorn the civilization that commercial liberal democracy had created. But it is astonishing that such an outlook should prevail. Why was there not a more robust response from learned and thoughtful Americans to this disdainful attack on so much of what Americans purport to hold dear: the wisdom of the common man; pride in honest labor; respect for success; the nobility inherent in providing well for one’s family and in sustaining decent community life?

Those of us who inhabit the university live in the world that Bourne made. His influence and that of his soulmates is almost as pervasive in many other walks of American life. Siegel enables us to witness the triumph of what he calls the clerisy of the intellectuals and to understand the damage wrought by that clerisy. The next step is to try to understand why that triumph came about. Perhaps then we can figure out how to shake loose from its intellectual and spiritual hegemony.


Fred Siegel:  Wilfred McClay’s thoughtfully written review was so beautifully wrought that it’s difficult to take issue with it. The review’s opening discussion of narrative was conceptual catnip for one of my sisters, a Hollywood screenwriter, who’s been trying to understand academia’s descent into an ill-mannered incoherence. But there is one short partial passage in the review I found off the mark:

How can liberals, and they alone, be motivated by the pure pursuit of justice? So turn their own premises against them, and show that, sadly, and infuriatingly, the power of liberalism has translated into the steady enrichment of those who wield it, and into steadily diminishing prospects in the lives of the very people it first rose to serve.

But liberalism first arose in the early 1920s to serve the aspirations of intellectuals and writers who’ve benefited from it but felt insufficiently appreciated by the American public.

In retrospect, I wish Revolt had included the essay on Richard Hofstadter I wrote for the New Criterion in February 2014. In it I tried to show how Mencken’s style, which was crucial to the development of liberalism, was carried on into mid-century by the famous historian of American liberalism.

Hofstadter, dubbed “the second Mencken” by the distinguished English professor Kenneth Lynn, adopted elements of Mencken’s style and antidemocratic attitudes while rejecting the “Sage of Baltimore’s” depreciation of the New Deal…. After World War II, two of the most prominent liberals, Hofstadter and the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, were acclaimed for what was in effect, though rarely discussed, their meld of Mencken and Marx. In Hofstadter’s case it was a meld of Mencken and the economic determinist historian Charles Beard even more than Marx.

I can only nod in agreement when Marc Landy writes, “Those of us who inhabit the university live in the world that Bourne made.” Near the end of his lucid comments Marc asks why liberalism, a “not very impressive brand of thinking,” go on to “become so dominant in American life and thought?” Briefly, I would answer that liberalism triumphed in the academy not only because it promised to enhance the power of academics, but broadly because what came to be called conservatism, though it seemed intuitively true to most Americans, was late to articulate itself as a coherent doctrine. Conservatism emerged, not only as an articulation of what seemed experientially true, but as a reaction to the triumphs, disastrous though they were, of left-wing ideology. Walter Lippmann’s The Good Society and Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom were largely discrete achievements, and even the creation of National Review in the mid-1950s was of limited impact until the events of the 1960s forced both conservatives and those liberals who became neo-conservative to rethink their worldviews.

Liberalism, I would suggest, maintains its current political influence not so much because its ideas have emerged victorious. They have not. Rather, the patronage politics that emerged from the Great Society, Black Nationalism, a mass unskilled immigration, the McGovernite expansion of “legalitarianism” (redistribution through litigation), the postmodern replacement of information with attitude on college campuses, and the rise of public sector unions has produced a formidable political machine. What we saw in 2012 was that liberalism, buttressed by an increasingly fawning press, can survive numerous policy failures so long as the constituent components of the machine continue to thrive.


Wilfred McClay:  I greatly appreciate the kind remarks of both Fred Siegel and Marc Landy. Let me try to answer Fred’s plaint about my comment, in passing, about liberal motives, and then add a few other things in the process.

To my mind, one of the most valuable insights of Revolt Against the Masses lies in its insistence that liberalism, for all its professions of generosity and high-mindedness, has been pervaded by self-interested and self-serving elements from the start. In other words, he argues, the problem with liberalism has always been something much greater than, say, the unanticipated consequences of purposive action, that hoary old bromide which is taken to explain why good intentions are so often mugged by reality—why we so often witness the corruption of good and well-meaning intentions by the heartless and cussed resistance of the world as it is. A familiar adage, as I say, but not quite the whole story. Siegel also wants to underscore the inconvenient truth that key figures in the liberal movement were motivated by less attractive forces, high among them being a disdain unto loathing for middle-class American life. If Henry Adams was right when he said, at the opening of his Education, that politics is the “systematic organization of hatreds,” then liberalism’s seeming incoherence becomes entirely explicable; it’s largely a matter of how the diverse hatreds—of bourgeois life, of big business, of great wealth, of authoritative organized religion, of moralizers and prudes—have ended up being organized.

The example of H.L. Mencken is very powerful here. I completely agree with Fred about Richard Hofstadter’s debt to Mencken; this was an observation about him made not only by Kenneth Lynn, but also by Hofstadter’s friend Alfred Kazin in his book New York Jew, among other places. Indeed, Mencken influenced a whole generation of writers who celebrated his irreverent style and sought to imitate his irreverent attitude (minus his animus toward FDR and the New Deal, of course, which is silently edited out of his memory). I grew up near Baltimore, reading the now-defunct Evening Sun, which routinely glorified Mencken as its patron saint, making him into a kind of benign civic icon, a sort of Baltimore version of Will Rogers. He was nothing of the sort. He was a nasty piece of work, a social Darwinist and vulgar Nietzschean, a foe of most every aspect of religion, very much including its more generous aspects, a fervent opponent of Anglo-Saxon culture, and an inveterate mocker of all things that common Americans held dear.

And yet I think it is safe to say that Mencken would be utterly contemptuous of Obama-era liberalism, would disclaim nearly all connection to it, whether the issue in question were the nationalization of health care, the demonization of smoking and trans fats, the deference to feminism (not to mention LGBT sensibilities), affirmative action in hiring, speech codes and other restrictions on expressive rights, and so on. Which raises a problem that I would like, following in Marc Landy’s footsteps, to nominate as a subject for Fred Siegel’s next book. Namely, how did this happen? How American liberalism turn from a regime of robust freedom to a regime of prescription and busybodying control? Even if one accepts the view, which Siegel is restating in his response to me, that liberalism was entirely a matter of self-interested motives from the start, the question remains: how did a doctrine of freedom so easily become transformed into its seeming opposite? How did the ebullient free spirit of the “lyrical left” in the ’10s and ’20s become the regime of what James Piereson has aptly called “punitive liberalism,” in which the assignment and transference of historic guilt, and the exploitation of that guilt in others, is the name of the game?

Part of the answer, I suspect, will be found in studying the ways in which liberalism and progressivism, analytically distinct and discrete in theory, have turned out to be thoroughly intertwined in practice. Take a figure like John Dewey. He was most certainly a liberal, and most certainly a progressive. He was in fact both of these things, and that fact becomes a recipe for confusion, in which the word “liberal” becomes equivocated upon almost as often as the word “democratic,” and for the same reasons. Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction between negative and positive liberty was a way of getting at the difference between the two, and explaining how progressivism could see itself as a way of being “liberal”—because, after all, it was forcing those under its sway to be free by “educating” or “engineering” them into that condition.

The arrogance that looks upon the actual lives of ordinary people with pity or disdain is, at least potentially, the same arrogance that “knows” what would be better for those pathetic folks, and presumes itself fit to impose upon them a new way of life that more fitting and fulfilling than their present condition, had they the wit to realize it. Following that logic, it’s not hard to see how a Mencken becomes a Galbraith, or how figures like H.G. Wells and Randolph Bourne managed to maintain simultaneously the libertarian and statist aspects of their outlook—even though in many respects those aspects are incompatible with one another.

It does seem to me, however, that there is a danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, if one attempts an overly comprehensive indictment of liberalism. I think there is still plenty to be said for liberalism, when it is rightly understood as: an assertion of the dignity of the individual; a generous reaction against the exploitation of vulnerable and weaker individuals; a guarantor of the rights of minorities; and an affirmation of intellectual, moral, and spiritual liberty, even unto (as Kevin Hasson has put it so memorably) the right to be wrong. That the people who call themselves conservatives are often the most valiant defenders of these things today—and as Siegel suggests, an argument can be made that American conservatism has been mainly a corrective response to liberalism’s excesses—doesn’t change the fact that it is a form of liberalism that they are defending. I don’t think Fred Siegel wants to go so far as to deny that there are those who embrace liberalism because they honestly believe it serves the lives of ordinary people. I believe there was a time when such people did, and it made sense for them to do so. Where I would agree with Siegel is that to do so today is to be deluded. It is to believe, say, that public teachers’ unions have the interests of their students at heart, or that the American Civil Liberties Union cares about civil liberties irrespective of who is in power, or that Obamacare is all about serving the needs of the uninsured.

That is what I meant in that passage to which Fred Siegel took exception. I don’t want to defend what liberalism has become. But I do think that one of the supreme ironies in the story he tells is that there was a time, before liberalism became the theme song of cyber-billionaires, lifestyle radicals, academics, guilt merchants, and public-employee unions, when it really did seek to honor the common man. Not anymore.


Fred Siegel: Bill McClay rightly notes that “there was a time, before liberalism became the theme song of cyberbillionaires, lifestyle radicals, academics, guilt merchants, and public-employee unions, that it really did seek to honor the common man.” And Marc Landy asks how is it that the older liberalism that we all admired has been so fully displaced. The short answer is that the trade unionist, private sector liberalism of the 1950s never renewed itself. It was undone by Vietnam, black power, and the beginnings of a resurgent economic globalization.

The stability of 1950s liberalism was an anomaly, the product of the Soviet conquest of Eastern Europe which, for a time, undercut the default liberal position of anti-Americanism. But Vietnam and third-worldism, a movement strongly influenced by fascism, revived the dormant liberal anti-Americanism and became the working assumption of the clerisy and its allies. The new liberal alignment, dominated by people who trafficked in intangibles and abstractions, had little room for the factory worker. As my old friend Jim Chapin used to joke, “No editorial writer has been displaced by a free trade agreement.”

Faced with the challenge of revived economies in Europe and Japan, neither liberals nor conservatives were much troubled by the decline of private sector unions. Rather, in a version of what the French describe as surrencher, liberals tried to outbid each other in describing the evils of American society. Feminists, for instance, pointed to the story of Sybil to argue that life for women in American had produced repression so severe as to induce schizophrenia. The whole Sybil story, as we later learned, was concocted, but no matter—the damage had been done.

Many writers and thinkers have argued that the true liberalism of the 1950s was, in effect, hijacked and displaced by the radicalism that succeeded it. But there was no such moment of seizure. The process by which the liberalism of the 50s, itself a break with the past, was in turn broken with came at first from the concussive events of the 1960s and then from what has rightly been described as the long march through American institutions. The ’68ers challenged America’s sense of itself as they became professors, producers, and Wall Street brokers. They became embroiled in a cultural account of events they were little troubled by, such as the failures of the Great Society or the creation of an African-American underclass.

Two of my Rutgers professors, John Cammett and Eugene Genovese, who introduced Gramscian arguments to American liberals, provided a road map of sorts for that long march. Socialism, argued Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist of the early 20th century, would triumph by achieving a cultural counter-hegemony that challenged the underlying assumptions of a nation’s inherited culture. When I heard Cammett decant on Gramsci, during time outs from his standard practice of devoting a class on Italian history to discussing how the Kennedy assassination was an attempt to keep the Cold War on course, I had but a glimmering sense that Gramsci’s ideas might be meaningful in America. But they were.

The collapse of the USSR was, as John Lloyd among others has noticed, a great gift to the Left, which has no longer shadowed by the malevolence of the Soviets. But what came in the 1990s, the rise of public sector unionism, is the portion of my book most often overlooked by reviewers. Government unions on the one hand and an academia tainted by fascist tropes on the other produced a Left that perversely enough was funded by the either the state or by wealthy institutions.

The Left of the post-2000 years of political polarization has benefited handsomely by the global successes of the oligarchical symbol manipulators of Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and Hollywood. But while liberalism has prospered even as it has ignored the poverty-ridden areas but a few hours drive from coastal affluence, it seems sealed off from its nearby realities. These coastal areas are the bastions of support for our current president under whom they have prospered, even as most of America has stagnated.


Marc Landy: Bill and Fred’s thought-provoking remarks leave me with two questions. The first deals with the context of early 20th-century progressivism and liberalism and with the hound that did not bark, a non-progressive critique of business and business-dominated politics. The second deals with the decisive turn liberalism took in the 1960s.

As we pursue our critique of early liberalism, it is necessary to come to some judgment about the economic and political order it vilified. One need not share its contempt to acknowledge that there was indeed much to criticize about the political economic order that emerged in the late 19th century. I part company with those critics of both progressivism and its liberal cousin who fail to acknowledge the dangers to a democratic/republican way of life posed by oligopoly and the interpenetration of business and politics as that unholy alliance gathered steam prior to the Progressive Era. Conservatives who correctly attack 21st-century crony capitalism need not defend its late-19th- and early 20th-century counterpart.

Was there, or could there have been, an alternative critique of excessive economic power and the attendant political corruption? One that was not itself corrupted by the fear and loathing of common opinion, the willful underestimation of the great accomplishments of laissez-faire capitalism (TR is of some use here), the contempt for limited government, and the enthusiasm for social engineering that came to characterize liberal thought? If such a critique existed I am unfamiliar with it. And if it did exist, why was it drowned out by progressivism and liberalism?

My second question stems from the complication to the otherwise disheartening history of 20th-century liberalism represented by the New Deal and the two ensuing decades. Although prominent liberal thinkers of the 1930s continued to exhibit the same contempt for the common people that characterized their predecessors, the same could not be said for the greatest liberal of the 20th century, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He called himself “a Christian and a Democrat.” He showed an unerring ability to relate to ordinary people, either despite or because of his quasi-aristocratic upbringing. Granted, he had an unhealthy attraction to social engineering that led him to embark upon one of the dumbest policy adventures in American history, the National Recovery Administration, as well as inanities like the Resettlement Administration’s experiment in collective farming (brilliantly dissected by Ed Banfield’s Government Project). But he was beloved by the American people despite this progressive-inspired nonsense. His brand of liberalism addressed real human problems bequeathed by the previous political-economic order: such as insecurity in one’s old age, and a deep imbalance between the power of management and the power of labor. And, his democratic brand of liberalism led him to conceive a courageous and clear-sighted foreign policy that put Hitler squarely between his sights. Here he was far more visionary than those who dominated both the liberal and the conservative political camps.

The liberalism that emerged in the 1950s continued to bear FDR’s positive influence, shorn of its social engineering foolishness. Harry Truman, Henry Jackson, and the pre-1960s Adlai Stevenson and Hubert Humphrey were the most impressive opponents of the Soviet Union, advocates for a strong military, and defenders of civil rights. George Meany, Walter Reuther, and the leaders of the Americans for Democratic Action did far more to fight domestic communism than did Joe McCarthy, or anyone else on the Right. I grant to Fred that the intellectual icon of ’50s liberalism, Arthur Schlesinger, displayed many of the anti-bourgeois sentiments of Bourne and Mencken, but the liberal political leaders of that era were free of those sins. So the question is why did this muscular liberalism fade, to be replaced by the 1960s version that continues to dominate? Fred makes some good points on this score, but I think there must be more to the story.

I am a child of the 1960s. Whatever courage and intellectual clarity the ’50s liberals brought to the fight against Communism vanished as they confronted what should have been a lesser foe, the New Left. We student radicals were continually amazed and bemused by the cowardice and defeatism Establishment liberalism (or, as we preferred to call it, “Corporate liberalism”) showed in the face of our often outrageous and callow demands. We kept expecting to have to have to retreat, but the enemy never attacked. The success of students and their allies in remaking (destroying) the university and undermining the war in Viet Nam was due far less to the New Left’s theoretical and tactical brilliance than to the theoretical and tactical vacuity of the other side. Just as LBJ failed to make a strong case for the war, so academic liberals like Clark Kerr (president of the University of California, Berkeley) and Robert Carr (the unlamented president of my alma mater, Oberlin College) failed to make a serious case for the university. The real case for a liberal arts education was not made until the 1980s, by Alan Bloom, a conservative who called himself a New Dealer. This implosion of a previously impressive, vital political and intellectual force both troubles and bedevils me.

A trivial footnote: Bill McClay refers to “the ebullient free spirit of the “lyrical left” in the Tens and Twenties. Who are you referring to? The only lyrical left I know of was that of Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson, and Woody Guthrie.


Wilfred McClay: Let me first say that I am in sympathy with Marc’s comments about progressivism and the critique thereof. That is not to say that the critics of progressivism are wrong. Indeed, I agree with much of their critique, and it does seem to me that, for example, the progressives’ fierce opposition to the Constitution as a morally tainted and obsolete document of the 18th century, inadequate to the needs of a modern industrial society, has turned out to be badly mistaken. Or, to put it another way, the Constitution has been vindicated by the failure of the ideas put forward to replace it. Progressivism made enormous and overconfident assumptions about the ability of disciplined intellect, operating through organs of administrative centralization, to rationalize and regulate the conditions of social and economic life, and render obsolete the incessant clashes, conflicts, and inequities inherent in democratic politics. A Constitution that acknowledges the inescapable persistence of such conflict and seeks to redirect it into regular political channels—to contain faction rather than eliminate it, as Madison might say—has turned out to be a wiser and better way to govern a free society, far preferable to one in which administration and anointed expertise have been privileged over the interplay of politics.

But Marc’s point, as I understand it, is this: it is not as if Woodrow Wilson or Theodore Roosevelt or Robert LaFollette or any number of other Progressive figures woke up one morning and decided: “You know, I’ve had it with this bloody Constitution. It’s too damn stodgy, too confining of bold action, too out of step with the latest thinking. Let’s get rid of it and get on with something new.” Instead, they were responding to urgent problems and events in the real world: to the unprecedented conditions of modern industrial society—unprecedented concentrations of wealth, opportunities for government corruption, conditions of urban poverty and blight, and so on—dramatic changes that threatened, in many people’s minds, to undercut the very basis of popular self-government itself. Their responses were flawed and inadequate, and created fresh problems of their own, by attempting to dismantle the Constitutional framework and replace politics with government by regulatory elites that presumed to govern in the name of the people. But that does not mean it was wrong of them to respond, and try to find alternatives and improvements to the status quo, or that their actions can be reduced to nothing more than an illegitimate drive for power. A decision to yield to the inevitable is not necessarily the pinnacle of political wisdom, particularly since we can never know what is or is not inevitable.

Was there, or could there have been, an alternative critique of excessive economic power and the attendant political corruption, one that was more respectful of the amazing productive energies of capitalism and the inherent limitations of the regulatory state, including its own proneness to corruption and the will to power? What might such an alternative have looked like? These are haunting questions, and they may have no answer. Sometimes the best that history can offer us is a messy dialectical process in which the excesses of one approach can only be remedied by the excesses of another, which is how you get the kind of mixed government and economy that have in fact evolved, a contraption due for another serious jolt of change after the mistakes of the past century, and particularly the top-heavy excesses of the past forty years or so. Perhaps the illusions and corruptions of government by gargantuan liberal bureaucracy can only be made fully visible when and where they have been allowed to triumph. If true, that is a doleful and dangerous proposition, bordering on Hegel’s famous declaration about the owl of Minerva. Maybe the human race only learns, in those rare instances in which it does learn, by its mistakes, including the well-meaning ones. And perhaps it only escapes the full consequences of those mistakes, when it does escape, by the skin of its teeth.

As for Marc’s affection for FDR, I can certainly go part of the way with him there, too. Roosevelt’s attacks on malefactors of great wealth and his claim that his policies were merely about driving the moneychangers out of the temple were breathtakingly arrogant, demagogic, and divisive; many of the New Deal’s programs were clumsy and stupid failures. Some of them were poorly designed in ways that we must, alas, find a way to live with today. But there was something more than a will to power behind them; and the pragmatic experimentalism voiced by FDR in his first inaugural was, to struggling Americans, an inspiring promise that government would at least respond to events, rather than submit passively to them. And whatever else may be said about the New Deal and the Roosevelt administration, and its liberal Democratic successors through JFK, it had none of the disturbing and reflexive contempt for American life, and for lives of ordinary Americans, that one senses underlying the post-Sixties liberalism, and that Fred Siegel brilliantly shows to be bubbling up in the liberal-intellectual critiques of the Fifties. One sees such disdain from the current administration, as in the open decision to give up on appealing to the kind of white working-class voters who were once at the core of the New Deal coalition.

Does that mean that, as Fred Siegel argues, anti-Americanism is the “default position” of liberalism, and that the relatively sensible and responsible liberalism of the ’50s was an “anomaly”? Perhaps so. I am reluctant to go that far myself, partly because I see political movements as far more mutable and fluid than that. But Revolt Against the Masses makes a powerful, unsettling case that such sentiments were present from the very beginnings of liberalism as we know it, in the early 20th century. (Incidentally, the term “lyrical left” has been used by historians, including most notably the late John Patrick Diggins, to describe the Greenwich Village intellectuals of the 1910s and 20s, who are seen as relatively benign and apolitical, interested more in literature, art, and striking romantic poses than in political activism. I suspect that Fred would dispute Diggins’s benign characterization of them.)

Perhaps it is also worth entertaining the possibility that liberalism is healthiest as a minority, oppositional position within domestic politics, from which it can serve as a leavening influence. Its pathologies inevitably come to the fore and consume it when in power, however, particularly when, as it is today, the news media and educational establishment constitute additional fifth, sixth, and seventh columns remolding public consciousness. The electoral record suggests there is always a reaction against liberal hegemony, sometimes coming quite swiftly and taking liberals by surprise. When Warren Harding famously praised the return to “normalcy” over “nostrums,” it was the endless moral bombast and reformist overreaching of the Wilson years he was thinking of. The public fervently shared those sentiments. The New Deal itself actually did not last very long, coming to an effective end in 1937 with the debacle of the court-packing scandal, a hubristic and Constitution-challenging act undertaken in the wake of FDR’s roaring victory of 1936. The Great Society, after a frenzy of activity beginning with LBJ’s huge victory in 1964, had mostly wound down after the 1966 Congressional elections. Bill Clinton’s liberal agenda was stopped cold in 1994. Obama’s legislative agenda has made little or no progress since the 2010 “shellacking.”

Also, Marc Landy’s memories of the strange impotency of establishment “corporate liberals” when faced with the myrmidons of the New Left reinforce the sense that liberalism sits uneasy on the throne of power, and may be more comfortable in opposition. Consider Robert S. McNamara, the quintessential corporate liberal who spent much of his long life atoning for Vietnam. Liberalism may be more comfortable in a state of nonstop repentance, punctuated only by public criticism of those who still think the things liberals once agreed on, a displacement of self-criticism onto the larger body politic.

In any event, to return to where I began, one of the greatest enemies of political health is the false god of inevitability. Tocqueville repeatedly inveighed against it, and against any and all doctrines of determinism, as pernicious and unproductive, and I think he was entirely right about that. One must act. And there may be times when it is better to have acted unwisely than not to have acted at all. Public morale demands visible action from the powers that be. This is a hard fact of political life and human nature to which the opponents of progressivism and its progeny must find a way to accommodate themselves. The adage “Don’t just do something; stand there!” makes for great conservative punditry. But a politician cannot always follow it.


McClay: One striking aspect of Fred Siegel’s book, and of our discussion of it, is that none of us has drawn a clear line of separation between the terms “middle class” and “working class.” In other contexts, that might seem shockingly negligent. But in this one, it seems entirely appropriate. Why? Because one of the issues undergirding the cultural decline that we are experiencing is a loss of general faith in the inherent dignity of work itself, and its necessary connection to personal and cultural virtue. This loss of commitment to the inherent virtuousness of work—indeed, this growth in contempt for the culture of work, and for the whole cluster of distinctive “bourgeois” virtues that go along with it—is part and parcel of the high/low alliance that has increasingly pitted itself against those in the middle; and what increasingly defines those in the middle is precisely their shared relationship to work, thrift, industriousness, trustworthiness, honesty, inventiveness, and all the other virtues that characterize the world of work in a dynamic capitalist and commercial economy.

Until recently, the reflexive American view tended to exalt work and enterprise, to encourage the human propensity to “truck and barter,” as Adam Smith put it, and endorse the pursuit of “self-interest well understood,” in Tocqueville’s famous words. But, as Deirdre McCloskey has argued, we have come to a point where we need, but badly lack, terms adequate to describing the way we actually live, or rather, the way we need to live for our way of life and standard of living to persist. Our moral language is no longer descriptive of core practices of our culture. Just consider the stunned, blank expressions with which the most talented graduates of our best colleges now stumble out from their academic caves every year, to face the “real” world, blinking and rubbing their eyes in incomprehension. They have no clue as to how the world works, and why such small matters as showing up for work on time, neatly dressed, and without visible tattoos or nose rings, might be important.

The best of them eventually figure out how the world works, and do all right; but their education, and the culture of higher education, may have contributed only negatively to that process. And this problem may be partly traceable back to the very intellectuals whom Fred Siegel has so roundly criticized in his book. And not only American intellectuals, for one of the great and consistent themes of modern literature has been the moral defectiveness of the bourgeois man. The charges vary: sometimes the fault is his greed, other times his brutality, his philistinism, his impuissance, or his conformism. But from Ebenezer Scrooge to George Babbitt to Willy Loman, it’s an endless parade of anti-business, anti-enterprise, anti-capitalist themes.

McCloskey has made a good beginning in the process of countering this one-sided view, and expounding upon the concept of bourgeois virtue, but it is a long, long road, and we need to do much more. The country’s moral imagination itself needs to be refreshed and reeducated. And the Republican Party, if it is interested in winning back a serious political majority that would offer an attractive alternative to the high-low alliance, and a constructive “rebranding” of the party’s image, and (more importantly) its practices, would do well to begin to identify itself, not as the party of the mega-rich—which it no longer is, in any event—but as the party of work and enterprise, and the steadfast opponent of high-level cronyism and corrupt bargains, as well as of ballooning entitlements and welfare dependency. Doing so would have the added advantage of returning the party to its Lincolnian roots, which also accorded work a central role in our practical and moral lives.


Siegel: Bill McClay is right: the political future depends to a considerable degree on the public becoming aware of the Obama/Federal Reserve policies that have produced prosperity on Wall Street and privation on Main Street. I recently had the pleasure listening to Republican Congressman Steven Southerland of Florida talk about work as central to a solid life. Southerland, the son and grandson of morticians, began working in the family business as a young boy. He recently spoke to the largely unemployed but aspiring men and women who had come to America Works, a highly successful private company which prepares people to work by emphasizing the traditional virtues of self-discipline and cooperation. The companies that hire America Works trainees pay nothing to A.W. until the hire is on the job for 6 months—and the company has thrived. But A.W. success has produced a backlash against its ideal of pay for performance from the legatees of the Great Society. Their social-work approach to unemployment is based on the principle of creating not employees but patronage positions that can be harvested politically come election time.

Eric Hoffer saw that, despite Lyndon Johnson’s hopes, the Great Society meant that America would be increasingly dominated by its elites. By the 1960s he feared that America would not long remain “the common’s man continent.” The masses, Hoffer explained, are “on the way out.” He was right.

The expansion of Great Society patronage politics under President Obama has produced a country in which a rising percentage of the African-American and Latino population receive some sort of means-tested benefit while their labor force participation rates descend to record lows. Similarly, more than 40% of non-college educated whites see themselves as downwardly mobile. The upshot can be seen in a recent Pew poll, which found that a third of the country considers itself lower class. At the same time, the stifling regulations of the Obama years have produced a “new” and unappealing America in which small-business job creation has now been exceeded by small-business job destruction.

Liberalism, as I discuss it in Revolt Against the Masses, is now defined by making the poor more comfortable in their immobility, geographic and social; and the wealthy, who have purchased indulgences from the state/church, secure in their wealth. The fight over the Keystone pipeline pits working-class trade unionists against wealthy environmentalist who are insistent on pulling the ladder of mobility up from behind them. The anti-growth politics of the environmental extremists, who now dominate the Democratic Party, is narrowly a threat to the party’s electoral future and more broadly to the creation of work, which, as McClay rightly notes, is the key to America’s well being


Landy: Bill and Fred force us to confront the most difficult problem America faces, the future of work. Work is an American religion. William Jennings Bryan said it best when he characterized America as a nation of businessmen.

We say to you that you have made too limited in its application the definition of a businessman. The man who is employed for wages is as much a businessman as his employer. The attorney in a country town is as much a businessman as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis. The merchant at the crossroads store is as much a businessman as the merchant of New York. The farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day, begins in the spring and toils all summer, and by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of this country creates wealth, is as much a businessman as the man who goes upon the Board of Trade and bets upon the price of grain. The miners who go 1,000 feet into the earth or climb 2,000 feet upon the cliffs and bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured in the channels of trade are as much businessmen as the few financial magnates who in a backroom corner the money of the world. [Cross of Gold Speech, 1896]

To paraphrase Jefferson; we are all middle class because we are all working class.

As Fred, Bill, and I have all stressed, liberal intellectuals denigrate the very virtues that Bryan elevated. Shame on them. But, unfortunately, the problem now goes beyond this matter of denigration. Historically, even Americans with few skills had a good shot at becoming part of the middle-working class by working hard. The willingness to sweat is no longer adequate to enable one to become one of Bryan’s noble common businessmen. Liberal intellectuals, too Piketty-prone to pay attention, would rather worry about gaps between the super rich and the rest of us than take on the more serious challenge of enabling those who didn’t finish or even start college find serious work to do, thereby becoming full-fledged citizens and maintaining their self-respect.

We can’t entirely blame liberals for this. The inexorable forces of artificial intelligence, robotics, and international competition are at work here. Somehow, the brains of our society must focus on how the common man/woman is to find work to do in the face of those constraints. Of course, better schools are part of the solution, but one should not expect too much from formal schooling. As all of us who succeeded in school know, the talent required to do so is not intelligence but zitsfleysh, sit-flesh, the capacity and willingness to sit still and concentrate. This is not easy. We were lucky to be forced to do so by our parents. In the not very brave new world of single parenting, drug abuse, and myriad other sources of child neglect, such tyrannical benevolence is in short supply. A serious effort to restore Bryan’s world of businessmen starts with a recognition of the integral connection between work and family life. The shibboleths of contemporary liberalism are poor guides for confronting the Zitsfleysh Crisis.