Fred Siegel’s new book, Revolt Against the Masses, presents the story of a group of liberal elites who felt marginalized, bored, and under-appreciated by the broad run of America’s business groups, civic organizations, and religious traditions. These technocratic and resentful social critics imagined an America in which they would be the ruling classor the prophets of a ruling class. The chief obstacle to their dreams was what they saw as a grubby and self-satisfied middle-class. They wanted to redeem American life, but often despised an American public that did not give them the obedience and recognition to which they felt entitled. Though Siegel perhaps underestimates the adaptability of the descendants of these liberal social critics, he also directs us to the political weaknesses of their worldview that persist even in the age of Obama.
Much of Siegel’s story will be familiar to readers of the Claremont Review of Books and the West Coast Straussian school’s interpretation of progressivism. It is the same story of American progressive infatuation with German philosophy and European statism. New Republic co-founder Herbert Croly and company reject the natural rights thinking of the Founders and put their faith in historical progress as interpreted by left-intellectuals and guided by a centralized, technocratic governing class.
What Siegel adds to this story is a description of how the literary liberals were estranged not only from the philosophy of the founders but from the rhythms of Tocquevillian associational life. In the final chapter of his classic The Promise of American Life, Croly decries how the individual in a commercial society is dependent on his customers and fellows. Croly had contempt for the kind of character created by a life in business, which he believed stunted personality by the relentless pursuit of money. Sinclair Lewis plainly could not stand the voluntary associations that Tocqueville celebrated but that he believed to be dens of self-congratulation by his social, moral, and intellectual inferiors. True freedom would arise with liberation from commercial restraints and the erosion of overlapping responsibilities to churches and other civic associations. The true individuality was that of Obama’s Juliawho was only (though constantly) dependent on government, but otherwise responsible for no one else and to no one else.
Many liberal intellectuals felt a largely aesthetic disdain for middle-class and small-town Americans, and Siegel has a knack for the telling quotation. He quotes New Republic writer and social critic Randolph Bourne describing the mass of urban Americans as “without taste, without standards but those of the mob.” Similarly, we hear the heroine of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street describing Americans as “a savorless people, gulping tasteless food and sitting afterward, coatless and thoughtless, in rocking-chairs prickly with inane decorations . . .” The sentence continues, but you get the idea. And Lewis’s opinion mattered. As Siegel notes, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (the semi-official court historian of the Democratic party in the second half of the 1900s) wrote that Sinclair Lewis’s novels “fixed the image of America, not just of the intellectuals of his own generation, but for the world in the next half century.”
We hear echoes in today’s liberalism. Michelle Obama bragged that her husband could have gone to Wall Street but instead chose the morally elevated life of . . . Chicago politics? There is the same technocracy as Obama explains how his administration needs to “bet” on what businesses will succeed while insuring that other industries are driven into bankruptcy. There is the same contempt for associational freedom when that freedom conflicts with the advanced priorities of progressive thinkers. This has given us the crowning absurdity of a former community organizer forcing the Little Sisters of the Poor to choose between caring for dying poor women and violating the consciences by being forced to contract to provide birth control.
Siegel demonstrates that this contempt for recalcitrant Americans is a recurring (though not always prominent) feature of American liberal intellectuals when they feel denied their rightful place. The content of the charges levied against the people change. In the 1920s the people were mesmerized and deadened by prosperity and gadgets. The Americans of the 1950s were outwardly conformists but inwardly seething with resentment and paranoia. The various charges of the 1960s left are still familiar.
But Siegel also shows how this estrangement can be a source of strength. The liberal estrangement from what they saw as a corrupt mainstream made those liberals more likely to cultivate allies among marginalized groups. Siegel writes that this made liberals more likely to (rightly) prioritize justice for African-Americans and other groups, but this concern for the marginalized also had a political effect. It made it so that liberals were better able to speak to rising demographic groups even as conservatives were getting more and more comfortable talking to an ever-shrinking fraction of the population.
Siegel never satisfactorily explains how American liberals can, on occasion, successfully present themselves as the defenders of the middle-class they sometimes condemn. He presents Obama as “the incarnation of modern liberalism’s antipathy to conventional middle-class America.” There is something to that. Obama famously described small-town Americans who did not adopt liberal politics as “bitter” people who cling to guns, religion, and anti-immigrant sentiment to deal with problems they do not understand. That was a truly epic Kinsly gaffe.
And yet somehow, after four years of the Obama administration, 44 percent of voters responded that President Obama’s policies would primarily benefit the middle-class. That is less than a majority, but only 34 percent of voters responded that Mitt Romney’s policies would primarily benefit the middle-class. Literary liberalism indeed can speak in accents other than self-regarding elitism. Obama came to national attention in a speech where he extolled the basic decency of his fellow countrymen in both the red and the blue states. Obama spoke not with the contempt of Sinclair Lewis, but with the patriotic solidarity counseled by Richard Rorty.
But if Revolt of the Masses is imperfect at describing the political strengths of modern liberalism, the basic political weaknesses identified by Siegel continue to fester. Siegel repeatedly calls liberal intellectuals a “clerisy” and there is something to that description, but they are also a clerisy whose holy text is their consensus of the moment. When a critical mass decides that something is a moral imperative, there is the expectation that all decent people must follow alongpreferably in respectful silence.
This liberal elite instinct for contempt has not disappeared. It has simply been (temporarily) redirected. When many in the white working-classes found liberals wrong on abortion and unresponsive to their concerns about rising crime and rising taxes, the problem was with the working-class whites who were selfish bigots. As Douglas Massey put it, “liberal elites treated lower-class opponents as racist obstructionists to be squelched by the power of government.” The old prejudices against business and the middle-class have been restricted by race and age to white voters (especially older white voters) who have the temerity to vote Republican and occasionally show up at a Tea Party rally. This allows liberal intellectuals to take defeats in mid-term elections and red states in stride. Those aren’t elections the real masses are voting in. The opposition will soon die off and liberal intellectuals will finally have the unchallenged power that they have always deserved.
But eventually, one way or another, large segments of the rising electorate will find themselves out of sync with our liberal intellectuals, and those intellectuals will feel terribly let down. When our liberal intellectuals find themselves once again unambiguously on the other side of many voters they had assumed were their natural allies, we will see another revolt against the masses. And the sooner, the better.