- - Monday, February 17, 2014


By Fred Siegel

Encounter Books, $23.99, 240 pages

American liberalism has long been a source of fascination, especially for liberals themselves. Because its history has been the subject of countless books, one might think that there is little left to say on the subject. Yet Fred Siegel’s rich new history of liberalism, “The Revolt Against the Masses,” makes an original argument and offers sparkling insights — albeit insights many liberals will be loath to hear — in pungent and pugnacious prose.

Histories of liberalism have become potted. They begin in the Progressive Era (1900-1916) and then quickly move to the New Deal in the 1930s, hit the high points of the civil rights movement and the Great Society of the 1960s, skirt over the problems of the 1970s and 1980s, and then focus on how liberalism can regain the dominance it deserves today. The focus is usually on the economic dimension and how the American welfare state was constructed to aid the downtrodden.

In contrast, Mr. Siegel locates the origin of liberalism in the overlooked 1920s and focuses on liberalism’s cultural proclivities. He finds a welter of evidence that liberals have been scorned by the middle class. In short, claims that America was a “sick society” and calls for a cultural revolution long predate the 1960s.

Analyzing writers such as Randolf Bourne, H.L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, Van Wyck Brooks and H.G. Wells, Mr. Siegel argues that liberalism had its origins in an aesthetic reaction against common-man capitalism and mass culture, which were said to produce a consumerist dystopia ripe for the emergence of fascism. He distills liberalism’s mental ticks, emotional impulses and sentimental attachments, and he traces them through Dwight McDonald, Susan Sontag and other critics up to the present.

Liberal thinkers have often seen the middle class — or the “booboisie” in Mencken’s coinage — as a bunch of vulgar, vapid and provincial philistines. They were responsible for “racism at home, imperialism abroad, repression in the bedroom” and indifference to art and learning. The situation was so dire that it required nothing less than scientific experts freed from constitutional strictures to run the government and the elevation of intellectuals and artists to the status of a new cultural clerisy.

Only then could the smart set be sufficiently appreciated by their inferiors and freed to lead eccentric lives shorn of stale Victorian values and the “blind, compressing forces of conventionality” represented by Sinclair Lewis’ fictional character George Babbitt. As a 1932 manifesto signed by a who’s who of the then-liberal intelligentsia, put it, “we too, the intellectual workers, are of the oppressed.”

In addition, with a new cadre of scientist-poets at the helm, the common man would be liberated from his grasping materialism and benighted bourgeois stupor. Only this new “aristocracy of thought and feeling” (Wells), could save America from its “appalling slovenliness” (Bourne) and lead it to a more refined stage of civilization (McDonald). Over the past century, liberals have often been caught saying some variant of “oppression by the right people brings liberty,” as Lionel Trilling put it.

The alternative to liberal control would be the emergence of fascism from the ranks of the small-town middle class. This thesis was given its most colorful expression by Lewis, who warned that an American fascism would grow out of the small-town conformity found at the Rotary Club. This specter has been the constant refrain of liberals ever since. Its most recent vintage was aired during the presidency of George W. Bush.

The cultural problem for liberals, according to Mr. Siegel, is that their approach has too often devolved into “sanctimony, self-interest and social connections.” Whatever one calls them — parlor socialists, penthouse Bolsheviks, limousine liberals or the radical chic — the type stays true to form. Today, liberals tend to live conventional lives while expressing a knowing superiority and “ironic smugness.” Just think of food co-ops in Brooklyn.

Nonetheless, Mr. Siegel is reluctant to abandon liberalism altogether. He agrees with President Truman, who once quipped: “There should be a real liberal party in this country, and I don’t mean a crackpot professional one.”

Indeed, Mr. Siegel finds flashes of what a healthy liberalism in tune with the realities of American culture might look like. He praises thinkers such as Bernard DeVoto, Eric Hoeffer and the “vital center” writers of the 1950s.

What Mr. Siegel prizes is a liberalism underwritten by an urbane temper that is skeptical of radicalism and tough enough to stand its ground against the excesses of communism, black nationalism, environmentalism, multiculturalism and public-sector unionism. It would be a liberalism wedded to constitutional democracy that supports middle-class economic striving. It would be a liberalism sensitive to the great elements of the Western tradition and interested in the preservation of bourgeois virtue and conventional family values.

Ultimately, Mr. Siegel laments the contempt and hostility so many liberals have shown over the past century toward so many of their fellow countrymen who are neither among the right-thinking wealthy nor poor enough to evoke their pity.

Daniel DiSalvo is an assistant professor of political science in the Colin Powell School at the City College of New York-CUNY. He is the author of “Engines of Change: Party Factions in American Politics” (Oxford, 2012).

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