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The elitist roots of American liberalism

Photo of Mark Judge
Mark Judge
Author, A Tremor of Bliss

It’s not that liberals are utopians. Every society throughout history has had those. It’s not that they are convinced that Ivy League experts can bring heaven on earth if the masses just get out of the way — or are forcibly removed. Every civilization has its elites who think that they know best.

It’s that the left have convinced a majority of Americans to become utopians also. That’s the tragedy I took from The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class, the new book by Fred Siegel. Siegel is an erudite and often brilliant scholar at the Manhattan Institute. His new book is a fascinating look at the recent history, and the many, many contradictions, of American liberalism.

Siegel is a compelling and very learned journalist — think William F. Buckley — and what he reveals about liberalism goes much deeper than the usual conservative indictments. It can also get complicated. Here is my distillation of the argument:

Modern liberalism did not begin with the New Deal. It actually started in the bohemian parlors of New York, particularly Greenwich Village, in the late 19th century. Artists like H.G. Wells and Randolph Bourne, as Siegel puts it, “had a quarrel with the industry, immigration, and economic growth that produced unprecedented prosperity in the United States. They recoiled at what they saw as the ugly bustling cacophony of the urban masses loudly staking their claim to capitalism’s bounty.” Liberals were offended by the masses just as they were enthralled by H.G. Wells, the New Republic and its co-founder Herbert Croly, the pro-elitist novel The Education of Henry Adams, and Randolph Bourne, an ur-hippie and “the first prophet of the youth culture.” Bourne, like the others, wanted to raise the masses to a new consciousness: “we are feeling for a complete social consciousness which must eventually raise the whole world to a kingdom of Heaven.”

This liberals though they had found their savior in Woodrow Wilson, who became president in 1913. Wilson was a leader of the Progressive Movement, but in The Revolt Against the Masses Siegel goes to great length to explain that progressivism was different from liberalism. Progressivism was bipartisan and about moral uplift, and often had what it thought was best for the masses in mind. Liberalism, on the other hand, was savagely hostile to the masses — 1920s journalist and cultural influencer H.L. Mencken hated prohibition, progressivism’s greatest triumph, almost as much as he did average Americans, whom he termed “the Booboisie.” With Wilson’s red scare, suppression of civil liberties, and entry into World War I, the president lost a lot of progressives, and further enraged liberals. Many of them, like Mencken and Randolph Bourne, were pro-Germany, seeing it as a country run by a powerful elite who decided what was best for the people.

This desire to be ruled was, of course, continued by Western communists after the Russian Revolution. George Bernard Shaw, Lincoln Stephens, Upton Sinclair, author of the America-bashing novel Main Street, New Republic editor Waldo Frank — all of these people embraced Soviet totalitarianism. And here is where Siegel begins to document the core hypocrisy of liberalism, its ability to shift positions and change philosophy in its thirst for utopia. Whereas the left once looked down on the masses, after the Russian Revolution things changed. Siegel: “The same people described as ‘philistine hordes’ by Frank and other writers in the 1920s were redeemed, now that they had become suffering supplicants suitable for moulding by their betters.” Liberals also claimed that they merely wanted to improve the lives of people. They claimed to have history, science, sociology, and psychology all on their side.