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.
Yet when those suffering hordes did try to better themselves, it wasn’t good enough for liberals, who could change their opinion on a dime, often depending on who was in office. If it was FDR and the communists who honeycombed his administration, then the people were strong and noble and forward-thinking. If it was Eisenhower, they were passive and dumb as cows. Siegel stirringly defends the 1950s, or at least the part of it wherein average people tried to improve themselves through access to high culture. Between 1940 and 1955 there was a 250 percent growth in local symphonies. In 1955, 35 million people paid to see classical music concerts. The New York Metropolitan Opera was on the radio, attracting 15 million listeners. An NBC broadcast of Richard III had an audience of 50 million. The arrival of the paperback book doubled sales. There was a Great Books group that had 25,000 members. One critic at the time noted that on a Sunday afternoon on television you could see Shakespeare, a discussion about art, a documentary on mental illness, and an interview with a prominent theologian like Paul Tillich.” Yep, the 50s certainly were a cultural Dark Ages.
The masses educating themselves was, of course, criticized by the left. People were enjoying high art — but with their anti-communism, they were also refusing to be led by their betters. So, of course, liberals, eye on utopia, shifted again. In the 1960s they embraced popular culture, but only if they could do so with a certain ironic distancing. Susan Sontag introduced “camp,” the idea that you could enjoy comic books, pop music and mass culture as long as you did it with a wink – as long as you get up your intellectual bona fides by a knowing awareness of the tawdriness of what you were enjoying. Siegel: “Susan Sontag had paved the way for arguing that what defined distinguished people was not the art they embraced but rather the manner in which they embraced it.”
As this was happening, liberals were also abandoning social science and the cult of the expert. In the 1960 the War on Poverty and Great Society programs had disastrous consequences. Yet liberals, who for decades had exalted science, the inevitability of history, and superior knowledge, suddenly had no use for statistics and hard facts. When Daniel Patrick Moynahan released his 1965 report on the catastrophic consequences of the collapse of the black family, he was pilloried by the left. As Siegel points out, the first neoconservatives were people who had been liberals but decided to keep paying attention to what the facts were telling them. Today, liberals are ironclad in their assertions about the reality of global warming — but don’t dare mention statistics about the correlation between crime and absent fathers. There will be no talk of ultrasound technology and abortion.
With the arrival of Ronald Reagan, and the subsequent Tea Party movements, American liberals, argues Siegel, have gone back to 1920s mode, but with a twist. Like Mencken, Bourne, Upton Sinclair, and George Bernard Shaw, today’s left is obsessed with containing and controlling the masses and forcing them to be ruled by their betters. It’s why there is such rage at the Tea Party, no to mention the Little Sisters of the Poor, who dare to resist the sexual revolution and Obama’s contraception mandate. Yet there is a twist: these same liberals now love popular culture, especially the parts of it that tweak (or twerk) bourgeois values. They have also, as Siegel notes, traded in their concept of a “universal consciousness” that needs to be elevated for the racial and gender identity politics of “gentry liberalism.” It’s not a hive mind that needs to be dragged into enlightenment; it’s a bunch of dumb rednecks who need to be forced to celebrate “diversity.” In either case, the goal is heaven on earth, and they will do anything to attain it.
Let me try and sum up by putting it this way: combine utopianism, snark, arrogance, selective defense of science — that is, defense of science when it agrees with your preformed prejudices — hostility to Western civilization, ignorance of American history, mockery of classical culture, the ability to shift sides to either defend or excoriate the masses depending on whether the people are for or against your unreasonable utopian demands (i.e. your “rights”), a Valley Girl singsong accent, and free-floating rage. Put it all together, have Obama recite an incantation over the stew, and you have a modern liberal. You have Rachel Maddow.
And as I said at the opening of this piece, I think Americans are all Rachel Maddows now. They willfully submit themselves to their betters, even if the best and brightest of those elites is a man with no experience and a proven record of lying. NSA wiretapping, drones, religious persecution — no matter, we have a black president. Not to mention Miley Cyrus and Oprah. Now if we can just eradicate that last opponent of gay marriage, or outlaw the Tea Party, or unplug Fox News, we can usher in that heaven on earth that Randolph Bourne and H.G. Wells prophesied.