A New History of Liberalism

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), February 18, 2014 | Go to article overview

A New History of Liberalism


Byline: Daniel DiSalvo Special to The Washington Times

THE REVOLT AGAINST THE MASSES: HOW LIBERALISM HAS UNDERMINED THE MIDDLE CLASS

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. …

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