Liberalism has been transformed in the last 35 years. When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, his victory was attributed in large part to the “Reagan Democrats,” conservative white ethnics who crossed party lines. Party affiliations were shifting, and in a way that has only grown more stark as middle-class Americans continued their exodus from the party of the Left. What was also shifting was the Democrats’ ideological concerns.
From a movement mounting a leftist critique of capitalist excess and sensitive to the plight of economic have-nots, liberalism has largely become a series of mannered cultural positions on behalf of capitalism’s winners, especially those in academic or government jobs or with close ties to the state. Since the 1980s, the Democratic party has become more the party of a lifestyle liberalism than the party of the working class that it was in its heyday, roughly the period from the 1920s through the late 1970s.
This new liberalism is the preserve of wealthy elites who oppose the economic and social values of the middle class. The small-government politics such values imply affront their sense of expertise and self-esteem. They therefore combine trust in a ruthless meritocracy — helpfully, one that places themselves at the top — with faith in big government.
Fred Siegel, a former editor of City Journal who is now scholar in residence at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, traces this transformation in his informative and well-researched new book, The Revolt against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class (Encounter Books, 225 pp., $23.99). He makes the important distinction between the Progressives of a century ago and present-day liberals. The former, he writes, are not the antecedents of the latter, as much as current proponents of liberalism would like to think they were.
[W]hile the Progressives and the founding fathers of liberalism shared a hostility to various groups — big-city political bosses, the immigrant masses, pharisaical plutocrats, and laggard legislatures — their sensibilities were fundamentally at odds. [H. G.] Wells and [Herbert] Croly sought transcendence; they looked to the creation of a new elite, a separate caste with the wisdom to lead society to social salvation by breaking with the conventions of middle-class Victorian morality. Progressivism, which embraced a conventional morality, sought social control over the unruly passions.
Progressives, for all their faults in retrospect, were at least recognizable within the American mainstream. Their goals were to harmonize industrialism and immigration with standard American practices. Liberals, however, are something else. Wells, although now best known as a science-fiction author, was equally famous in his own time for crusading against traditional morality and society; his works provided the blueprint for “liberated” opinion. Croly, editor of The New Republic, provided the faith in a government run by experts. Siegel sees in them the genesis of liberalism.
In fact, as Siegel persuasively shows, modern liberalism broke with Progressivism, and its obsessions with economic redistribution and cultural politics constitute an adversarial position intentionally taken. The First World War had destroyed the bond between liberals and Progressives, and liberals went on to form a new consensus based on a hatred of compulsion. This could have good results — for example, some of the expanded protections of the First Amendment — but this promising liberalism curdled. For it was combined with a hatred of what was seen as a repressive Middle America. Liberals in fact blamed what Mencken called the “booboisie” for the failure of enlightened politics. These benighted folk needed to be educated, through politics, government programs, and the larger culture, into the correct line of thought. This snobbery has dogged liberalism ever since; liberals prefer dependents to engaged citizens.
This antipathy explains a lot of today’s liberal politics. Liberals strongly objected to the surveillance policies of President George W. Bush, for example, but were fine with those of President Obama. Liberals even failed to object to President Obama’s use of the Wilson-era Espionage Act to punish journalists. As Siegel notes, “Then as now liberalism can swivel from anti-authoritarian to authoritarian modes depending on who is dispensing the rules.” Of course, even this antipathy is disingenuous. As Siegel and others have noted, upper-class elites preach the values of unlimited autonomy but actually live lives more similar to those of the middle class they disdain. But they treat these values as their private preserve, even as the poor whom they profess to care about suffer the consequences of their ideology. Thus their embrace of non-traditional families, which became so numerous as a result of the social revolutions of the 1960s, has contributed to family breakdown throughout society. Their enthusiasm for open borders affects them less than it does those who work at jobs that do not require an advanced degree and have nothing to do with journalism or politics.
Siegel’s book is an obituary for a once-important tradition of thought. But his point extends beyond the Democrats. Lifestyle liberalism is prevalent not only among the Democrats, although it has found its most fixed home there. Although the Republicans pay rhetorical heed to middle-class values, most Republican politicians have become just as much attuned to big government and elitism as the Democrats have. The devotion to an abstract free market, for example, would have had little appeal to small-town businessmen of a century ago, and the close relationship between big business and government is a far cry from traditional Republican politics.
Rather than the European-style welfare state Siegel believes liberals intend, what is more likely is a Third World–style system of a thin elite layer on top, supported by a bloated underclass, with a shrinking middle as the object of the anger of both. Revolt against the Masses helps explain how we got here.
— Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman; he is working on a book on contemporary conservatism.