For those who grew up on the history of liberalism and liberal thought in America as it appeared in the writings of such historians as Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Richard Hofstadter, and Louis Hartz, historian Fred Siegel’s The Revolt against the Masses will come as something of a shock. The old consensus, as Hartz argued, was that the American ideology was that of liberalism, and the arguments to the left and to the right of liberalism were heard only on the fringes. For these liberals, the United States might shift at times too far in one direction toward the fringe, but wise liberals of the center would keep it under control, and there would always be a movement to a progressive future, in which advanced liberal thinkers would present ideas and policies that would pave the way to a more just social order.
The group that started what we today call liberalism were major intellectuals who emerged as popular writers in the period of the disillusionment that followed World War I. It included Herbert Croly, founding editor of The New Republic and author of the bestselling book The Promise of American Life; the anti-war activist Randolph Bourne; the British writer H. G. Wells; the novelist Sinclair Lewis, who made the name “Babbitt” synonymous with the image of the boring middle-class businessman; and H. L. Mencken, whom Siegel treats not just as a witty popular journalist but as a writer enamored of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany as a model for the West’s future. His discussion of this group forms the heart of his book, and is a tour de force of reinterpretation of their pioneering role in the forging of liberal ideology.