The revolt against the masses
Fred Siegel on the long history of liberal elitism.
Fred Siegel has New York in his bones. He grew up there, lives in Brooklyn, and even played a part, as an adviser, in the election of Rudy Giuliani as mayor of New York in 1993. His writing, too, long focused on urban politics, from The Future Once Happened Here: New York, DC, LA, and the Fate of America’s Big Cities (1997), to The Prince of the City: Giuliani, New York, and the Genius of American Life (2005).
But his 2014 book, The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class, worked on a far broader canvas. Indeed, it was nothing less than an attempt to rewrite the history of American liberalism. He recast liberalism, long seen as the product of the New Deal and Progressivism, as the product of an intense postwar disillusionment with American mainstream society. So liberalism, from that moment, was seeded with a strong elitist sentiment, a sentiment that easily turned into distaste for the masses: a distaste for their economic aspirations; a distaste for their political proclivities; and a distaste for the ‘culture industry’, which was said to hold them in thrall. It was a powerful narrative. The Revolt captured the emergence and triumph of something like a liberal clerisy – an elite that ruled American political life while wilfully estranging many Americans in the process.
But that was 2014, and a lot has happened since then. So Sean Collins decided to catch up with Siegel, who is also a journalist, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and a scholar in residence at St Francis College in Brooklyn, and find out what he makes of the state of American liberalism today, shocked as its proponents seem to be by Trump, and what appears to be a revolt of the masses.
Sean Collins: In Revolt Against the Masses you write that certain features of liberalism today – including looking down at the masses, scepticism towards democracy and a questioning of the merits of the American way of life – have been ‘an integral and enduring element of American liberalism’ since the 1920s. Many today will acknowledge that liberals have a problem with working-class support, and they are not all that keen on democracy when it produces a ‘wrong’ result (like Trump). But people might be surprised to learn from your book that these aspects of liberalism have a long history. Why do you think this anti-masses and anti-democratic strain – which you see as a feature, not a bug of liberalism – is so essential to defining liberalism?
Fred Siegel: People assume that modern American liberalism begins with the New Deal. Or sometimes they say it begins with Woodrow Wilson’s wartime governance. Neither is true. Liberalism begins as a reaction, from a sense among liberals that they have been betrayed by Wilson. People who called themselves progressives would end up calling themselves liberals because they see Wilson’s wartime behaviour, in which he allowed anti-war opinion to be mercilessly suppressed, as contrary to their beliefs. The initial creation of liberalism comes with the creation of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) in 1920. This, to me, places liberals on the side of the angels.
But then a second element emerges in the formation of liberalism, and that’s the role of HL Mencken. People are stunned to learn that Mencken was the most important liberal of the 1920s. It’s not that Mencken defined himself as a liberal, but he became the hero of college students and others who called themselves liberal. Liberal thinkers had nothing but praise for Mencken in the 1920s (however, by the 1930s, when Mencken opposed Roosevelt, he was attacked by liberals). The key point taken from Mencken is his view of the masses as stupid, as the ‘Booboisie’. Liberalism becomes more than anything else defined by hostility to the middle class, and that includes small-business people as well as the working class. When the 1930s come, the masses are redeemed temporarily in the eyes of liberals, because they are now in good hands, they are in the hands of approved left-wingers like FDR, and therefore not as problematic. But by the late 1940s and early 1950s, the middle class is back in ill-repute among liberals.
This is not terribly consequential until we get to the Kennedy period, when liberalism goes off the rails intellectually. It has been politically successful, or has appeared successful as in the case of Obama, but intellectually it never righted itself.
Collins: Yes, as you note in your book, the liberal view of the middle class shifts in the 1930s. Liberals view the middle class in noble and romantic terms, but they are not really grappling with the reality of their lives. Simultaneously, liberals see Hitler rising and, with the prominence of populists like Huey Long and Father Coughlin in US, start worrying about the masses, believing that the grounds for fascism exist here in the US as well.
Siegel: In addition to Mencken, the most influential thinker (who was not much of a thinker) was the novelist Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Main Street hits liberal America like a bombshell. Here is guy who lays out the philistinism of America. What’s needed, say Mencken and Lewis, is an American elite (in the case of Mencken it’s explicitly an aristocracy) to redeem America from its philistine ways. It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis’ book about how fascism supposedly comes to America, is still reprinted today. It’s almost a century old, and it’s reprinted again and again and again. The last edition I saw, from the 1990s, has an introduction that talks about the coming of fascism. It’s always coming and never arriving.
Collins: How important do you think the New Left and 1960s/early 1970s liberalism was for the character of the liberalism we see today, in particular identity politics? I was struck by how you described the 1960s movement as directed against the social-solidarity heritage of the New Deal. In the name of fighting racism, sexism and so on, liberals seemed to blame the unenlightened masses, including, in some cases, unionised workers, for social problems. Then, as you write, the workers reciprocate the animosity and start to leave the Democratic Party. Your narrative certainly goes against the typical story of liberalism’s unbroken continuity with the New Deal.
Siegel: There’s very little of what we think of today as identity politics that wasn’t there in embryonic form in 1972. Senator George McGovern, who I knew personally at the time, wrote the rules for the 1972 Democratic Party National Convention, which divided the delegates up by identity – by blacks, Hispanics, women, etc. And so the fragmentation into voting blocs is already there in 1972. The story of how identity politics captures more and more of the Democratic Party is the story of modern American politics since the 1970s.
Collins: You write that liberalism reached its political apex with the election of Obama. How so?
Siegel: Obama was a child of the 1960s. He represented the institutionalisation of a liberalism that had gone off the rails – and he further pushed it off the rails. When I listen to people tell me there were no scandals in the Obama administration, I tell them they’re right, and that’s because the mainstream media enlisted in the Obama campaign and the White House, and never reported on them. There were scandals at the Internal Revenue Service (Lois Lerner, the former head of the IRS, who, in the manner of Nixon, used the IRS to constrain Obama’s enemies during the 2012 election); and at the Department of Veterans Affairs, where people genuinely died because of its breakdown. Under Obama the Navy wasn’t replenished, leaving the Chinese free to create as many artificial islands as they like in the South China Seas.
I always ask people: where did the Obama administration succeed in foreign affairs? People sometimes say ‘the Iran deal’. But half a million people died in Syria! When I say that, people go quiet.
Collins: One of the continuing themes from liberalism is the notion of an elite that knows better than the people, and over time there is a tendency to create a government built on technocracy. That seems to have been the case under Obama. For example, think about the Byzantine structure of Obamacare, and its architect, Jonathan Gruber, who famously referred to ‘the stupidity of the American voter’.
Siegel: The idea that you can create greater efficiencies in healthcare may or may not be true. But it couldn’t be done in the top-down way Obama or Jonathan Gruber wanted to do it. Gruber’s idea was that the country was a bunch of boobs, and we at Harvard know how to make things work. As it happened, when Harvard faculty were faced with the cost of Obamacare, they flipped out. But the boobs were already opposed to Obamacare before Harvard was. By 2010, they voted overwhelmingly against the Democrats because they figured out that Obamacare was a transfer of money from the middle class to the subsidised poor and illegal immigrants. So this idea that Gruber and others could fool the country was entirely mistaken.
Collins: Did you see continuity between Obama and Hillary Clinton’s campaign? If you were trying to make a case that your thesis about the liberal hostility towards the middle class remains relevant, Hillary’s comment about the ‘irredeemable deplorables’ would seem to be Exhibit A.
Siegel: Yes, you’re absolutely right. But there were also specific problems with Hillary’s campaign. I worked for the Democratic Leadership Council in the 1990s. I got to spend a fair amount of time around the Clintons. Hillary Clinton is intelligent, in the way that thousands of people we know are intelligent. Bill Clinton is a whole other matter: he’s just fantastically bright. Bill Clinton tried to tell the Hillary campaign that the upper Midwest was where the election was going to be won. The Hillary people decided that Big Data was key to the election, key to political strategy, and their data maps told them they didn’t need to campaign in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin or Michigan. That’s where they lost the election. So, this was a kind of revenge against the technocrats. They made fools of themselves.
I didn’t think Trump would win, but I saw him coming. Like many others, I find Trump’s vulgarity offensive. But he moved into the office with a lot of low-hanging fruit available. This past weekend I spent time with cousins, terrific people. But also strong supporters of Obama. When we talked, they said the economy was doing well, and that’s all Obama’s doing, he created all of this. What I didn’t say to them was, Obama and the people around him said two per cent growth was the new normal. Nothing more could be done. Okay, you want to take credit for it now, but you have to explain how this is happening if two per cent is the new normal. But you can only say so much in that situation. California is loopy, what can I tell you.
Let me tell you about what happened at a party in California I went to on New Year’s Eve. A lot of interesting, nice people were there. They asked me what I’m interested in, blah, blah, blah, and I would tell them, ‘You know, I’m in favour of California resisting Trump. And more than that, I want California to secede.’ And they look at me like I’m crazy. They say, ‘Why would you, a guy from Brooklyn, want us to secede?’. ‘Well’, I say, ‘you are definitely, I think we can all see, smarter and more virtuous than the rest of the country. You should be the people to take on Kim Jong Un.’ When I say that, people literally slink away.
In New York, you can at least talk to people. But in California you can’t. Like last year, when I tried to talk to people about the high rate of poverty in California, people would denounce me, shouting at me at the dinner table, ‘No, you’re lying, that’s not true’. They do not discuss it, politics is off the table. Trump’s villainy is simply beyond debate.
Coming from New York, I am used to people being hostile to Trump. Feel free, I say, I didn’t vote for him (I didn’t vote for anyone for president). What strikes me about California is how people (including some I have been friends with for 40 years), who previously had no interest in politics whatsoever, have now declared themselves part of the ‘Resistance’. They don’t understand the difference between resistance as if they were in wartime France and opposition, where you’re trying to manoeuvre politically the best you can under specific circumstances.
Collins: Going back to The Revolt for a moment, the writers you focus on in the 20th century – Mencken, Lewis and others – were not simply criticising politics, but culture, too. They objected to the American way of life as a vision of the future, and some also rejected the aspiration behind the American Dream and viewed the middle class as dupes for believing in it. They saw America as crass and overly commercial. Do you see expressions of that cultural rejection in the liberal outlook today?
Siegel: There is no question. Two of the thinkers who are most significant here are Randolph Bourne and Herbert Croly. Croly is the man who founded the New Republic with the help of a New York financier. The New Republic creates modern liberalism. After the First World War, the writers around the New Republic come centre stage. The most important of them is Bourne, an extraordinarily brilliant guy who unfortunately dies at a young age. He argues against the notion of a melting pot. He wants America broken up into ethnic groups, and he sees this as very progressive.
This is 100 years ago. None of this is entirely new. What’s new is how it has come to fruition. If you speak to people on a college campus today, you simply get these ideas presented to you as if they are newly minted.
Collins: The first half or so of The Revolt centres on the intellectual/cultural roots of liberalism, but the second is more focused on liberal politics and policy. Was that because, in the 1920s, intellectuals were working against the grain, they were trying to formulate an emerging sentiment in opposition, whereas today, intellectuals are at ease with the liberal political agenda? It could be said that many American intellectuals today are not opposing the powers-that-be, because they are members of the powers-that-be.
Siegel: That’s a good point. I would make one exception to what you said, though. That’s the 1950s. In the chapters on the 1950s, I make the point that the whole idea that American life was characterised by conformity and mediocrity was just nonsense. The 1950s were the high point of American popular culture, when most people are listening to symphonies and buying thoughtful books. It’s an extraordinary period of intellectual life among the middle class. I am a child of the 1950s, and the people I grew up around all had wonderful paperbacks. They would read Thomas Mann and Andre Schwarz-Bart (The Last of the Just). The idea that people were just marching along like penguins was just bizarre.
Collins: Do you think the liberal elite today see themselves self-consciously as the ruling class of one nation, as Americans primarily, or do you think they see themselves as distinct from other Americans, maybe feeling they have more in common with the global elite? Are they almost embarrassed by their own society?
Siegel: Very much so. Something happens in the 1990s. The elites of Washington, New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles meld together. Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Washington and Wall Street all come together, and for the first time you have something like the British establishment. The British establishment could organise itself more easily because it was centred on London. For decades the American elite was divided among different coastal cities, plus the ‘third coast’ of Chicago, and it wasn’t until space collapses due to technology that you have the creation of this unified American elite. That unified elite is overwhelmingly liberal. Three hundred people who work for Google were part of the Obama administration at one time or another.
So this elite comes together, it looks across the Atlantic, it looks across the Pacific, but it doesn’t look at the heartland. The rest of the country recognises that. Whatever you want to say about Trump, he was the only candidate in either party who recognised that globalisation and immigration are the burning issues for much of America. One of the things he talked about early in the campaign, which was largely set aside, was the enormous mistake of allowing China into the World Trade Organisation in 2001. President Clinton pushed for this, President George W Bush pushed for this, and I supported it at the time. In retrospect it was an enormous mistake. If you draw a map of the places where jobs were lost due to competition from China, and look at the areas of Trump support, there’s a tremendous overlap.
Collins: In the past, Republican presidential candidates would use liberalism’s anti-middle-class tendencies as a foil – I’m thinking of Nixon and Reagan in particular. A good portion of Trump’s support, I believe, was down to his ability to draw a sharp contrast between himself and Hillary Clinton’s brand of liberalism. How would you compare Trump with other explicitly anti-liberal presidents?
Siegel: I think Trump is better compared with Nixon than with Reagan. Reagan was a free-trader, he had ideas about immigration that Trump wouldn’t agree with. But the hard edge of Nixon in denouncing George McGovern, with McGovern said to be representing ‘acid, amnesty and abortion’, that’s something you could hear from Trump. The elements of what we think of as Trumpism were coming for a long time. They were there in the 1992 Perot campaign, where he campaigned against free trade. I was working for the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) at the time, and I remember watching Al Gore, who was at one time the head of the DLC, debating Perot. In retrospect, Perot scored serious points (I don’t think either man was entirely correct, as is often the case in a debate). But it was interesting, it was a reasoned debate, and I haven’t heard reasoned debates over trade and immigration in recent years. People don’t debate, they exclude, especially the liberal-left. They cut people off, rather than debating them. The recent events at Evergreen College are an extreme example of that.
Identity politics has risen twice in this country. It rose to an apex in the early 1990s, but then it was diminished by a series of scandals. Some people may remember the Sokal hoax. Alan Sokal was a physicist who wrote an article for a postmodern magazine called Social Text, in which he claimed to prove that gravity was a social construction. And the magazine published it! It was obviously a parody.
But then identity politics fades. Bill Clinton is a moderating influence – he creates a broad coalition that sidelines an identity-based approach. But then Bush’s decisions in the Iraq War revive the left, and it slowly begins to gain force, until it rises again with Howard Dean, even before Obama. Howard Dean was a white male version of Obama. He barely considers Republicans human (even though – or maybe because – his father was a famous Republican fundraiser on Wall Street).
Collins: How do you view the liberal response to Trump’s election? You wrote in The Revolt that, ‘Liberalism is sufficiently adaptable, that even in failure, self-satisfaction trumps self-evaluation’. That sounds to me like a pretty good description of the past year. Liberals have struggled to come to terms with Trump, and to take responsibility for their losses – not just the presidency, but in both houses of Congress and in state governments.
Siegel: Liberalism has taken on a religious aspect. It’s a belief system, and not a system that represents political interests. Liberalism is seen as a source of grace, in religious terms. It is hard to talk to people, when you are effectively suggesting they are not among the blessed (or, to use Thomas Sowell’s phrase, the ‘anointed’), that they are in fact mistaken. Trump is wrong about many things, but you can argue with Trumpism. But it is very hard to argue with contemporary liberalism, especially in its West Coast incarnation.
Collins: Yes, I am surprised how very few liberals were willing to engage in self-criticism after the election, not even to try to understand why they have been losing in recent years.
Siegel: On the contrary, liberals’ idea is to push forward. One of the elements of liberalism is environmentalism. Now, environmentalism has its virtues. The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts under Nixon (interestingly enough) were great successes. But over the years environmental regulations cost more and more money for less and less in return. Environmentalism is increasingly a way to undercut the middle class – and in that sense it fits perfectly within liberalism. As one writer has pointed out, the environmentalists in Oregon have undercut the jobs traditionally filled by less-educated white males – ranching, lumber, fishing. These industries have been essentially regulated out of existence. It’s hard to see how that population can vote for Democrats in large numbers down the road.
What happened in coal country is interesting. Hillary foolishly said she wanted to shut down the coal industry, then she changed her mind. When I tell people that the US coal industry is thriving, in part because of exports to China, they look at me like I’m crazy. How can I say that? It’s officially dead, case closed. Then I say, ‘You do know that the Germans, who in their self-righteousness closed down their nuclear industry and moved away from coal, are now importing American wood blocks to heat themselves – which has a terrible effect on CO2 emissions?’.
Or, when you tell them that Trumpism is not peculiar to America. In the Czech Republic, in Hungary, in Poland, in the Baltic states – you have variations on Trump. Liberals are incredulous. First of all, they don’t pay much attention to Europe, which I think is unfortunate. Second, the idea that there is something larger at play, that it’s not all about Trump’s venality, is inconceivable for many American liberals. When I was a kid, to be liberal was to be open-minded and highly educated. Liberalism doesn’t represent that today. It represents a secular version of baptism.
Collins: Yes, this new populism, or whatever we might call it, takes different forms in different countries, and influences the mainstream parties as well.
Siegel: Even Macron in France has moved towards Trumpian positions. He has talked to people in West Africa about the need to constrain their population growth. Not very liberal. Macron will be the subject of the first state dinner at the White House. Macron is one of the few foreign leaders Trump has a certain rapport with. So even Macron, who is supposed to be anti-Trump, has been forced to move in his direction, because globalisation creates pressures we haven’t seen since 1914.
Collins: You write in the book how, at different times, the liberal elites express fears that the masses are going to turn to right-wing populism or fascism. We talked about Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here. Do you see any similarities in today’s liberal response to Trump, viewing the Trump voter as problematic?
Siegel: The continuity is quite stunning. The same arguments, the same dispositions. But the difference today is the geographic dimension, and the number of people who are part of the liberal axis. Liberals have created a top and bottom alliance: the upper middle class, much of the well-to-do, and the subsidised poor and immigrants, legal and illegal, are all pulled into liberalism. In places like New York and California, this is a very powerful coalition. It’s interesting that when people say that Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary, which he did, what’s not noted is that the entire popular vote loss came from two places – New York City and Los Angeles.
Collins: Where do you see American liberalism heading in the near future?
Siegel: A lot will depend on events. First we have to see what happens with the 2018 midterm elections. The party of first-term presidents usually does terribly in the first midterm election – Obama lost 62 seats in 2010. So it’s entirely possible that the Democrats could take control of Congress. Trump’s tax plans alone have imperilled Republicans in high-tax states like New York and California. But if the economy holds up in 2020, it’s going to be very hard for Democrats to defeat Trump. Who’s going to run against him? Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker – it’s hard for me to see any of them being particularly strong. The strongest candidate really is Oprah Winfrey.
Collins: Do you think the Democrats would be best to continue their current course, emphasising Trump’s supposed collusion with Russians, or seeking repentance and offering policies for the working and middle class?
Siegel: Democrats are certainly capable of doing so rhetorically. Hillary Clinton talked about the middle class incessantly. But since voters aren’t as stupid as political consultants think they are, they knew full well in Kentucky and West Virginia that what she first said about coal is what she meant.
A lot will depend on how many times Trump steps in it again – he’s very good at stepping on his own lines. If Democrats score some victories in 2018, will they overplay their hand? At the same time, a lot can happen. Will there be a war with North Korea? Does Corbyn become the British prime minister and pull out of NATO? What happens if the Merkel coalition falls apart? Suppose Trump steps down and gives way to Pence?
Collins: Did you see any overlap between Bernie Sanders and Trump? Some speculated that they were competing for the same voters. Or was Sanders just a throwback to old-fashioned liberalism?
Siegel: Millennials who are so crazy about Corbyn and Sanders are the dumbest generation. They know nothing. History began the day they were born. The collapse of our educational system has political consequences. As for Sanders, I have friends who have known him since his Burlington (Vermont) days and they make the point that he has been making the same speeches for 40 years. He’s like the guy who plays the slot machines in Atlantic City, putting money in over and over, and finally it’s bingo.
Sanders’ overlap with Trump can be overdone. There was a moment in the campaign when Sanders came before the editorial board of the Daily News. He was asked about banking reform, and he totally muffed it. Then he was asked about Gaza, and he exaggerated the number of Palestinian casualties by a factor of four or five. He’s not very well-informed.
Sanders had this aura of authenticity. Now, I live in Brooklyn, and I live not very far from the high school Bernie Sanders went to. I grew up around people like Bernie Sanders. I have uncles and cousins who resemble Bernie to a T, and think exactly in the same way. All you need to do is bring back the New Deal. I try to tell them that Roosevelt was a great wartime president, but he failed to bring the country out of Depression – it was the war that brought the country out of Depression: the draft and the demand created by military spending. It’s like trying to talk about poverty in California – they just won’t believe it.
Fred Siegel is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He is the author, most recently, of The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class, published by Encounter Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation.