The Magazine

Opiate of the Elites

The gentrification of the American left.

Feb 10, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 21 • By VINCENT J. CANNATO
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 So which of these interpretations is correct? One problem is that most historians have long since given up trying to define “progressivism” as a coherent theory. There is just too much variety of beliefs. Conservatives who have recently turned their attentions toward progressivism should also be cautious about creating a grand unitary theory of it.

Having said that, Siegel and the Claremont group are each describing one thread of modern American liberal progressivism, which is at once aggressively focused on the expansion of state power to regulate the economy and provide “social justice” (often at the expense of individual liberty), while at the same time being radically civil-libertarian when it comes to personal freedoms, especially those related to speech and sex, and dismissive of bourgeois conventions that might limit individual expression or lifestyle choices. Siegel notes the contradiction when he writes that liberals are “anarchic when allies of the middle class are in power, authoritarian when their own allies are in power.” It is this contradiction that both defines modern liberalism and explains much of its incoherence. 

Siegel downplays the policy implications of progressivism and the continuities of liberal policies from the progressive era to Barack Obama, for which the Claremont school is exceedingly helpful. Yet his analysis complements the Claremont school’s assault on progressivism by reminding us of the turn against progressivism after World War I and the schizophrenia it caused as 20th-century liberalism developed. As much as liberalism is a political or economic theory, it is also an attitude or pose, a way of thinking about the world and one’s fellow citizens. As Siegel notes, the liberal attitude increasingly became opposed to middle-class, bourgeois norms.

In this sense, Siegel’s analysis is reminiscent of Christopher Lasch’s The New Radicalism in America (1965), which saw early-20th-century liberal progressives as suffering from an “estrangement from the middle class” and “the dominant values of American culture.” It was not just that liberals empathized with those less fortunate and more unconventional, but well-educated and middle-class intellectuals began to see themselves as outsiders from mainstream society. 

Franklin Roosevelt managed to rein in the various strands of liberalism and forge a successful political coalition that tamped down some of the antibourgeois temperament on the left—while strengthening the corporatist side of liberalism. As Siegel writes, FDR “temporarily reconciled elitism and majoritarianism.” This continued after FDR’s death, with a consensus accommodation of liberals with the moderate right—and the purging of the fellow-traveling left, as symbolized by Henry Wallace. 

In this new arrangement, Republicans would not seek to roll back the New Deal, while liberals fought communism abroad with containment. Both sides agreed that the way forward economically was through economic growth, not redistribution. Growth liberalism would expand the middle class and create enough tax revenues to fuel government spending, which, in turn, would continue the growth in a Keynesian cycle and would help the less fortunate with a modestly expanded safety net. 

During the 1950s, American society saw a great expansion of the middle class, with rising incomes and rates of home ownership. Rather than rejoicing over the large number of Americans who had escaped poverty, many liberals were torn. These days, there is a wave of nostalgia for the 1950s, but many commentators of the time saw it as a soul-deadening period of homogenization and middlebrow culture, of men in “flannel suits” who lived in ticky-tacky houses. Consumerism ran rampant while middle-class Americans were busy keeping up with the Joneses. A raft of clichés belittled the lives of middle-class Americans and tried to denigrate this era of economic progress. 

Liberals like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. were busy pumping up the myth of Adlai Stevenson as some kind of intellectual and political powerhouse. They were “egghead” intellectuals, trying to survive during the conformist Eisenhower years. To Siegel, it was John Kenneth Galbraith who “was able to meld two of the central strands of 1920s liberalism: a Menckenesque contempt for the burghers and an undue regard for technocrats who cloaked their prejudices in the language of social science.”