They had a dream. For almost a hundred years now, the famed academic-artistic-and-punditry industrial complex has dreamed of a government run by their kind of people (i.e., nature’s noblemen), whose intelligence, wit, and refined sensibilities would bring us a heaven on earth. Their keen intellects would cut through the clutter as mere mortals’ couldn’t. They would lift up the wretched, oppressed by cruel forces. Above all, they would counter the greed of the merchants, the limited views of the business community, and the ignorance of the conformist and dim middle class.
Out of sorts and out of office after 1828, when power passed from the Adamses to the children of burghers and immigrants, they had begun to strike back by the 1920s, led by the likes of George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, H. L. Mencken, Herbert Croly, and Sinclair Lewis. Their stock in trade was their belief in themselves, and their contempt for the way the middle class thought, lived, and made and spent money: Commerce was crude, consumption was vulgar, and industry, which employed millions and improved the lives of many more people, too gross and/or grubby for words. “For the American critics of mass culture, it was the good times of the 1920s, not the depression of the 1930s, that proved terrifying,” says Fred Siegel, whose book The Revolt Against the Masses describes and eviscerates this group and its aspirations. In their dream world, “intellectuals, as well as poet-leaders, experts, and social scientists such as themselves would lead the regime,” as Siegel tells us. “It was thus a crucial imperative to constrain the conventional and often corrupt politics of middle-class capitalists so that these far-seeing leaders might obtain the recognition and power that was only their due.”
Attitudinal rather than doctrinaire in their judgments, they leaned Democratic because of their loathing of business, but they judged people largely by mores and manners, and men in both parties would earn their contempt. Harry Truman, as Siegel notes, “had triumphed not only over Republicans and business, but also over Henry Wallace and the supporters of the Soviet Union on the left, and Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrat segregationists of the right.” Truman was also a businessman whose small men’s-wear store had gone bankrupt, and for this Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., a solon whose influence would span half a century, called him “a man of mediocre and limited capacity.” Schlesinger, who also complained about the “Eisenhower trance” and described the race between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter as “Babbitt vs. Elmer Gantry,” would find his true soulmate in Adlai E. Stevenson, a fellow snob and two-time loser in the race for the White House, whom Michael Barone has described as “the first leading Democratic politician to become a critic rather than a celebrator of middle class American culture.” Schlesinger famously fell for John Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt, less for their politics, which were in the end not too different from Truman’s, than for their personal glamour and aura of privilege, which set them apart from the multitude. But even those two, and their successors, fell short. Kennedy shunned Schlesinger’s counsel. Bill Clinton was a wonk but also a Bubba, who never completely outgrew the Hot Springs experience. All three had middlebrow tastes when it came to the culture, sympathized with the middle class, and tried to promote and not stifle prosperity and upward mobility. And thus the elites had to wait for the man of their dreams.
When they found him, he was a rare breed: a genuine African American (his father was Kenyan) who thought and talked like the academics on both sides of his family, a product of the faculty lounge who dabbled in urban/race politics, a man who could speak to both ends of the liberals’ up-and-down coalition, and a would-be transformer of our public life whose quiet voice and low-key demeanor conveyed “moderation” in all that he spoke and did. Best of all, he was the person whom the two branches of the liberal kingdom—the academics and journalists—wanted to be, a man who shared their sensibilities and their views of the good and the beautiful. This was the chance of a lifetime to shape the world to their measure. He and they were the ones they were waiting for, and with him, they longed for transcendent achievements. But in the event they were undone by the three things Siegel had pegged as their signature weaknesses: They had too much belief in the brilliance of experts, they were completely dismissive of public opinion, and they had a contempt for the great middle class.