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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After the 2012 election, Mitt Romney’s loss prompted questions about the future of conservatism. A year later, the ongoing drama of Obamacare’s failures has seen similar concerns voiced regarding the future of liberalism. So what, exactly, do we mean when we talk about “liberalism”? Conservatives used to equate it with the New Deal and Great Society, with the social and cultural liberalism of the late 1960s mixed in. Recently, conservatives have dug deeper and found a different foundation for modern liberalism: the Progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Thomas Eagleton, Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Edmund Muskie (1972)

Thomas Eagleton, Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Edmund Muskie (1972)


The assault on progressivism started with the writings of people associated with the Claremont Institute, like political scientist Ronald Pestritto, and reached a wider audience with Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism (2007). These writers explain how “progressives” turned away from older notions of individualism and believed that the Constitution was an increasingly archaic document in a modern industrial world. Progressives looked admiringly at Germany and other strong European states and built up an increasingly unaccountable administrative state to run the federal government. According to the Claremont school, liberalism does not consist of the stereotypically touchy-feely brand of politics we usually associate with it. Rather, it is more a corporatist alliance of big government and big business than a movement for reform and social justice. 

The great contribution of the Claremont writers has been reminding people that state power and social control are at the heart of modern liberal thought and that such power is too often dismissive of constitutional restraint and sometimes veers into authoritarianism. However, they miss a turn in liberal progressivism after World War I: The scars of war disabused many Americans of their positive feelings for government. For liberals, the disillusionment was even more pronounced. It was they who had built the state, who hoped to use it to counteract the power of corporations and provide protections for workers and the American consumer. The government, run by educated, middle-class professionals, was supposed to rescue America from an orgy of commercialism and ignorance; instead, it bumbled into a bloody European war, stirred up ethnic hatred at home against German-Americans, and used its new police powers to quash dissent. 

No one felt this disillusionment more than Frederick Howe, a noted progressive reformer and Woodrow Wilson’s choice to run the immigration station at Ellis Island. He wrote in his autobiography:

I hated the new state that had arisen, hated its brutalities, its ignorance, its unpatriotic patriotism, that made profit from our sacrifices and used its power to suppress criticism of its acts. I became distrustful of the state, and I think I lost interest in it, just as did thousands of other persons .  .  . who were turned from love into fear of the state and all that it signified.

This postwar turn against progressivism on the left can be seen in the creation of the American Civil Liberties Union, born as a reaction against wartime repression of free speech. The so-called First Red Scare also soured liberals on the state, while the arrest and trial of the Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti would become a cause célèbre on the liberal left.

This is where Fred Siegel comes in. In The Revolt Against the Masses, he traces modern liberalism not to progressivism, but, rather, to the “rejection of Progressivism” and middle-class norms by a group of writers and intellectuals in the wake of World War I. Siegel sees prewar progressivism in a more benign way than do the Claremont folks, as a movement of middle-class reformers “committed to the purification of politics.” He argues that modern “liberalism was created by intellectuals and writers who were rebelling against the failings of the rising middle class” and who were critical of “mass democracy and middle-class capitalism.” 

Siegel presents an intellectual history—or, rather, a history of intellectuals. He deals very little with public policy, economics, or the law, instead choosing to concentrate on the writings of Herbert Croly, Randolph Bourne, H. L. Mencken, and Sinclair Lewis. (Siegel’s classification of Mencken as a liberal intellect will surely raise eyebrows.) Bourne was one of the first intellectuals in America to see the roots of left-liberalism in the revolt of youth against their elders. Lewis, in Main Street (1920) and Babbitt (1922), skewered what he saw as the banalities of middle-class America. Siegel locates much of what animates modern liberalism in the contempt in which it holds bourgeois society and its norms.