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.
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.
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.”
The social and cultural revolutions of the 1960s put forward both the radical libertarian and antibourgeois aspects of liberalism, while the economic problems of the 1970s undermined Keynesianism and diminished the attractiveness of central planning. Politically, this was problematic for American liberalism, yet the outlines of future successes appeared. New York mayor John Lindsay would craft a “top-down” political coalition out of affluent white liberals and blacks and Hispanics, while the concerns of middle-class New Yorkers were ignored. It would take 40 years for that political coalition (and an economic collapse in 2008) to put Barack Obama in the White House.
Siegel loses focus a bit when he gets to recent political history. The book could have done more to dissect modern liberalism’s uneasy alliance of upscale whites with postgraduate degrees, public-sector unions who provide millions of dollars to Democratic campaigns, and lower-income minorities. Siegel also fails to try to make sense of the liberal economic populism peddled by the likes of Senator Elizabeth Warren, a “gentry liberal” if there ever was one.
President Obama often speaks of the need to strengthen the middle class, and his administration even created a “Middle Class Task Force” chaired by Vice President Joseph Biden. (Perhaps to show the true importance the administration places on the project, the last activity listed on the task force’s website was in July 2012.) Such plans usually call for expansions of government spending and programs to (supposedly) help the middle class; but, rhetorically at least, liberals like Obama and Warren realize they cannot completely forsake the middle class.
Which brings us back to Obamacare. Its success or failure will ultimately hinge on whether middle-class Americans either benefit or are hurt by the new law. If the latter occurs, popular support will continue to plummet, and Democrats will suffer. Modern liberalism makes claims to technocratic superiority, believing that enlightened elites can make choices in a planned economy on behalf of the benighted. That proposition is being tested in the health care debate, but its fate will ultimately be in the hands of middle-class Americans.
Vincent J. Cannato, who teaches history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, is the author of The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York.