The roots of American liberalism are not compassion, but snobbery. That’s the thesis of Fred Siegel’s revealing new book, “The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class.”
He depicts the Progressives as Protestant reformers, determined to professionalize institutions and tame the immigrant and industrial masses. Progressive projects included women’s suffrage and prohibition of alcohol.
But the many pro-German Progressives were appalled when Woodrow Wilson led America into World War I and by Wilson’s brutal suppression of civil liberties.
Progressivism was repudiated in the landslide election of Warren Harding in 1920, at which point disenchanted liberal thinkers turned their ire against middle-class Americans who, in the “roaring ’20s,” were happily buying automobiles, refrigerators, radios and tickets to the movies.
The novels of Sinclair Lewis, the journalism of H.L. Mencken and the literary criticism of Van Wyck Brooks heaped scorn on the vast and supposedly mindless Americans who worked hard at their jobs and joined civic groups — Mencken’s “booboisie.”
These 1920s liberals idealized the “noble aspiration” and “fine aristocratic pride” in an imaginary Europe, and considered Americans, in the words of a Lewis character, “a savorless people, gulping tasteless food,” and “listening to mechanical music, saying mechanical things about the excellence of Ford automobiles and viewing themselves as the greatest race in the world.”
This contempt for ordinary Americans mostly persisted in changing political environments. During the Great Depression, many liberals became Communists, proclaiming themselves tribunes of a virtuous oppressed proletariat that would have an enlightened rule.
For a moment, idealization of the working man, but not the middle-class striver, came into vogue. But in the postwar years, what Siegel calls “the political and cultural snobbery” of liberals returned.
Liberals since the 1920s have claimed to be guided by the laws of science. But often it was crackpot science, like the eugenics movement that sought forced sterilizations.
Other social science theories proved unreliable in practice. Keynesian economics crashed and burned in the stagflation of the 1980s.
Predictions that the world would run out of food and resources turned out to be wrong. In the 1970s, people were told global cooling was inevitable. Now it’s global warming.
As Daniel Patrick Moynihan, an artist among social scientists, pointed out, social scientists didn’t really know how to eliminate poverty or crime. Policies based on middle-class instincts often worked better than those of elite liberals.
Some Democratic politicians learned lessons from this. Bill Clinton pursued welfare reform and honored, in rhetoric if not always behavior, people who work hard and play by the rules.
Barack Obama, in contrast, has built a top-and-bottom coalition — academics and gentry liberals, blacks and Hispanics, with funding and organizational backing from taxpayer-funded public-sector unions. In 2008, Obama carried those with incomes under $50,000 and over $200,000, and lost those in-between.
The Obama Democrats passed a stimulus package tilted toward public-sector unions and financial regulation propping up the big banks. Those at the top got paid off.
Less has gone to those at the bottom. Those in the middle have seen their health insurance canceled by Obamacare and sit waiting for healthcare.gov to function.
Suddenly, this “aristocracy based on talent and sensibility,” in Siegel’s words, seems to be discrediting its own policies — and its conceit that it is uniquely fit to govern.
I think Mikey B is onto something. That makes this a good time to bring back this passage from Changing of the Guard, a prediction by one of the prominent Obot-Prog wunderkind self-proclaimed elites, the execrable Poetry major Chris Bowers:
So, unless Obama somewhat surprisingly does not become the next President of the United States, the Democratic Party will experience its first changing of the guard since the late 1980’s. What differences will be in store? Here are the three major changes I expect:
1. Cultural Shift: Out with Bubbas, up with Creatives: There should be a major cultural shift in the party, where the southern Dems and Liebercrat elite will be largely replaced by rising creative class types. Obama has all the markers of a creative class background, from his community organizing, to his Unitarianism, to being an academic, to living in Hyde Park to shopping at Whole Foods and drinking PBR. These will be the type of people running the Democratic Party now, and it will be a big cultural shift from the white working class focus of earlier decades. Given the demographics of the blogosphere, in all likelihood, this is a socioeconomic and cultural demographic into which you fit. Culturally, the Democratic Party will feel pretty normal to netroots types. It will consistently send out cultural signals designed to appeal primarily to the creative class instead of rich donors and the white working class.
2. Policy Shift: Out with the DLC, up with technocratic wonks. My sense of Obama and his policy team is overwhelmingly one of technocratic, generally less overtly ideological professional policy types. We should see a shift from the more corporate and triangulating policy focus of the Democratic Party in the 1990’s, and see it replaced by whatever centrist, technocratic policies are the wonkish flavor of the month. It will all be very oriented toward think-tank and academic types, and be reminiscent of policy making in the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s. A sort of “technocratic liberalism” that will be less infuriating than DLC style governance, but still not overtly leftist.
3. Coalition reorganization: Out with party silos, in with squishy goo-goos. In addition to a shift in culture and policy focus, I also expect a different approach to coalition building. A long-standing Democrats approach of transactional politics with different issue and demographic silos in the party shift toward an emphasis on good government (goo goo) approaches. We will see lots of emphasis on non-partisanship, ethics reform, election reform instead of on, say, placating labor unions, environment groups, and the LGBT community by throwing each of these groups a policy bone or two. Now, the focus will be on broad, squishy fixes that are designed to appeal to several groups at once. George Lakoff wrote about this a couple months ago.
Here is MY prediction, which is already coming true:
In the years ahead we will be told that progressive policies of Obama did not fail, that the problem was a failure of will, vision and competence by most everyone on the left (except Obama) and the obstinate, obstreperous obstructionism of the racist Tea Party Republicans.