Capitol Ideas

Liberalism Versus the Middle Class

Fred Siegel versus Ortega y Gasset.

By From the May 2014 issue

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Ortega y Gasset’s Revolt of the Masses was published in 1930, but don’t be misled—its author was hostile to the masses. They had attained “complete social power,” and he resented that. The masses “neither should nor can direct their own personal existence.”

Fred Siegel’s Revolt Against the Masses (Encounter Books) takes issue with Ortega and can be seen as a belated corrective. A bracing, well-written reinterpretation of liberalism, Siegel’s new book identifies a political trend that has been in place for decades, yet is rarely noticed or mentioned.

It is subtitled “How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class.” Siegel calls them gentry liberals—our equivalent of old-fashioned Tories and every bit as class-conscious. In the 1960s they took up “the priestly task of de-democratizing America in the name of administering newly developed rights.”

His message, says Michael Barone, co-author The Almanac of American Politics, is that “the roots of American liberalism are not compassion but snobbery.” Joel Kotkin adds that the anti-democratic character of modern liberalism

undermines much of the reason we became progressives in the first place, which was to help the middle and working classes. The gentry’s stridency and hypocrisy—what’s OK for them is not for everyone else—is utterly transforming liberalism today. 

Liberal contempt “for traditional American middle class values, religion, even shopping habits could not be more obvious,” a reviewer wrote on Amazon. “It can be humorous to watch them try to outdo each other as they boast of their purity in political thought and good taste.”

A class of politically self-conscious intellectuals, predating the New Deal (with which Siegel is in greater sympathy), arose soon after World War I. It was antagonistic to the “businessman’s pursuit of profit and the conventional individual’s pursuit of pleasure.” Sinclair Lewis, H.L. Mencken, and journalists like Herbert Croly, the editor of the New Republic, were contemptuous of American culture. The writer Randolph Bourne deplored the “downward tow of our civilization, with its leering cheapness and falseness of taste and spiritual outlook.” Mencken supported German victory in the war, and called American democracy “the worship of jackals by jackasses.”

Meanwhile, Ortega y Gasset thought the rule that the masses had imposed on Europe was “the greatest general crisis that can afflict peoples, nations and civilizations.” In a 1937 prologue to a later edition of his book, he deplored the “stifling monotony” that “mass man had imposed on Europe, converting it into a vast anthill.”

He failed to notice the Nazis. But he congratulated himself on his anti-Americanism, and he “scoffed at the idea that America, that ‘paradise of the masses,’ could ever defend European civilization.”

Someone who did see the direction of liberalism was Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman philosopher (1898-1983). His background is a mystery, but I argued in my 2012 biography of Hoffer that he came to the U.S. from Germany in about 1933, probably as an illegal immigrant. By the 1960s he feared that America would not long remain “the common’s man continent.” The masses are “on the way out,” Hoffer wrote:

The elites are finally catching up with us. We can hear the swish of leather as saddles are heaved on our backs. The intellectuals and the young, booted and spurred, feel themselves born to ride us. 

Here are two more comments from Hoffer (who almost always referred to liberals as “intellectuals”). Intellectuals’ fear of the masses persists, Hoffer wrote, even though they still have the votes of the masses. Why? 

In a democracy the intellectual is without an unquestioned sense of superiority and a sense of social usefulness. He is not listened to and not taken seriously. The truth is that intellectuals never found a democratic society acceptable. Bagehot himself was convinced: “If you once permit the ignorant class to rule you may bid farewell to deference forever.”

Also from Hoffer: 

It is incredible how few foresaw that the coming of affluence would cause a shift from the pursuit of wealth to the pursuit of power, and that such a shift would be the origin of great evils. Where there is widespread plenty, common people will no longer be regulated and disciplined by the invisible hand of scarcity. Order and stability will have to be deliberately imposed by despotic power. At the same time, the well-off will no longer be able to derive a sense of uniqueness from riches.

The creation of wealth, as we see today, is not remotely a liberal goal. Rather than create it, intellectuals prefer to redistribute it, to allocate scarcity. Earth Day in 1970 was a turning point. The environmental movement encouraged liberals to impose scarcity on the lower orders. Siegel mentions William Tucker’s 1977 article in Harper’s describing protests against a new power plant in New York. A fleet of yachts (“one piloted by the old Stalinist singer Pete Seeger”) sailed “up and down the Hudson in protest.” It was the new, “aristocratic” vision of society.

The attempts to impose “global warming” regulations (successful in Europe) should be seen in the same light. The goal is to get the price of gasoline up, and with any luck, push the lower orders out of their cars and into public transportation. Fracking, meanwhile, is seen as a disaster.

“Crankery” became respectable. Siegel cites Paul Ehrlich, who was involved “in all three recent end-of-time waves.” First, overpopulation was about to destroy the Earth. “The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” Ehrlich warned. (Siegel might have added a new wrinkle, courtesy of Michelle Obama: Poor people are now so impoverished that they are overweight.) Next came “the imminent danger of nuclear winter.” The third wave is “the campaign against global warming,” promoted by Al Gore. Now it’s called “climate change.” That way everything will confirm it. Siegel writes:

As with the previous waves, politicized science played on liberal fears of progress. For Gore and his allies at the U.N., only a global command-and-control economy that keeps growth in check could stave off imminent catastrophe.

The politicization of science never gets the publicity it deserves. Science magazine should be renamed “Science for Liberals.” Recently, a professor with the Rochester Institute of Technology called for the incarceration of “climate deniers.”

A few words about the liberals’ distrust of democracy. It’s paradoxical because they seem to embrace it—with conditions attached. Liberals rely on the judiciary to advance their worldview when officials get it “wrong.” They also work hard to add to the number of beneficiaries dependent on their transfer programs. Divorce and sex outside marriage don’t bother them at all. New government programs will pick up the family fragments and keep subsidizing them.

Democracy boils down to rule by publicity, and the news media are overwhelmingly liberal (although the Internet is slowly changing that).

Siegel notes that modern American liberalism is typified by the top-and-bottom coalition we associate with President Obama. The most reliable support comes from blacks. But how long can that last? Starting with Mayor John Lindsay in New York, liberals “wanted to help blacks in the worst possible way, and that is what they did,” says Siegel.

The period found its highest (comic) expression in Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic, when Leonard Bernstein threw a party for the Black Panthers. So far there are few signs that the black leadership wants to change a system that helps them but hurts the rank and file who look to them for guidance. In today’s disoriented black communities, kids without fathers are routine.

Right now, with a friendly, liberal president, the science-based scares and crises that drive modern-day liberalism may well be minimized. But if Republicans threaten to recapture the White House, we should expect protests to return at a high decibel level.

There’s a great deal more to be said about Fred Siegel’s excellent book, but maybe it would be best to get a copy for yourself

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).