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Ed Driscoll

How the L-Word Was Won

January 19th, 2014 - 7:43 pm


In the introduction to his new book, The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class, Fred Siegel of the Manhattan Institute writes:

The best short credo of liberalism came from the pen of the once canonical left-wing literary historian Vernon Parrington in the late 1920s. “Rid society of the dictatorship of the middle class,” Parrington insisted, referring to both democracy and capitalism, “and the artist and the scientist will erect in America a civilization that may become, what civilization was in earlier days, a thing to be respected.” Alienated from middle-class American life, liberalism drew on an idealized image of “organic” pre-modern folkways and rhapsodized about a future harmony that would reestablish the proper hierarchy of virtue in a post-bourgeois, post-democratic world.

Ninety years later, and as this self-mocking Salon article titled “Let’s nationalize Fox News” highlights, very little has changed amongst that portion of the left’s goals.

If you enjoyed Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, James Piereson’s Camelot and the Cultural Revolution, and Daniel J. Flynn’s A Conservative History of the American Left, you will certainly enjoy Siegel’s new book. His early chapters chart the end of the early “Progressives” of the late 19th and early 20th century, such as Teddy Roosevelt, whom Tim Stanley of the London Telegraph describes today as a “Racist, imperialist, power-hungry megalomaniac,” and Woodrow Wilson, the man who was a big fan of the Klan (and vice versa). As Jonah noted in Liberal Fascism, Wilson’s brutal term in office during World War I (which Wilson had promised to keep America out of) has largely been airbrushed out of history — two guesses as to why. But it was during that period, Siegel writes, that “Progressives” stole a huge base from the laissez-faire conservative right, and began to describe themselves as “Liberal”:

In the standard accounts of American liberalism, both left and right argue that after the 1920s, Progressivism faced the Great Depression and as a result matured into the fully flowered liberalism of the New Deal. As I suggested in the previous chapter, this is fundamentally mistaken. While “winning the war abroad,” the Progressives “lost their war at home,” notes historian Michael McGerr. “Amid race riots, strikes, high inflation, and a frenzied Red Scare, Americans turned against the Progressive blueprint for the nation. The climax of Progressivism, World War I, was also its death knell.” Modern Republicanism — as incarnated in the 1920s by Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover — and modern liberalism were both reactions to the excesses of Progressivism. Modern liberalism was born of discontinuity, a rejection of Progressivism — a wrenching betrayal and a shift in sensibility so profound that it still resonates today. More precisely, the cultural tone of modern liberalism was, in significant measure, set by a political love affair gone horribly wrong between Woodrow Wilson and a liberal left unable to grapple with the realities of power politics. For Progressives, reformers, and Socialists, the years from 1918 through 1920 were traumatic. During the presidential election of 1916, many leftists had embraced Woodrow Wilson as a thaumaturgical leader of near messianic promise, but in the wake of repression at home and revolution and diplomatic disappointment abroad, he came to be seen as a Judas, and his numinous rhetoric was despised as mere mummery.

For the ardent Progressive Frederick Howe, who had been Wilson’s Commissioner of Immigration, the pre-war promise of the benign state built on reasoned reform had turned to ashes. “I hated,” he wrote, “the new state that had arisen” from the war. “I hated its brutalities, its ignorance, its unpatriotic patriotism that made profit from our sacrifices and used it to suppress criticism of its acts. . . . I wanted to protest against the destruction of my government, my democracy, my America.” As part of his protest, the thoroughly alienated Howe distanced himself from Progressivism. Liberals were those Progressives who had renamed themselves so as to repudiate Wilson. “The word liberalism,” wrote Walter Lippmann in 1919, “was introduced into the jargon of American politics by that group who were Progressives in 1912 and Wilson Democrats from 1916 to 1918.” The new liberalism was a decisive cultural break with Wilson and Progressivism. While the Progressives had been inspired by a faith in democratic reforms as a salve for the wounds of both industrial civilization and power politics, liberals saw the American democratic ethos as a danger to freedom at home and abroad.

I interviewed Siegel for PJM’s old Sirius-XM radio show back in 2009, when he had just published a tremendous piece for City Journal on H.G. Wells, “The Godfather of American Liberalism,” material from which is incorporated into Revolt Against the Masses. Take a listen:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

(Ten minutes long, 9.09 MB file size. Click here to download MP3 file directly.)

As Siegel notes in his new book:

Wells was appalled by the decentralized nature of America’s locally oriented party and country-courthouse politics. He was aghast at the flamboyantly corrupt political machines of the big cities, unchecked by a gentry that might uphold civilized standards. He thought American democracy went too far in providing leeway to the poltroons who ran the political machines and the “fools” who supported them. The “immigrants are being given votes,” but “that does not free them, it only enslaves the country,” he said. In the North, he complained, even “the negroes were given votes.”

Yet another reminder that, as Kevin D. Williamson recently wrote in What Doomed Detroit, “It is an irony of our history that the political home of black racism in American politics is also the historical political home of white racism: the Democratic Party.”

Speaking of which, here’s our obligatory Allahpundit-style Exit Question: If “Progressives” dubbed themselves “Liberal” in 1919 to distance themselves from the debacle of an inept heavy-handed leftwing administration run amok, and then ran away from the L-Word after the Carter administration, only to eventually return to the P-Word in time for Obama, what word will they choose to describe themselves in the next few years? In the meantime, as Steve Hayward of Power Line recently asked, “Now That Hillary Clinton Has Dismissed ‘Liberalism’, Can Conservatives Take It Back?”

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Top Rated Comments   
I like PJMedia a lot. Here you can find a wide range of ideas and opinions, at least half of which I thoroughly disagree (commentators and authors alike). That's why I click.

I've tried, unsuccessfully, to get many of the PJMedia authors to abandon the Left/Right verbiage. It only obscures meaning. Europeans and Europhiles use the political terms Left and Right to describe a political spectrum from Communism to Nazism. Those people only understand totalitarian forms of government, and so seek to drive the discussion into that realm.

For Constitutionalists, the political spectrum goes from freedom to totalitarianism:

Left and Right have no objective meaning when it comes to politics. "Liberal" and "Conservative" have no objective meaning. The meanings of these words are highly subjective, so their meanings can be twisted or subtly altered by those who have an agenda.

I ask people today to use the terms "Constitutionalist" or "Statist". Those words have very definitive meanings. One is an adherent to a document that embodies specific ideals. The other is a worshiper of ultimate power used to bully everyone else into submission.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
I haven't read the book but the title fascinates. How Liberalism has undermined the Middle Class. My answer is this. The Middle Class failed to take power because the basis of the Middle Class - virtues - cannot compete with the requirements of power - forming cliques.

It just not true that our society is a Middle Class society. The only thorough going Middle Class society was Victorian England whom our elites smear with the lie "prudes". I will not argue against this here but just note the fact that the characterization has credibility - the fact of its existence - by itself proves there are forces extant against the Middle Class.

The Middle Class navigates by insisting on standards and virtues - cliques navigate by hatred.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
Today's leftism is totalitarianism, afraid to fully show it's face.

The phrase David Mamet used to describe his abandonment of it, is Mindless Liberal. This is the description of those who bitterly cling to 60's stylings of folk songs and protest marches...and lots of newly visible nipples.

Now clinging to Botox, spanks, Viagra and Rogaine...desperate to be relevant to the conversation and wanting to be wanted for one last fling.

It's a pitiable spectacle. They will gladly adopt each rung on the descending ladder of tyranny just to be "accepted" as the useful idiot. In contrast... "Classic liberals" have a very difficult time advancing their identity.

The totalitarians cannot withstand their exposure and save their most vicious vitriolic slander for Classic Liberals. For it is this breed that exposes the face beneath the mask of modern leftism and that is the most terrifying to the latter.

If the useful idiots ever found a conscience, THAT is where they would likely turn. In droves.

Fear not, totalitarians...your indoctrination and propaganda are working like a well oiled machine. By the time your pets wake up, it will likely be too late. In fact, in many already is.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (58)
All Comments   (58)
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up to I saw the check that said $7131, I have faith that my mom in-law was like really making money parttime at there computar.. there aunt started doing this for only ut seventeen months and by now paid for the mortgage on there cottage and bought a great Aston Martin DB5. view it now >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
my co-worker's step-sister makes $71 hourly on the internet . She has been laid off for 9 months but last month her income was $20802 just working on the internet for a few hours.
check this site out,,,,,,,,,,
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
Bureaucrats are the foot soldiers of the Tyrannical State.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
Americans are staring at the key tipping point that will ensure the nation is "fundamentally transformed" ostensibly into a leftist state - and that "change" once initiated will be irreversible.. at least by democratic means.

As background, since the mid 1980s, I've spent quit a bit of time in the UK where a few years ago communications were leaked showing that in the late 1970s, British ruling class leftists in government and universities secretly decided that the UK must become a multicultural utopia - but they lied to the people about their real goals for their "change".

Their primary tool to achieve their goals was re-engineering the nation's demographics, first by encouraging illegal immigration - then using "demographic inevitability" ploys, they passed "immigration reform" designed to flood the kingdom with "legal" immigration designed to overwhelm the English culture.

In an article written a while back by Peter Hitchens, (Christopher’s smarter brother) who was a hard leftist at the time and involved in the effort to change Britain, he explains the reason for the British Left’s pushing immigration reform in the UK - it may sound familiar:

"When I was a Revolutionary Marxist, we were all in favour of as much immigration as possible. It wasn’t because we liked immigrants, but because we didn’t like Britain.

We saw immigrants—from anywhere—as allies against the staid, settled, conservative society that our country still was at the end of the Sixties. Also, we liked to feel oh, so superior to the bewildered people who found their neighbourhoods suddenly transformed into supposedly ‘vibrant multicultural communities’.

If they dared to express the mildest objections, we called them bigots."

As a result, England is dying of self-inflicted cultural cancer - and it will not be an easy or pretty death. To a one, my friends in the UK believe that over the next 10 to 25 years England will devolve rapidly into what they believe will be decay and factional violence as the unsustainable socioeconomic burdens of their nanny-state and "immigration reform" destroy the very fabric of the nation.

America is on an equivalent path, just a few short years behind the UK.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
Corrected Williamson: it is perfectly natural in our history that the political home of black racism in American politics is also the historical political home of white racism: the Democratic Party.”
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
The Left changes its name as often as someone who writes bad checks for a living, and for much the same reasons.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
Someone straighten me out here......
If our illustrious President manque is a proponent of a larger middle class (i.e., less income inequality) and a supposed proponent of democracy (i.e., more middle class voters), then what is the source of disgust for typical middle class values including gun ownership, local control of schools, religion-based values, and other attributes of those "bitter clingers"?
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
Lies and misdirection.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
I almost finished shortening and adapting Albion Tourgée's 1879 novel, A Fool's Errand, into a young adult novel called Lily's Ride: Saving Her Father from the Ku Klux Klan, set in post-Civil War North Carolina.

One fact that Tourgée repeatedly stresses is that racial conflict existed because it served the interests of wealthy Southerners, particularly the powerful planters. Cotton require a lot of hand labor and by keeping poor blacks and whites downtrodden and uneducated, they assured themselves of a cheap labor supply. Some poor blacks and whites realized that, Tourgée points out, but lacked the skills to organize and effective opposition. They were simply too uneducated and lacked leadership skills.

I suspect the same explains the hostility that liberals/progressives have to our current middle-class. Unlike the poor, particularly the urbane poor, they do have an ability to challenge the liberal agenda. That's why they must be kept complacent and their protest movements (i.e. the Tea Party) crushed. Eventually, if liberalism has its way, the middle-class won't be middle enough to fight back. Every aspect of their lives from the schools their children attend to their health care will be in the hands of the State. They'll be left as powerless as the black and white poor in the Reconstruction South.

38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
Very interesting, but it would have been nice to know whether the change after ww1 was a change of name only, or also a change of narrative and, most important, of policies. (I don't care whether the "essence" of the ideology has remained the same: I am more interested in concrete policies.)
Oh well, I suppose that I'll have to read the book to find out.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
The Left is to liberalism as the face-hugger was to Kane. The "impregnation" began with Herbert Croly and the early "Progressives", and ended in the 1960's when the hippies burst out of the chest of that most "liberal" institution, the public schools.

It doesn't surprise me that there should have been a "distancing" from the original Progressivism like that; the Left has a habit of chewing legs off to escape connection with its own end results for its entire history. It's disowning of National Socialism, of eugenics and the entire apparatus of genetic determinism (by rewriting the Ackbar Spectrum to place the Nazis on the "right") is the penultimate example of that.

You can even see that pattern in the more mundane day-to-day policy issues. When you hear some Leftist complaining about "urban sprawl", be sure to remember that sprawl is the creature of zoning laws brought to us by an earlier generation of statists.

Conversely, however, you can also see them quietly adopting the fruits of something they would profess to despise; one example is gun control, which originated in the desire by racists to keep blacks from obtaining guns to defend themselves.

The sooner the mainstream realizes that the Left is not liberalism (and that genuine liberalism is moribund in the political mainstream), the better.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
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