Interview: Fred Siegel on The Revolt Against the Masses

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In the wake of World War I, there was a “tremendous intellectual upheaval,” Fred Siegel tells me, talking about his new book, The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class. American intellectuals, led by H.L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis and heavily influenced by H.G. Wells, came to see “the American middle class as their enemy.” It’s “the beginning of the Europeanization of American politics.  And what these writers want, they want to be more like Europe.  They want a more stratified, more hierarchical society.  They dislike American small-d-democracy.  And they talk about this at great length.  This is not a conjecture.”But it’s been largely forgotten, since in both academia and the media, the left has largely written the story of American history of the 20th century. Fortunately, Fred has done yeoman archeological work, bringing the early history of the American left to light once again, in a book that anyone who was enlightened by Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism will also find absolutely intriguing.During our interview, we’ll discuss:


● The largely forgotten racism of H.G. Wells and Woodrow Wilson.

● Sinclair Lewis’s absurd yet highly influential It Can’t Happen Here, and its paranoid vision of American fascism rising up from the benign members of the all-American Rotary Clubs and Elks and Moose Lodges.

● When did “Progressivism” become “Liberalism,” and why?

● What really happened during the Scopes Trial?

● Why H.L. Mencken rooted for the Germans to win World War I.

● What were the three legal trials that shaped the American left of the 1920s?

● How did the Kennedy assassination unhinge American liberals?

● What shaped the radical environmentalism of Al Gore and other American leftists?

● How much of the tradition and the excesses of the early progressives was inherited by Barack Obama?

And much more. Click here to listen:

Transcript of our interview begins on the following page; for our many previous podcasts, start here and keep scrolling.

MR. DRISCOLL:  This is Ed Driscoll for PJ, and we’re talking today with Fred Siegel. He’s a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor at City Journal magazine, and the author of the new book, The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class. It’s published by Encounter Books, and available from and your local bookstore. And Fred, thanks for stopping by today.

MR. SIEGEL:  Thanks for having me.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Fred, one of the recurring themes in your book is that liberalism or progressivism or leftism is ultimately about creating a sense of superiority on the cheap.  A suburbanite or someone living in a small town can simply attach the “L” word to himself and instantly feel superior to his fellow citizens.

As you write in the new book, this tradition dates back nearly a century.  Could you talk about how such an attitude came to be formed by many American intellectuals in the first half of the 20th century?

MR. SIEGEL:  Yes.  That’s exactly right.  The key to this attitudinal shift ‑‑ because America was unlike Europe — in Europe, both the left and the right despise the bourgeoisie.  Or as H.L. Mencken would call them in America, the “Booboisie.” That was largely absent from America until the 1920s.

And liberalism is formed when exactly that kind of attitude begins to take hold in the United States.  And it takes hold in the wake of World War I, because of a reversal of attitude toward Woodrow Wilson.

Woodrow Wilson is the hero of the left in terms of social policy and in terms of his anti-war stance.  But when Wilson gets into the war, he’s terribly repressive at home.  You know, “Liberty Cabbage.”  You can’t speak German in public.  The American Protective League operates to impose conformity on the country.

It’s also the moment when Prohibition comes into being.  And Prohibition is not imposed by right-wing yahoos, it was imposed by progressives, who want to make sure, when a guy gets home on Friday, he has the money to give to his wife, that his pay check hasn’t been consumed at the bar.

When the war ends with tremendous disillusionment about the war’s accomplishments in Europe, and this tremendous reaction to the repression at home, most Americans are just relieved.  Those people who were progressives in 1916 and become liberals in 1920, are in a rage.  They’re in a rage against Woodrow Wilson.


And the key thing to understand is that in the traditional account, you know, the Arthur Schlesinger account, modern liberalism begins with progressivism and moves to the New Deal, it goes on for the Great Society.  That’s not the case.

Most progressives, not in the current sense of the word, but progressives in terms of the early 20th century movement, did not become New Dealers.  Progressivism was both a Republican and a Democratic movement.  President Teddy Roosevelt was a progressive, a Republican.  Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, was a progressive.

Most Republican progressives did not become New Dealers, and among Democrats there was a split.  The break is this caesura that takes place after World War I, this tremendous intellectual upheaval, in which a group of writers, H.L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, Randolph Bourne, come to see the American middle class as their enemy.

And this is the beginning of the Europeanization of American politics.  And what these writers want, they want to be more like Europe.  They want a more stratified, more hierarchical society.  They dislike American small-d-democracy.  And they talk about this at great length.  This is not a conjecture.

MR. DRISCOLL:  In the new book, you mentioned Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here, and the early Progressives’ fixation on the Rotary Club, to the point where Lewis believed, semi-seriously, that they would overthrow the Federal Government. My late father was president of his local New Jersey chapter one year in the mid-1970s. Back then, I thought he was just going off to have lunch with his fellow businessmen; I had no idea what a hardcore violent revolutionary he was!

MR. SIEGEL:  It made as much sense then as it does now.  The idea behind this goes back to Sinclair Lewis’ novel Main Street, in that ‑‑ in that in Main Street, the creative people are terribly repressed.  They [feel as though they] can’t live up to their full potential because America’s business civilization and democracy holds them down.  That goes to the very core of liberalism.

And so when we get to It Can’t Happen Here, which is still read today, it’s still assigned in classes, Paul Krugman still talks about it; the only example that Lewis, who was not terribly imaginative, can think of for American fascism, is the Rotary Clubs.  The Rotary Clubs ‑‑ and the Moose Lodge and the Elks Lodge.  The very same organizations that Tocqueville saw as the basis of American democracy, small-d-democracy, are just what Lewis points to.

And this is part of the perversity of liberalism, the kind of civic culture that we all depend on is identified as the enemy.  And the good guys are government bureaucrats.

MR. DRISCOLL:  I remember when we spoke in 2009 for PJ Media’s XM Radio Show, and you had just done yeoman work, reintroducing into circulation, much that had been forgotten about H.G. Wells beyond his science fiction novels.

In the new book, you note that Wells complained that in America, “the negroes were given votes.”  What are some other examples of racism from early progressives, and how have they been airbrushed out of history?

MR. SIEGEL:  Well, they’ve been airbrushed out of history because just as in contemporary politics, the liberals get to write the stories, in history, liberals got to write the history.

Woodrow Wilson himself was very, very racist.  It’s not that the Republican presidents were good on this, but they weren’t nearly as bad as Wilson, who was a Southerner.  This got airbrushed out when this idea of history from the ‑‑ you know, moving from the progressives to the New Deal to the Great Society was substantiated in the 1940s and 50s.  And then the 60s, of course, with the Great Society.


So what actually happened in the 1920s was ignored.  And so the 20s became ‑‑ became the story of these people:  Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Malcolm Cowley, H.G. Wells, et cetera, et cetera.

But in addition it was liberals and earlier progressives who were eugenicists, because they were social Darwinists.  The idea, which comes from Richard Hofstadter, that it was the right-wing Republicans who were social Darwinists, was just a fabrication, literally a fabrication.

Right-wing Republicans paid no attention to Darwin or to social Darwinism.  It’s just not what they thought about. They never talked about it, they never wrote about it.  Social Darwinism got picked up by progressives and then liberals, because it broke with the idea of a timeless Constitution, because what social Darwinism said is you constantly have to adapt.  There are no timeless rules.  So this was a very good way of taking down the idea of a Constitution which always had to be obeyed.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Fred, in Revolt Against the Masses, you write that in the 1920s, while first Warren Harding and then Calvin Coolidge were in the White House, and peace and prosperity ruled the land, progressives fixated on three trials to help advance their cause.  What were those three trials and how did they influence progressive thinking during the Depression of the following decade?

MR. SIEGEL:  Well, first there was a case of Leopold and Loeb, where two young utterly brilliant upper class Jews who killed one of their fellows to show that they were Nietzschean supermen.  And they had defending them at their trial, Clarence Darrow ‑‑ the great Clarence Darrow.

And Darrow was good on many things.  He wasn’t good here.  He tried to argue that they were forced by their circumstances to commit the crime. It wasn’t very plausible.  But he laid out the argument on the radio ‑‑ this was, I think, the first major trial to be broadcast on the radio ‑‑ that it was the country that was guilty for this, the country’s provincialism which was the basis for the murder, not Leopold and Loeb’s derangement.

The second trial was the Scopes Trial, and this was even more important ‑‑ far more important, because the Scopes Trial lives on today in liberal mythology.  Liberals now want to call themselves progressives.

Because the Scopes Trial is about the case in Tennessee where a school teacher is supposedly persecuted for teaching Darwinism.  None of this is true.  And this is all written up by H.G. Wells, or an account of this is comes from a play really based on H.G. Wells’ account of the trial, which is still widely produced.

There was no repression in this town in Tennessee.  Essentially what happened was the town fathers got together with the ACLU who both saw a chance to promote themselves.  The town saw a chance to promote itself; the ACLU saw a chance to promote itself, the ACLU then being a nascent organization, a young organization.  And so this was done in a jolly spirit.  There was no ‑‑ there was no threat of violence in the streets.  This was one great big carnival.

At the trial itself, William Jennings Bryan, the former presidential candidate, is depicted as a rancid buffoon; just an evil, malevolent character.  This is bizarre.  In World War I it’s William Jennings Bryan who opposed World War I.  It was his opponent, H.L. Mencken, who supported Germany in World War I and hoped for a German victory, and Mencken was very public about this.


This talking about things being airbrushed out of history.  Mencken’s germanophilia has been airbrushed out of history.

Mencken loved Ludendorff, the German commanding general.  He loved the Kaiser.  And just about the time of the Scopes Trial, or shortly thereafter, he wrote a book explaining why democracy was a bad idea.  And earlier he had hoped that Germany would conquer America and eliminate small-d-democracy.

So the case of who these people were, what they represented, has been grossly distorted over time.  Bryan was anything but a buffoon.

In 1905, Bryan had already read Darwin and he debated Henry Osborn of New York’s Museum of Natural History about Darwinism.  And his opposition to Darwinism was based on its Nietzschean consequences, the same Nietzsche who Darrow had invoked in the Leopold and Loeb trial.

This idea of backwards America, yearning to lynch people who were in disagreement with them, really takes hold right there, right around the Scopes Trial.  We never quite recover from it.

And until then, there’s really no divergence in America between religious belief and the public culture.  That gap is created by this Scopes Trial and has grown annually ever since.

The third trial was the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian anarchists who were accused of murdering a clerk in a robbery in Braintree, Massachusetts.  They were ‑‑ they were very likely ‑‑ they were both very likely guilty.  One almost certainly ‑‑ is certainly guilty.  But they were portrayed as innocent victims, once again, of American ‑‑ of American prejudice, or what ‑‑ of what Mencken called the “Booboisie “.

As time went on and forensics were ‑‑ you know, became more sophisticated, it seems likely that Vanzetti’s gun was responsible.  But the two men were portrayed as Christ-like, suffering ‑‑ suffering in silence for the evils of American society.

Part of the importance of the trial, it’s the hinge on which many 1920s liberals swung over toward what in the 30s would become Marxism and Communism, for people like themselves.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Let’s jump ahead to the second half of the 20th century. At the start of the 1960s, liberals had a statist technocratic vision of America that culminated with John F. Kennedy’s vision to land a man on the moon becoming a reality at the end of the decade. But by the end of the 1960s, as you write, Progressivism became anti-progress, becoming obsessed with radical environmentalism, zero population growth, and other anti-humanist tactics. How did such a philosophical sea change occur, and how did it hamstring the left to this very day?

MR. SIEGEL:  Well, the wake of the Kennedy assassination is the beginning of the end of the old liberalism.  In the 50s, liberals seemed to have learned their lessons.  They break ‑‑ they break decisively with Communism.  And we get the ironic, sophisticated, complex liberalism, we associate with Daniel Patrick Moynihan.  But that liberalism gets swept out in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination.

To this very day, liberals can’t believe that Oswald wasn’t a right-winger.  And if somebody thinks I’m exaggerating, just go look at the Times coverage, or George Packer in the New Yorker, who’s written some of the silliest stuff.  Kennedy was killed by the climate of hate in Dallas, according to Packer.

Now, Oswald’s a guy who was a Communist.  He spent time in the Soviet Union.  He had nothing to do with the right.  He was part of the Fair Play for Cuba.  How he gets to be a right-winger is extraordinary.  But this inability to come to grips with who Oswald was, was the beginning of conspiracy fever and the beginning of the breakdown ‑‑ the breakdown of liberalism.


The second part of the breakdown came when liberalism moved from one of its great moments ‑‑ one of its great moments of success, its attack on segregation, and for which liberals deserve an enormous amount of credit, and moved from equal justice for all, colorblind justice, to supporting black separatism, black nationalism.

Liberals are never able to fully reconcile that switch.  And just a suggestion.  If people haven’t read John [sound dropout] who writes often in Minding the Campus, John talks about this at great length.  And he’s brilliant on this.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Fred, I’m sorry, we didn’t catch his last name.

MR. SIEGEL:  His name was John Rosenberg.


MR. SIEGEL:  And he writes wonderfully on this inability of liberals to ever reconcile their claim to be colorblind with their attempt to impose racial quotas on virtually everything.

So between those two developments, the growth of black nationalism and the paranoia that comes in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, liberalism falls apart.

The other thing that tears it apart is the rise of the drug culture.  1950s liberalism prided itself on being rational, as you say, technocratic, thoughtful.  The drug culture is anything but.  You give up ‑‑ you give up your rational faculties and simply go with the intergalactic flow.

MR. DRISCOLL:  So how do we get from the era of the drug culture to the radical environmentalism that came to dominate the left beginning in the early 1970s?

MR. SIEGEL:  We get there, partly through Rachel Carson and her novel about environmentalism.  Partly through the sense that Vietnam is a product ‑‑ is a product of American rationalism ‑‑ technocracy and is a product of the American middle class.  The idea that Kennedy got us into Vietnam, that too, is wiped aside.

And environmentalism becomes the modern form of eugenics.  What I mean by that is, early 20th century eugenics is sort of associated with H.G. Wells.  It’s about direct population control.  We want to breed the right kind of people.

The eugenicists of the 1970s, those associated with environmentalism, they want ‑‑ they want to reshape the consumption habits, the living habits, of the American middle class.  They see the American middle class as the problem, as did Wells.  But they’re not so much concerned about how they ‑‑ how to breed the middle class, as to ‑‑ as to constrain the middle class habits of consumption and the way they live.

MR. DRISCOLL: Let’s jump ahead slightly to 1988. Surveying the battle between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, you write that “The Americans of 1988 had more rights than ever. Yet by and large, they felt more politically powerless. The 1988 presidential election was our first and so far only national race in which virtually all the central issues of the campaign—criminal rights, abortion rights, capital punishment, the required recital (by teachers) of the Pledge of Allegiance—were judicially generated.” How did we get to that point?

MR. SIEGEL:  We got to that point through McGovernism.  The platform associated with the Democrats of the ’72 convention is a long list of contrived and invented rights.  But in order to impose those rights, what McGovernism produced is an army of lawyers.

So the the elected bodies of government become less important, the courts become more important, and the idea of governing by vindicating rights becomes central to liberalism.  In that period between 1972 and 2008, liberalism is in the electoral wilderness.  Bill Clinton is an exception, because Clinton makes a point of saying I’m part of the country, I’m not separate from the country.


What changes is the growth of public sector unions.  Because public sector unions create an alternative middle class.  Instead of the private sector middle class, the public sector unions were a public sector middle class who have an interest in big government.  And that growth of the public sector middle class along with something I called “gentry liberalism” ‑‑ gentry liberalism are those liberals who identify with the critics of middle class life, who elevate themselves above the conventional, because they’re hip.

And Charles Murray wrote about this brilliantly when he talked about people who can’t preach what they practice.  So you have upper middle class people who teach their children all the virtues, are enormously attentive, but can’t preach what they practice, because that would be square, and they’re hip.

And so the idea of hip and cool becomes an important part of the liberal identity.  You don’t want to act like those people down the block who are utterly conventional, go to church on Sunday or go to synagogue on Saturday and focus on their families and their country.  This is considered problematic.

MR. DRISCOLL:  So with all of this as the back story, how much of the tradition and the excesses of the early and the mid-century progressives was inherited by Barack Obama and his administration?

MR. SIEGEL:  Well, Barack Obama is a quintessential liberal.  Reverend Wright ‑‑ you know, that was the church where he belonged, the Afrocentric church ‑‑ Reverend Wright preached against “middle classness,” as if the problems in the inner cities is too much ‑‑ too many middle class virtues, too many Victorian virtues.

Obama himself is drawn to Nietzsche and the idea of the superior beings as the ones who should be governing us.  Also, Obama is drawn to an idea which is laid out in Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here.  In It Can’t Happen Here, the country is taken over by these fascist Rotarians.  The solution that Lewis lays out is to replace the oligarchy imposed by these would-be fascists with a better oligarchy.  And that’s essentially what Obama represents.  He represents the idea we need a better oligarchy.

So he’s put together a coalition of the oligarchs of Silicon Valley, the Chicago Machine, Wall Street, and New York liberals, and Washington.

So if you look at who’s in the Obama administration, very few members of the cabinet come from outside those areas:  New York, Washington, Chicago, or the Bay Area.  The cabinet is overwhelmingly from those areas.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Fred, last question.  Near the end of The Revolt Against the Masses, to bring it full circle with the start of the book, you write that, “Sinclair Lewis’s 1920s never went away.”  Do you see this cycle of punitive thinking ever coming to a conclusion in the future?  And if so, how?

MR. SIEGEL:  It’s funny you would say that.  It’s exactly what’s on my mind, that it’s important that the next president, whoever he or she will be, recognize that the country is deeply polarized between the metropolitan populations and the rest of the country.  And any attempt to create a new alignment ‑‑ excuse me, a new realignment which Bush tried, and is at fault for this, and Obama tried, and is also at fault, is going to fail.

We have to govern in the future with a recognition of our differences and the fact that those differences are not going to be overcome.


So we have to figure out a way to give more power to the states, to allow states and localities to go their own way.  Just as many localities are now saying no to marijuana, other states and localities will say yes to it, we have to have a kind of moral pluralism in the country, or else we’re going to con ‑‑ we’ll continue fighting over the Scopes Trial.

MR. DRISCOLL:  This is Ed Driscoll and we’ve been talking today with Fred Siegel, the author of The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class. It’s published by Encounter Books, and available from and your local bookstore. And Fred, good luck with the new book, and thanks once again for stopping by PJM today.

MR. SIEGEL:  Thank you for having me, Ed.

(End of recording; for our many previous podcasts, start here and keep scrolling.)

Transcribed by, with minor revisions (including hyperlinks) by Ed Driscoll.


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