Interview: Fred Siegel on The Revolt Against the Masses

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.