Progressives and the Booboisie
What do H. L. Mencken and Barack Obama have in common? Not much, it would seem. The sage of Baltimore was skeptical of all politicians, especially the high-minded, reform-minded sort. Where might that leave our incumbent president, who has offered himself to us not just as a high-minded reformer but as a kind of secular savior? As such, Obama sees himself as the reincarnation of our original scholar-as-president. That would be the terminally high-minded Woodrow Wilson, whom Mencken not-so-cordially despised.
Mencken wrote his autobiography to cap a long literary career; in contrast, Obama turned to the same genre to announce his arrival on the national scene. In addition, the writer was a libertarian on economic and social matters, while the president prefers to characterize himself as a progressive, a term and a disposition that Mencken thoroughly abhorred and roundly scorned.
So why has Fred Siegel chosen to feature Mencken in his somewhat scattershot but nonetheless brilliant history of American liberalism from the 1920s to the present? In large measure he has done so because he is really out to explain three unfortunately related phenomena: the rise of the liberal elite, the evolution of the Democratic party from Wilson to Obama, and the contribution that both have made to landing the country where we are.
To be sure, the Obama administration would not exactly agree that the country is in a terrible fix. It was, but no more now that we are “progressing” (or being herded?) in their assigned direction. It’s also true that the Obamaites see themselves as progressives, rather than liberals. While Siegel would not necessarily disagree with that current self-assessment, the historical case that he makes in these pages separates progressives from liberals.
To begin at Siegel’s beginning we must go back to the early twentieth century of Mencken and Randolph Bourne, among others, rather than to the Theodore Roosevelts and Woodrow Wilsons of that era. In other words, we must go back to the liberal intellectuals, rather than to the progressive politicians. And when we do so we discover the contempt, even disdain, that the Menckens and the Bournes had for the common man; hence Siegel’s “revolt against the masses.”
How that “revolt” morphed into a powerful and successful political movement is obviously an important question. But it is not the main question that Siegel is out to answer in this book. What we have instead is essentially an intellectual history, rather than a political history. Better yet, what we have here is the history of an intellectual attitude, an attitude embodied by the likes of Mencken—and Obama. Mencken saw himself as one of the disinterested few whose task it was to warn his readers of the barbarians within the gates, namely the “booboisie” (meaning ordinary men with ordinary jobs, dull tastes and supposedly empty lives).
Obama also sees himself as one of those disinterested few. But he sees his task more than a bit differently, as he seeks to lead the American people to lives of fulfillment and collective purpose. If Mencken was content to guard against rule by philistines, Obama is determined to save us from such a fate. Only one of the two is driven by power, but both have been intent on using their talents to save the American people from themselves. Mencken as a savior of any sort may well be a stretch. But Obama as savior clearly is not.
Remember candidate Obama’s “candid audio” moment of truth at a 2008 Democratic fundraiser in San Francisco? Speaking to fellow members of the party elite on the eve of the Pennsylvania primary, Obama sought to account for the bitterness of jobless Americans who responded to their plight by clinging to “guns or religion” when they weren’t expressing “antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” Who were these lesser mortals if not the very same “booboisie?” It turns out that Mencken and Obama have at least one crucial thing in common after all. Neither is exactly overflowing with faith in the common man. Mencken’s lack of faith reached a level of contempt that he made no effort to hide. If anything, he padded his reputation and his bank account by advertising it. The president, on the other hand, holds the office that he does in part by virtue of successfully managing to disguise his Menckenesque side.
While playing on—and countering—Jose Ortega y Gasset’s 1932 classic, Revolt of the Masses, Siegel actually comes closer to arguing that liberalism has long been engaged in a kind of war against the masses. Ortega is crucial to that argument. Siegel zeroes in on the Spaniard’s maddening contention that the “greatest threat to the future” was neither an already fascist Italy nor an impending Nazi Germany, but the American common man and American mass culture. Five years later Ortega added a prologue in which he did make reference to the “stifling monotony” of mass European culture (without any mention of the now-entrenched Nazis) before returning to his main target: the “paradise of the masses” (otherwise known as the United States). Ironically, on the eve of World War II Ortega went out of his way to ridicule the notion that the American soldier would ever be in a position, much less need, to rescue European civilization.
Ortega aside, Siegel’s main targets are American critics of American culture and the American mass man. The result is a pointed, if at times hurried, examination of many of the usual suspects. But the time frame that Siegel has in mind is somewhat unusual. Conventional conservative critiques of the current state of American liberalism generally point to pre-World War I progressives as the original villains. Not so, counters Siegel. The real culprits, in his view, first came to prominence in the 1920s, whether as ex-progressives, anti-progressives, or post-progressives. Crucial to Siegel’s thesis is the hostility of liberal intellectuals to bourgeois life and middle class values. A complicated figure himself, “TR” was at once the epitome of prewar progressivism, a defender of the vigorous and virtuous common man, and an outspoken critic of the American businessman and business values. On this last score, but only on this last score, does TR fit Siegel’s bill. Not once, but twice, does Siegel derisively refer to Roosevelt’s own derisive dismissal of the “pawnbroker” mentality of the typical American businessman.
Dead by 1919, Roosevelt cannot figure in Siegel’s indictment of post-war liberalism, the roots of which apparently extend a bit deeper than Siegel might want to admit. This is not to say that Siegel is not on to something important and damning as he marches from the 1920s into the twenty-first century. What is true is that the hostility of the liberal intellectual to bourgeois values is at once long-standing and deep. Siegel is also right that many of these same intellectuals have long been determined to remake this country as a province of Europe. But once again the roots of this goal can be traced to pre-World War I progressives and their fascination with Bismarck’s Germany.
Siegel also deserves praise for calling out liberal intellectuals and what might be termed their penchant for establishing equivalencies between evils, or at least evils as they see them. A classic example of this phenomenon would be the Dwight MacDonald line that “Europe has its Hitlers; we have our Rotarians.” A variation of that maddening mindset (minus any equivalency) was provided by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who in 1968 declared Americans to be “the most frightening people on the planet.”
At the same time, Siegel concedes that the Schlesinger of the early Cold War period did not really fit his “intellectual as elitist snob” formula. Whether owing to his agreement with the legitimacy of Truman’s Cold War strategy or to the influence of Bernard De Voto on his thinking, much of Schlesinger’s The Vital Center strikes Siegel as a “fount of common sense for liberals.” The young Schlesinger derided “left-wing hysterics” who were much more worried about an “impending American fascism” than about any Soviet threat, internal or external. This Schlesinger directed his contempt not at the typical American, but at a Cold War version of American “doughfaces,” meaning Henry Wallaceites and other fellow travelers who were “democratic men with totalitarian principles.”
Nonetheless, according to Siegel, even Schlesinger could not hide his “burning hostility toward business.” It is that very hostility that unites Schlesinger with the rest of the liberal elite and drives much of Siegel’s argument. Although Siegel’s treatment at times of historical moments can be brief, even cursory, he is right to criticize the conventionally liberal critique of the American mass culture of the 1950s. If a television era that gave us “Studio One,” Shakespeare’s Richard III, various documentaries, and the NBC Symphony Orchestra was a “vast wasteland,” what would a new Newton Minnow say about reality TV, Jerry Springer and his ilk, and cable porn today?
Ironically, we hear little criticism from the liberal elite about the current sad state of mass culture, no doubt because their political allies are profiting from it and all too many Americans are being quieted by it. Bread and circuses have their uses, especially for a liberal regime that would like to remain in power permanently. Today most worries about the state of the culture come from conservative intellectuals. And many who worry about the fate of the underclass are conservative as well. But if the worries are nearly endless, the possible solutions are not. In fact, the most immediate and realizable solution brings us to that liberal about-face that Siegel argues took place in the 1970s. Here is Siegel at his best and most insightful. Having indicted the liberal elite for their contempt for the common man, having scolded them for their insufferable arrogance, having criticized them for believing that non-existent, disinterested experts can solve all our problems, Siegel engages in the unforgivable. He seeks to embarrass his intellectual enemies.
The liberal about-face of the 1970s was the liberal rejection of progress. To be sure, it could be argued that these self-anointed progressives have always been anti-progress. But not until the 1970s would they be so bold and so forthright about their commitments and goals. This is especially the case with environmentalists, but Siegel is quick to note that environmentalism has infected the entire liberal project.
Once again, irony intrudes. In seeking to embarrass today’s anti-progressive progressives Siegel compares them to the southern agrarians of I’ll Take My Stand standing. Siegel doesn’t mention the latter early on in his story. Only when he gets to the 1970s do they come into the picture—and only then to embarrass his main subjects, the liberal intellectuals, for adopting policies and a stance once exemplified and trumpeted by southern conservative intellectuals of the 1930s.
If there is to be a way out, if we are to escape the historical dead end to which liberalism has taken us, we must restore the very world that American liberalism has spent nearly a century trying to lose. That would be an America that Alexis de Tocqueville might still recognize, which is to say an America filled with ordinary Americans filled with “little ambitions.”
This would also be an America of Tocquevillian individualists, which is to say an America of “venturesome conservatives.” This is the American mass man, venturesome in the willingness to take risks, conservative in that we tend to think alike and act somewhat alike, that is, based on a common set of assumptions about our common life. In other words, these are the very Americans who have drawn the ire and fire of succeeding generations of American liberals.
If there is such a thing as progress, it can best be advanced by the very people whom “progressives” have long disdained. After all, among the “pawnbrokers” and “Rotarians” are thinkers and doers, tinkerers and investors, who have been too busy and too successful for too long to have had much time to bother to read what Siegel’s liberals have had to say about them all these years.
Still, it’s one thing to miss something written about you and quite another to remain unaware of what’s being done to you. This distinction brings us to one final difference between Mencken and Obama. A member in good standing of the “booboisie” might never know or care that he had been ridiculed by a liberal writer, but he certainly does know when he’s being railroaded by an elitist politician. Whether that knowledge can be turned into an electoral majority remains to be seen. But what cannot be denied is the reality of the very “revolt” that Fred Siegel has so brilliantly laid bare.
Posted: July 27, 2014
What Holds America Together?
Volume 15, Number 1 (Autumn 1974)