This short book rewrites the history of modern American liberalism. It shows that what we think of liberalism today – the top and bottom coalition we associate with President Obama – began not with Progressivism or the New Deal but rather in the wake of the post-WWI disillusionment with American society. In the twenties, the first writers and thinkers to call themselves liberals adopted the hostility to bourgeois life that had long characterized European intellectuals of both the left and the right. The aim of liberalism’s foundational writers and thinkers such as Herbert Croly, Randolph Bourne, H.G. Wells, Sinclair Lewis and H.L Mencken was to create an American aristocracy of sorts, to provide a sense of hierarchy and order associated with European statism.
Like communism, Fabianism, and fascism, modern liberalism, critical of both capitalism and democracy, was born of a new class of politically self-conscious intellectuals. They despised both the individual businessman’s pursuit of profit and the conventional individual’s pursuit of pleasure, both of which were made possible by the lineaments of the limited nineteenth-century state.
Temporarily waylaid by the heroism of the WWII generation, in the 1950s liberalism expressed itself as a critique of popular culture. It was precisely the success of elevating middle class culture that frightened foppish characters like Dwight Macdonald and Aldous Huxley, crucial influences on what was mistakenly called the New Left. There was no New Left in the 1960s, but there was a New Class which in the midst of Vietnam and race riots took up the priestly task of de-democratizing America in the name of administering newly developed rights
The neo-Mathusianism which emerged from the 60s was, unlike its eugenicist precursors, aimed not at the breeding habits of the lower classes but rather the buying habits of the middle class.
Today’s Barack Obama liberalism has displaced the old Main Street private sector middle class with a new middle class composed of public sector workers allied with crony capitalists and the country’s arbiters of style and taste.