Michael Barone
The roots of American liberalism are not compassion, but snobbery. That's the thesis of Fred Siegel's revealing new book, "The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class."

The standard account from liberal historians over the years, and more recently in bestsellers by Glenn Beck, is a linear story: Government expansion starts with the Progressives of a hundred years ago, accelerates through the New Deal and the Great Society, and is followed up by the Obama stimulus and Obamacare.

Siegel says it's more complicated than that. And he argues that literary figures contributed as much to the liberal mindset -- maybe more -- than public policy wonks.

He depicts the Progressives as Protestant reformers, determined to professionalize institutions and tame the immigrant and industrial masses. Progressive projects included women's suffrage and prohibition of alcohol.

But the many pro-German Progressives were appalled when Woodrow Wilson led America into World War I and by Wilson's brutal suppression of civil liberties.

Progressivism was repudiated in the landslide election of Warren Harding in 1920, at which point disenchanted liberal thinkers turned their ire against middle-class Americans who, in the "roaring '20s," were happily buying automobiles, refrigerators, radios and tickets to the movies.

The novels of Sinclair Lewis, the journalism of H.L. Mencken and the literary criticism of Van Wyck Brooks heaped scorn on the vast and supposedly mindless Americans who worked hard at their jobs and joined civic groups -- Mencken's "booboisie."

These 1920s liberals idealized the "noble aspiration" and "fine aristocratic pride" in an imaginary Europe, and considered Americans, in the words of a Lewis character, "a savorless people, gulping tasteless food," and "listening to mechanical music, saying mechanical things about the excellence of Ford automobiles and viewing themselves as the greatest race in the world."

This contempt for ordinary Americans mostly persisted in changing political environments. During the Great Depression, many liberals became Communists, proclaiming themselves tribunes of a virtuous oppressed proletariat that would have an enlightened rule.

For a moment, idealization of the working man, but not the middle-class striver, came into vogue. But in the postwar years, what Siegel calls "the political and cultural snobbery" of liberals returned.

He recounts the derision of historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and economist John Kenneth Galbraith -- Cambridge neighbors after the war -- for Harry Truman, the onetime haberdasher and member of veterans' groups and service clubs.


Michael Barone

Michael Barone, senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner (www.washingtonexaminer.com), is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. To find out more about Michael Barone, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2011 THE WASHINGTON EXAMINER. DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM