Today’s Democratic party is not the party of Joe Biden’s youth or middle age. As author Fred Siegel correctly observes, it is a top-bottom coalition of the well-credentialed (but not well-educated) upper-middle class and beyond, plus those who work for, depend upon, or otherwise presume to shelter under the benevolent arm of government.
The Crisis of Liberalism: Prelude to Trump by Fred Siegel (266 pages, Telos Press Publishing, 2020)
Fred Siegel is a liberal who understands something that too many of today’s liberals fail to understand: that the progressive left is a much greater threat to America—and to American liberals—than is conservatism in any of its political manifestations of recent vintage. That would include Goldwater conservatism, Reaganite conservatism, and Trumpist conservatism.
Siegel, the liberal, was and remains a social democrat (as opposed to a democratic socialist). By his own definition he is not a progressive, no matter its incarnation, from Herbert Croly and John Dewey all the way to Barack Obama and those progressives who are now well to left of the former president.
He also is not and never has been a conservative, whether paleo or neo, traditional or libertarian. But in this collection of essays he often sounds like a conservative of some stripe. In fact, he sounds increasingly conservative in his essays written for the City Journal since the onset of the Obama Administration. For that matter, conservatism lurks in not a few essays that predate the Obama years (a few reach back to the early 1980s).
While Mr. Siegel might be labeled a neo-conservative, he seems to resist being tagged as such. And perhaps for good reason. Irving Kristol once described the type as a liberal mugged by reality. Mr. Siegel’s story is slightly different. He is a liberal who has refused to be mugged by the left. This doesn’t mean that he has shied away from fights. Far from it. If anything, he revels in political skirmishes and battles. It simply means that when it comes to such contests he knows who his real enemies and—and who his true allies are.
Of course, Fred Siegel knows much more than this. But at this critical point in American history there is nothing that he knows that is more important than this. For that matter, there are few writers more important that Siegel when it comes to telling his story—and that of his country—over the course of recent decades.
To his credit, it must also be noted that Fred Siegel has been a slow learner. To his credit? Yes. This good social democrat long wanted to believe that federally mandated extensions of what were essentially New Deal-like programs and policies offered the best answer to America’s problems, especially urban America’s problems. His condition, therefore, was less a defect than a hope.
If anything, it was difficult for this good social democrat to surrender his belief in and commitment to the good that government could do for the underclass, the underserved, and the underdog. That’s a lot of “unders.” So many in fact that they eventually overwhelmed Siegel, who gradually came to realize that the ultimate “under” was living under the thumb of government run by and for progressive elites.
Helping Mr. Siegel reach his surrender point was something else that he must have learned as a young man, but might have occasionally forgotten now and again. As his friend and co-conspirator, Joel Kotkin, puts it in the forward to this book, Siegel believes that the “bourgeois values of hard work, faith and family (are) not oppressive but liberating.” Such values are still readily subscribed to by true liberals, good social democrats, and all conservatives, but not by leftists.
Born in 1945, Mr. Siegel is old enough to have been a child of the sixties. By his own accounting, he also came of age during the heyday of liberalism. That would be the period between 1950 and 1970, or the two decades that he has come to declare to have been the “anomaly.” In Mr. Siegel’s words, it “took the concussive effects of the communist conquest of Eastern Europe in the wake of World War II to temporarily pull liberalism off its socialist path.”
This child of the sixties (as is another slow learner, namely yours truly) is now old enough to know a good deal about the damage done by that watershed decade. Not so for the genuine radicals of the sixties and their ideological descendants. Radicals of that decade “deployed their justified opposition to the Vietnam War to blind themselves to the consequences and meaning of statism and Stalinism.”
Their ideological descendants continue to blind themselves to this day. The “willed ignorance” of sixties radicals produced McGovernism in 1972 and beyond. Such ignorance continues to produce blindness to the totalitarianism threat of today. Nay, they constitute the totalitarian threat to America today.
More than all of this, Mr. Siegel also knows that the sixties have never really ended. The damage, in short, has been ongoing, whether the target has been education, our cities, or those aforementioned bourgeois values. In fact, Mr. Siegel is now willing to conclude that much of that damage has been done by the very Great Society programs that good social democrats once heralded and promoted.
Many of these essays tell the tale of his ongoing effort to unearth and account for this damage. And many more are representative of his relentless effort to chart new paths for old social democrats and confirmed liberals alike. Both efforts convinced him not to vote for Donald Trump in 2016. And the word is that both efforts finally compelled him to vote for President Trump in 2020.
Here we come to one more thing that this slow learner has also learned: the Democratic party is no longer a liberal party. It is a leftist party. As such, it is no longer part of any liberal or even social democratic solution to the country’s ills. Instead, it has become a very large part of the country’s very large problems.
Mr. Siegel has not gone as far as Joel Kotkin has gone. The ex-Democrat, and now Independent, Mr. Kotkin has not hesitated to declare today’s Democratic party to be essentially a “Stalinist organization.” While Mr. Siegel is not willing to go that far, he does see his old party as heading in that direction.
The title of the Siegel book that preceded this one provides a hint: Revolt Against the Masses. Here Mr. Siegel takes the story back to the early 20th century and the explicit elitism of the first progressives. He then links those progressives with their early 21st century counterparts. Herbert Croly meet Barack Obama. Or better yet, HC meet AOC.
His trajectory is not a tale of “creeping socialism.” Rather, his is a story, told in essay form, of a temporarily -interrupted march toward socialism that began with Herbert Croly’s “socialistic” progressivism of the early 20th century. Save for the aforementioned “anomaly” of 1950-1970, this march resumed haltingly over the last quarter of the 20th century. And today this same march threatens to “fundamentally transform” the country, as candidate Barack Obama threatened but failed, to accomplish.
The vehicle for achieving this transformation is the Democratic party, now led by Obama’s veep, who has spent his entire political career trying to gauge where his party is heading and then adjust his views accordingly. Himself a child of the sixties, Joe Biden might be excused for wishing that he could resurrect the party of John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. Instead, he seems poised to be swept along by post-Obama Democrats who are no longer content to creep toward socialism.
In sum, today’s Democratic party is not the party of Joe Biden’s youth or middle age. As Fred Siegel correctly observes, it is a top-bottom coalition of the well-credentialed (but not well-educated) upper-middle class and beyond, plus those who work for, depend upon, or otherwise presume to shelter under the benevolent arm of government.
By Siegel’s description it is an “hour-glass” operation. Forgotten, or otherwise left behind or out, are middle class and working class Americans. They would be akin to those Americans who helped create the “anomaly” of the fifties and sixties. They also happen to be the heart of the Trump constituency. That would be the same constituency with which Mr. Siegel finally cast his lot—and all in the name of supporting the very people and their very bourgeois values that good liberals and good social democrats have always had every good reason to support.
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