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Understanding The Battle Over The American Narrative


We have this term now in circulation: “the narrative.” It is one of those somewhat pretentious academic terms that has wormed its way into common speech, like “gender” or “significant other,” bringing hidden freight along with it. Everywhere you look, you find it being used, and by all kinds of people. Elite journalists, who are likely to be products of university life rather than years of shoe-leather reporting, are perhaps the most likely to employ it, as a way of indicating their intellectual sophistication. But conservative populists like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are just as likely to use it too. Why is that so? What does this development mean?

I think the answer is clear. The ever more common use of “narrative” signifies the widespread and growing skepticism about any and all of the general accounts of events that have been, and are being, provided to us. We are living in an era of pervasive genteel disbelief—nothing so robust as relativism, but instead something more like a sustained “whatever”—and the word “narrative” provides a way of talking neutrally about such accounts while distancing ourselves from a consideration of their truth. Narratives are understood to be “constructed,” and it is assumed that their construction involves conscious or unconscious elements of selectivity—acts of suppression, inflation, and substitution, all meant to fashion the sequencing and coloration of events into an instrument that conveys what the narrator wants us to see and believe.

These days, even your garage mechanic is likely to speak of the White House narrative, the mainstream-media narrative, and indicate an awareness that political leaders try to influence the interpretation of events at a given time, or seek to “change the narrative” when things are not turning out so well for them and there is a strongly felt need to change the subject. The language of “narrative” has become a common way of talking about such things.

One can regret the corrosive side effects of such skepticism, but there are good reasons for it. Halfway through the first quarter of the 21st century, we find ourselves saddled with accounts of our nation’s past, and of the trajectory of American history, that are demonstrably suspect, and disabling in their effects. There is a view of America as an exceptionally guilty nation, the product of a poisonous mixture of territorial rapacity emboldened by racism, violence, and chauvinistic religious conviction, an exploiter of natural resources and despoiler of natural beauty and order such as the planet has never seen. Coexisting with that dire view is a similarly exaggerated Whiggish progressivism, in which all of history is seen as a struggle toward the greater and greater liberation of the individual, and the greater and greater integration of all governance in larger and larger units, administered by cadres of experts actuated by the public interest and by a highly developed sense of justice. The arc of history bends toward the latter view, although its progress is impeded by the malign effects of the former one.

The standard accounts of the development of American liberalism nestle themselves into both of these narratives. Such liberalism begins with the emergence of Anglo-American constitutional democracy in the 17th century, a system that sought to defend human freedom by protecting it, using legal and constitutional means to limit and contain the trespasses and encroachments of power, and liberate individuals from subjection to aristocratic or ecclesiastical forms of domination. But those efforts in time proved insufficient, mostly because of the unprecedented concentrations of economic power wrought by industrial capitalism, which reduced the constitutional prerogatives of individual citizens to something empty, formalistic, and ineffectual. If the sphere of freedom was to be preserved and expanded, liberalism would have to create the social power that would make this expansion possible. Thus began the morphing of what had been a philosophy of limited government into a philosophy of expansive government. The change was understood to be less a change of goals than of tactics. It would be necessary, as Herbert Croly famously put it in his Promise of American Life, to use Hamiltonian means to achieve Jeffersonian ends. Thus emerged the Progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and so on, even unto the administrative sprawl of the Obama Administration and its reach into the nationalization of health care.

So goes the standard narrative, at any rate. But what historian Fred Siegel seeks to do with his refreshing and stimulating new book is to challenge the narrative, overturn its hegemony, and begin the process of modifying and even replacing it. Siegel is a proven master of synthesis, having written several fine books that subtly remap parts of the history of postwar America, and The Revolt Against the Masses is a continuation of such efforts. Like all the best critiques of liberalism, it is a critique of liberalism from the Left, or at any rate from someone who came out of the Left, and who remains loyal to what used to be the Left’s most admirable values, such as a genuinely warm regard for the lives of the ordinary, working people who constitute the backbone of the American economy and democracy. As his subtitle suggests, Siegel believes that liberalism has proven to be the mortal enemy, rather than the generous friend, of such people, and that the seeds of this antagonism have been visible all along for discerning eyes to see. His new narrative may not be the be-all and end-all of American historical interpretations, and he rather pointedly declines to claim anything that comprehensive for it. But it explains a great deal, including the emergence of the top-and-bottom alliance of billionaires and welfare recipients that forms the core of the Obama coalition. It is an excellent starting place for the kind of reconceptualization of recent American history that we so badly need.

Liberalism was from the start a “search for status,” undertaken by a new social type trying to establish its ascendancy.

In Siegel’s view, modern liberalism did not begin with Progressivism or the New Deal. It began, he argues, with the generation of writers in the 1920s who were disillusioned by the outcome of the First World War, and alienated from the mainstream of American society—and who made hostility to the precepts and practices of bourgeois society into the defining mark of liberalism. Intellectuals such as Croly, Randolph Bourne, H.G. Wells, Sinclair Lewis, and H.L. Mencken, far from being in thrall to the Progressivism of Woodrow Wilson, were in fervent revolt against Wilson’s middle-class moralism. They also were an emerging social type, part of a “vanguard movement” created by “a new class of politically self-conscious intellectuals” which sought, Siegel argues, “to create an American aristocracy of sorts,” to provide the stability, hierarchy, and taste that American mass democracy and bourgeois culture so conspicuously lacked. Hence the snobbery and superior attitude that one so often finds associated with liberalism is, you might say, a feature rather than a bug. Snobbery would always be a central part of it, because liberalism was from the start a “search for status,” undertaken by a new social type trying to establish its ascendancy. For Siegel, the history of liberalism is very much bound up in the history of intellectuals as a distinct social group, and their efforts to establish themselves as a new aristocracy, or clerisy.

Many of the progenitors and heroes in the early years of modern American liberalism provide support for this view, but none is more convincing than Henry Adams, that quintessential figure of aristocratic disappointment, the superior man of superior breeding who had to endure the indignity of a society that failed to defer to him. “To the gradually cohering body of dissenters from the orthodoxies of American life,” wrote Lionel Trilling, “The Education of Henry Adams was a sacred book…despite, or because of, its hieratic esoteric irony and its reiterated note of patrician condescension.” The famous basher of the “booboisie,” H.L. Mencken, echoed these attitudes, along with an openly avowed attraction to Friedrich Nietzsche and to the wartime cause of Imperial Germany. So too did Randolph Bourne, honored today as a prophet of multiculturalism and scourge of war, but actually a great admirer of Imperial Germany and of, as he called it, “the cosmic heroism of the German ideal.”

Siegel goes on to trace this strain of crypto-aristocratic longing through subsequent chapters, on the Leopold-Loeb trial, the Scopes trial, the Sacco-Vanzetti trial, through the ideological maneuverings of the “Red Decade” of the 1930s (along with Bernard DeVoto’s honorable but futile effort to defend the dignity of democracy against them), and on into the war years, and the postwar era. Siegel has a particularly fascinating chapter on the many ways that the ’50s have been misrepresented, not least as an era of cultural vacancy, a misrepresentation that was fostered by aristocratic radicals like Dwight Macdonald and the snobbish aristo-Marxism of the Frankfurt School thinkers such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, who were either incapable of seeing, or unwilling to see, the considerable virtues of the era’s mass-cultural productions, in television, radio, cinema, musical theater, and the like—products that we look back upon with wonder and gratitude, given the pop-cultural sewer in which we now dwell. Macdonald’s attack on “middlebrow” culture was extreme and pitiless, borrowing extensively from the choicest invective of his predecessor Bourne: “The American culture of the cheap newspaper, the ‘movies,’ the popular song, the ubiquitous automobile” has created “hordes of men and women without a spiritual country…without taste, without standards but those of the mob.” And they all lived, of course, in the famous “ticky-tacky houses” of the new suburbia. Joseph de Maistre could have said it better, but with no less conviction.

“the elite intelligentsia of the country are turning against the country—in science, in politics, in the foundations of patriotism.”

By the 1960s, Daniel Patrick Moynihan could say that “the elite intelligentsia of the country are turning against the country—in science, in politics, in the foundations of patriotism.” And indeed, in the remainder of Siegel’s book, which proceeds through the cultural upheaval of the ’60s, the McGovernization of the Democratic Party, the destructive reign of anti-suburban mayors such as Coleman Young in Detroit, the rise of victimization and identity politics as the defining themes of campus life, along with steady instruction in the adoption of a postmodern sneer at the bogus “narratives” of middle-class life, through the Reagan and Clinton and Bush administrations, one sees little evidence of a warmly and genuinely democratic spirit operating in the Left, the kind of spirit that had once animated the social-democratic ethos of Moynihan’s mainstream American Catholicism.

The emergence of the high-low coalition, of wealthy “gentry liberals” who saw themselves as born to lead, and of ACORN activists and public-sector government-employee unions, gave no evidence of such a spirit abroad in the Democracy. With the 2008 election, an alliance of “resentful, extractive, and identity-driven interests” finally achieved general political power for the Democratic Party, at least on the national level. The story became, and remains, “Obama Versus Main Street,” as Siegel’s last chapter title leaves the matter, so long as one is including the suburbs, upon which (as Stanley Kurtz has argued) an administrative bullseye has been painted. We were promised that the chief objective of public policy in the Obama Administration would be a search for sources of economic growth, producing meaningful employment (“good jobs”) for the middle and working classes. And so it ought to have been. But instead, what we have seen is a growth in part-time jobs, and a vast and unsustainable increase in government entitlements and transfer payments. Such policies claim to address the claims of “distributive justice” and “spread the wealth around”; but they are almost certain to have the effect of depressing the work incentives and work ethic of such recipients and producing a habit of unwarranted and debasing dependency on government.

That this shift is being intentionally sought is suggested by the astonishingly insouciant response we’ve seen to many years of exceptionally bad employment news. This has led to statements that border on the surreal. Most recently at the time of this writing, we have seen Obamacare defenders insisting that a reduction in the workforce by the equivalent of 2.3 million workers over the next seven years, as recently predicted by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), is a virtue of the new law, not a defect. Even the compliant White House press corps was astonished by the effrontery of the claim, but the larger pattern at work here is clear: what is being devised is not merely a safety net for the needy, but the validation of a work-optional lifestyle, underwritten by government, which would represent a shift in fundamental American values.

And the nation is responding to the new menu of incentives and disincentives. Already the labor force participation rate, the percentage of the population over the age of 16 working or actively seeking work, had fallen to 62.9% in 2013, down from 66% in 2007, and the lowest rate since 1978. CBO predicts that rate will continue to fall, to 60.8% by 2024, an estimate that may well be very conservative. The growing number of Americans able to get by without working, thanks to an ever-enlarging safety net, now including Obamacare’s subsidies for the unemployed and underemployed, will almost certainly be helpful for Democrats on Election Day. But it takes no great gift of prophecy to see that this pattern cannot be sustained, and that it will soon threaten the sustenance of our prosperity and what remains of our republican institutions. Not to mention being antithetical to the values and desires of ordinary salt-of-the-earth American working people, the people whose cause is Fred Siegel’s central animating concern in this book—the very people who have seen the arc of history, and historiography, so forcibly and nastily bent away from them.

In other words, Siegel’s book is asking us to reconsider the history of the last century or so through a different lens—the lens offered by our tracking the moves and motives of the aspirant intellectual class. It is all powerfully persuasive, and immensely depressing, and one is left with the same sense one has in reading Paul Johnson’s justly celebrated book Intellectuals (1988): amazed at the damage the intellectual class has done, and puzzled as to what to do about it. Certainly a good beginning, however, is to do what Siegel has done: to take a leaf from the postmodernist book, and show how “the narrative” of liberalism that predominates in our schools and mass media is, like all narratives in the deconstructionist account of things, actually designed to serve the interests of power. (Why, after all, should it be any different for liberals, if the one universal in all politics is the relentless pursuit of power? How can liberals, and they alone, be motivated by the pure pursuit of justice?)

So turn their own premises against them, and show that, sadly, and infuriatingly, the power of liberalism has translated into the steady enrichment of those who wield it, and into steadily diminishing prospects in the lives of the very people it first rose to serve. That is precisely what this book accomplishes. It strips away “the narrative,” and exposes it as a form of self-justification. The Revolt Against the Masses should be read widely, by Democrats and Republicans alike—at least by those among them who genuinely care about what is being done to the middle and working classes.

Wilfred M. McClay is the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma. This piece is reprinted with permission from the Claremont Review of Books.