Liberalism: Nihilist, Incoherent, or Both?

Victor Davis Hanson puts his finger on the core meaning of Grubergate with his most recent column referring to the Gruber types as “Snobocrats.” It is worth recognizing that Gruberism isn’t just simple elitism, but has an overlay of snobbery about how much better are the Grubers of the world than the grubby middle class on whose behalf the Grubers endlessly toil and fret.

But this should raise a curious question: why all this toil on behalf of a large class of stupid, unworthy people? It is clear the core of cultural liberalism is disdain for the American middle class. (Indeed it is tempting to say that the chief political class conflict in America is between the Grubers and the grubbers.) Why build up a middle class that will, at best, be ungrateful, and, at worst, vote Republican? Is Hanson right that the correct term for understanding the Grubers amongst us is snobbery rather than the old fashioned noblesse oblige?

One explanation is that liberals don’t really care about the middle class at all, and in fact would like to destroy it. This is certainly true of the radical left, but it is probably not the deliberate intent of the liberal political class. (Whether they perceive the destructive effects of specific policies on the middle class is a separate question. You must never rule out stupidity and ignorance as an explanation for liberal actions.) The alternative explanation is that modern liberalism is mostly about making liberals feel better about themselves (as well as collecting fat consulting contracts to manage the complexities they come up with). This is closer to the mark, but doesn’t go far enough toward understanding the deep roots of why snobbery is not just a compulsion for liberals, but is in fact essential to modern liberalism.

That idea is not original to me. Hanson’s article sent me back to a minor classic essay from 1973, by the late John Adams Wettergreen in the Western Political Quarterly: “Is Snobbery a Formal Value? Considering Life at the End of Modernity.” This is a dense theoretical essay, not recommended for light reading. Wettergreen homed in on liberalism’s Hegelian dimension, which held that the ideals of equality and individualism represented the “end of history,” and that practically speaking all that is left is the struggle to achieve more perfect equality, either through revolution, if you’re a Marxist, or through “Progressivism,” if you’re a modern liberal. (And in both cases these problems are seen mostly as technical in nature: hence the technocracy of the Grubers.) This is at the root of that familiar liberal cliché, “on the side of history.” Most liberals are unaware of the pedigree of this theme, but always proceed according to the presumption that it is unnecessary to argue the premise. For a liberal, the doctrine of Progress is simply above rational argument.

But the “New Left” of the 1960s recoiled from the implications of this. The French Hegelian quasi-Communist Alexandre Kojeves wrote that “The American way of life is not the life-style proper to the final State because it is too vulgar.” From here flowed much of the vocabulary of the 1960s about finding “authenticity,” which found its way into nearly every nook and cranny of our culture (much to the fury of the New Left) and gradually overtook mainstream liberalism. Consider, as just one example, Hillary Clinton’s infamous 1993 speech on “the politics of meaning,” which in a sense was just Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech on steroids. Hillary ratified the idea that government wouldn’t just tend to your material needs, but would heal your soul, too. Because we’re better than you are.

The supposed backwardness of the American middle class is oddly reassuring to liberals, because it ratifies their formal snobbery. But it is snobbery that compasses the incoherence of a liberalism that seeks to shore up the middle class it disdains, and the hypocrisy of scowling at middle class materialism while scooping up million dollar government contracts to manage Obamacare. It also explains the rage of liberals when their “wave of history” collides with a riptide “wave election” that leaves them stranded on a sandbar.