CRB: The High-Low Coalition

I am advised by those who should know that Thomas Sowell has declared the Claremont Review of Books to be the best book review around, by far. That may be proof three thousand and thirty-six that Dr. Sowell is a man of great taste and erudition. Subscribe here for the unreasonably low price of $19.95 and get immediate online access to the magazine thrown in for good measure.

In keeping with custom our friends at the CRB have entrusted me with an advance look at their forthcoming Winter issue to pick a few highlights for our readers. My number one pick from the issue this time around is “The High-Low Coalition” by Wilfred McClay, the eminent historian who holds the the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma. Professor McClay’s review has more than two things going for it, but the two that commended it to me on behalf of our readers is that it is by the great Bill McClay and it takes up one of the books of the year, Fred Siegel’s The Revolt Against the Masses, published by our friends at Encounter Books.

In Revolt Siegel audaciously revises the history of modern American liberalism. The book is a highly entertaining contribution to American intellectual and political history. Despite Siegel’s slightly (or decidedly) non-Claremontian take on American liberalism, Professor McClay has nothing but praise for The Revolt Against the Masses.

Taking the “high-low coalition” – that alliance of billionaires and welfare recipients that forms the core of Obama’s support – as perfectly representative of modern liberalism, Siegel traces its emergence, not to the stodgily middle-class progressive movement, but rather to the ferment and discontent of post-WWI intellectuals, men such as Herbert Croly, Randolph Bourne, H.G. Wells, Sinclair Lewis, and H.L. Mencken.

These intellectuals, all “in fervent revolt against Wilson’s middle-class moralism,” consciously set out to create in America a new aristocracy of intellect to give order, depth, and stability to American mass democracy and bourgeois culture. Hence the snobbery of liberals today: “liberalism was from the start a ‘search for status,’ undertaken by a new social type trying to establish its ascendancy,” writers “who made hostility to the precepts and practices of bourgeois society into the defining mark of liberalism.” Siegel argues that the history of modern liberalism is the history of this new social group struggling for power in a middle-class nation.

To do so required an alliance with a part of the despised mass culture, an alliance that gives to liberalism its distinctive political quality – purported advocacy for the overlooked and left behind – and its worst practical feature: “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.”

As Professor McClay shows, Siegel compels his readers to ask whether the superficially benevolent aspects of modern liberalism are but a means to the advancement of the intellectual elite. Certainly the Obama administration has made increasingly clear that the ends of its policies are a thoroughgoing transformation in our understanding of the goal of the pursuit of happiness: “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.”

[I]t 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.

Siegel’s book has previously drawn knowledgeable appreciations by Jonah Goldberg at NRO and Vincent Cannato in the Weekly Standard (a review that notes Siegel’s departure from the standard Claremont account of liberalism). Professor McClay’s is a worthy addition to the mix.


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