What makes liberals tick?
How can we explain liberals: their obsession with raising taxes, their love of big government, their rage, and their urge to dictate everything that we do? These two books have some ideas.
Fred Siegel has a new theory: libs are trying to create an aristocracy. Siegel says the liberals did not evolve from Woodrow Wilson and the Progressives, as is sometimes claimed, but arose in opposition to them in the decade between WWI and the Great Depression. Liberalism, says Siegel, was inspired by Nietzsche and promoted by writers like H.G. Wells and H.L. Mencken who wanted to elevate themselves above the common man and undermine our egalitarian tradition.
He gets this idea from the snobbery and hatred of the middle class exhibited by today's liberals. Of course, leftists hated the middle class long before the 20th century, but Siegel confines his discussion to 20th century American liberals.
But liberals don't just hate the middle class. They hate poor whites—rednecks in particular—even more. As other commentators have noticed, there's a strong element of anti-black hatred among libs as well. All those incidents of phony “racism” that they manufacture, like spray-painting racial epithets on their own cars, and the phony epidemic of people tying nooses with which the media bombarded us a couple years ago, are really intended to terrorize blacks in order to herd them into the fold. Siegel's theory doesn't explain this.
More in the style of a historian than a commentator, Siegel pulls together the writings of many early 20th century writers. The nattering of these liberal nabobs was often numbing in its naïveté. For example, the sci-fi writer H.G. Wells said of Stalin, “No one is afraid of him and everyone trusts him.” G.B. Shaw defended the USSR even after having seen its horrors firsthand. The New York Times blatantly lied about the Ukrainian famine. But despite overwhelming evidence of its failures, liberals never rejected collectivism.
The second half the book is a flashback to the 1960s, when liberals started using their urban fiefdoms to turn our cities into quagmires of crime and hopelessness. The few sprouts of hope like Charles Peters' “neoliberalism” petered out. Unfortunately, by the time we get to Carter, Clinton, and Obama, Siegel's thesis about aristocracies and undermining the middle class has petered out as well.
There's some great history here, and Siegel's knowledge is impressive, but what he mostly ignores is the elephant in the corner who goes by the name of Karl. Libs have taken much of their collectivist ideology from Marxism. Their ideas about class conflict and imperialism, for example, are directly inherited from it. Decades before the Great War, communism was hugely appealing to intellectuals. H.L. Mencken, whom Siegel takes to task for his putative liberal snobbishness, argued ferociously with one, and shellacked him on both sides, way back in 1910. No one who has read Mencken's essay On Government, where he calls government “this great pox of civilization”, could believe him a left-winger.
In this respect Siegel's book is an example of conservatism's biggest flaw: their tendency to reject potential supporters. Nietzsche was an atheist and Mencken was elitist—throw them out. Some commentator gets a crush on Mitt Romney—throw her out. Some activists pretending to be scientists push a phony climate theory—science is full of liberals, throw it all out. The boat may get lighter, but eventually it will run out of passengers and capsize.
This book is a nice piece of writing, but the evidence for Mencken and Nietzsche being lefties is weak. To his credit, Siegel gives up trying to make his case about the left's drive to build an aristocracy pretty early, so one gets the impression that he's not completely satisfied with the theory either. What we get instead is a nice but somehow unsatisfying history of American liberals in the 20th century told from the point of view of a center-right historian.
Even if he'd stuck to it, though, the theory still wouldn't explain the anti-military, anti-rich, anti-male and anti-corporate mentality of today's libs, or their hatred of European and Western civilization, which is especially prominent on college campuses. Siegel is certainly right on one point: liberals hate the middle class. But that doesn't explain much, because liberals also hate the rich, the poor, technology, capitalism, industry, aristocracy, and individual liberty. They are mad at the world: like Mikey in that famous Life commercial, they hate everything.
mar 16, 2014; updated may 04, 2014
In this one, Lyle H. Rossiter, Jr., M.D., drops all pretense at trying to explain liberals and just says they've all gone stark raving mad. He tries to explain why.
Psychoanalyzing liberals would be a futile task unless you can find an objective way of ranking personality traits. So Rossiter tries to do just this. He posits a set of “normal social instincts” common to all healthy individuals and tries to show that, in his words, “the liberal agenda's invasive social policies foster economic irresponsibility, pathological dependency, and social conflict.” To assign values to these outcomes, he has to assume there are innate psychological characteristics, such as initiative, agency, autonomy, and personal sovereignty, that society must recognize. Policies that promote these are healthy, and policies that inhibit them are unhealthy. A basic function of government, he says, is to protect the individual's sovereignty, and not to threaten it.
It all sounds a bit Maslowian. Indeed, there is a close congruence here with Maslow's hierarchy of needs. But the whole thing is on shaky ground.
The problem here is that the value-laden terms he uses, like individualism and self-reliance, pre-ordain his conclusion. A liberal might well believe that they are social constructs, and evil ones at that. In reality, liberals act the way they do because they think they will gain something from it. It's not quite enough to say that liberalism makes people childish and dependent. You still need to make a value judgment. Maybe liberals think being childish is a virtue. It's possible. They are crazy, after all.
Some of the greatest ugliness in the human spirit comes from the urge to control others. But calling it a “disease” doesn't explain much: it just drags psychology into politics, threatening its claim to scientific objectivity. This whole book just repeats Rossiter's opinions about individualism and collectivism. Politically, many would agree with him. We would like to find a way to prove that one is better than the other. But psychology cannot buttress a political outlook. Liberals have tried and failed for years. Rossiter's approach makes no more sense than theirs, and his theory is on just as thin ice.
mar 28, 2013; updated mar 15, 2014