Do Liberals Hate the Middle Class?

A Response to Fred Siegel
Houses in Albany, NY (Creative Commons)

Carlo Lancelotti wrote a cover story for Commonweal (“The Dead End of the Left,” April 13) on the Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce. Carlo, who teaches math at CUNY, subsequently asked me if I would participate in a discussion of a book by Fred Siegel, The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class. A member of the lay Catholic movement Communion and Liberation, Carlo runs a forum on the relationship between religion and culture at the Crossroads Cultural Center in lower Manhattan. As it happens, Fred is a former contributor to Commonweal. Below is a slightly edited version of my remarks.

 

When Carlo asked me to participate in a discussion of Fred’s book, I warned him that I am not a historian or a scholar. Carlo insisted that our discussion would focus more broadly on questions about liberalism, a subject on which he and I have had a sometimes mutually uncomprehending email correspondence.

Alas, I am not an expert on liberalism either, although some of my political views can be described as liberal. Liberalism, in any event, is notoriously difficult to define. Like most political ideologies, it has different (and sometimes contradictory) strains. There is neoliberalism, communitarian liberalism, classical liberalism. There was once even a species called liberal Republicans. They are now extinct. My liberalism as editor of Commonweal, for example, is not the same as the liberalism of The Nation. Forced to label my politics, I guess I would describe myself as a liberal centrist who believes in limited government and the separation of powers, but also in the good government can do, not only to protect public safety and the nation, but also in advancing human rights, social justice, and economic fairness, or what used to be called the common good. I believe that democracy exists to safeguard individual freedom and liberty, and that an essential aspect of guaranteeing that freedom is to protect citizens from the imposition of arbitrary power, whether that power is egregious concentrations of wealth or the unwarranted intrusion of government itself. Writing about Abraham Lincoln’s political faith in the pages of Commonweal, the philosopher Jeffrey Stout put it this way:

“To possess republican freedom is not to be able to do whatever one wants, but rather to be part of a society all members of which are constrained by wisely chosen and justly enforced norms. Leaders and citizens alike are free because laws of the right kind bind them…. A just legal order and a virtuous citizenry are interdependent. The laws neither make nor enforce themselves, but need help from citizens…the tasks of ethical formation become all the more pressing in a democracy which extends the status of citizen to a large, potentially volatile group…. A democratic republic can become and remain a society of laws, in the full sense, then, only if it is also a society of relatively virtuous citizens.” 

In other words, as Michael Sandel has put it, I believe we can achieve a good in common that we cannot realize individually. That is one reason why Commonweal is called, well, Common Weal. We believe an innate hostility to government is not a democratic virtue. It is my impression that Fred shares my convictions about democracy and the responsibilities of citizenship, even if we disagree about what is the greater threat to both.

I have been an avid reader and admirer of Fred’s political writing. Fred was a frequent contributor to Commonweal in the 1980s and early 1990s. That was before he abandoned the Commonweal masses for the elitist battlements of the Manhattan Institute. Fred’s writing for Commonweal was characterized by a refreshing sense that neither political party was addressing the real concerns of the electorate, although he gave special attention to the failures of the Democrats, then his native tribe. His prose was vigorous, his analysis sharp-eyed and unsentimental. He had a keen sense of history’s ironies and unexpected reversals, and a real appetite for political combat. He has always been a fierce critic of dubious liberal pieties, and a staunch defender of family, community, faith, and bourgeois values properly understood. Values, I might add, that I share as a suburban homeowner and father of three.

During my years at Wesleyan, racial, political, and cultural divisions were deep, and the reasoned deliberation that lies at the heart of higher education—and one hopes at the heart of democratic life—often proved impossible.

Fred championed hard work, social and economic mobility, trade unionism, and sexual probity. He was also a fearless critic of racialized politics, especially as practiced in cities such as New York and on college campuses. I greatly admired Fred’s willingness to hold up the ideal of integration, and the calibrated use of affirmative action, when the Black Power movement was championing racial separatism. I was reminded of these gutsy stands when I came across a reference, in The Revolt Against the Masses, to what life was like at Wesleyan University in the 1970s. “Senator Daniel Moynihan’s son John, a student at Wesleyan, captured the mood,” Fred writes. “He described Wesleyan, which would move into the vanguard of campus multiculturalism, as ‘an overgrown playground where Westchester Marxists drove Daddy’s car to the protest and conversation focused on feminism and boycotting Nestle.’”

As it happens, I graduated from Wesleyan a few years before John Moynihan. Although it is a cliché and inaccurate to describe wealthy undergraduates at elite colleges as “Marxists”—most, after all, are on their way to medical or law school, not to the barricades—it is not inaccurate to say that multiculturalism and racial politics were a problem. During my years at Wesleyan, racial, political, and cultural divisions were deep, and the reasoned deliberation that lies at the heart of higher education—and one hopes at the heart of democratic life—often proved impossible. 

To be sure, it was a crazy, perplexing time convulsed by the Vietnam War, the draft, a corrupt president who resigned before he was impeached, the Black Power and women’s movements, “the pill” and the sexual revolution, and the widespread acceptance of drug use on college campuses. In the spring of my freshman year, President Nixon invaded Cambodia, four students were shot dead while protesting at Kent State, and a student strike shut down colleges and universities across the country, including my own.

Wesleyan was well-known for its freewheeling, hyper-individualistic undergraduate culture. The university conceived of its educational mission in progressive and explicitly liberal terms. How “liberal”? Well, it did not come as a surprise to me that, years later, the college became notorious for establishing a “clothing-optional” dorm. I’m not kidding. As Fred and I agree, if choice is regarded as the ultimate and defining liberal value, what people choose cannot be questioned.

The university was also known for its commitment to racial equality. That was an impressive and inspiring legacy, and certainly a draw for me. Twenty percent of my classmates were minorities, the vast majority African-American. Minority representation at other traditionally white liberal-arts colleges rarely exceeded 5 percent.

Not much thought or preparation, however, had gone into how what was still an essentially elite white institution would deal with the cultural and political misunderstandings that inevitably arose between blacks and whites. The Black Panthers were a presence on campus, and tensions sometimes ran quite high. There were fights and incidents with guns, knives, and even arson. Racial strife had troubled the campus for years, prompting a cover story in the New York Times Magazine. It was titled “The Two Nations at Wesleyan University.” “With rare exceptions,” the Times reported, “white students and black students do not even talk to each other.” That was true. Black students felt a strong imperative to separatism. “Solomon,” the Times reporter concluded, “would have been overwhelmed at Wesleyan.”  

If a liberal institution committed to doing its part to redress the historical sins of racism could fail so conspicuously, what hope was there for racial progress in less sympathetic settings? I witnessed several violent incidents that shook my faith in the institution and its values. As far as I could tell, no one was held accountable for his behavior. Those experiences convinced me that what is called liberal tolerance is often just neglect, indifference, or moral cowardice. The result was not a flowering of cooperation and fellow feeling. No, the result was a competitive free-for-all, the school’s “liberalism” unspooling into a faddish libertarianism. By the time I graduated, I was doubtful that this sort of liberalism was capable of delivering on the big questions in life: What is right and what is wrong? What do we owe one another as persons and as citizens? Why are we here? What is our destiny? I perceived, if inchoately, that my liberal convictions needed a much firmer moral foundation than the secular academy was offering.

But I left college looking to engage thinkers who could answer my questions about the relationship between morality, religion, and liberal democracy. And that search eventually brought me to Commonweal.

But, as I noted earlier, modern liberalism is not just one thing. Wesleyan’s liberalism is not the only liberalism on offer. Much to my surprise, I began to suspect that even the outlandish and seemingly anachronistic claims of Catholicism might offer an alternative—that Catholicism might even be true, and that liberalism might need Catholicism’s moral resources if it were to right itself.

I don’t want to underestimate the difficulties faced by the faculty and administration in handling the racial and political unrest of the times. Almost no institution got it right. But I left college looking to engage thinkers who could answer my questions about the relationship between morality, religion, and liberal democracy. And that search eventually brought me to Commonweal, where liberalism resides relatively comfortably—too comfortably, our critics might say—with biblical faith, church doctrine, and in a belief in reason and the necessity of civil discourse.

As I hope my story about Wesleyan indicates, I agree with certain aspects of Fred’s diagnosis of the nation’s political and cultural problems. However, I do not share either his pessimism over what afflicts modern liberalism or his prescription for a cure, a prescription that seems to be a recommendation that the patient be put out of his misery. Liberalism broadly understood, after all, has some hard-to-ignore accomplishments. There’s the U.S. Constitution, the abolition of slavery, the enfranchisement of women, the New Deal, the defeat of fascist and communist totalitarianism, and the civil-rights movement, just to name a few. It even helped the Catholic Church embrace religious liberty. Liberalism may yet provide answers to the plutocratic distortions now crippling our politics.  

In his book, Fred spends a lot of time denouncing the snobbery of liberal elites, and even argues that such snobbery is endemic to liberalism and the privileged status of its advocates. Are some self-identified liberals intellectual and cultural snobs? Of course. But it has been my experience that snobbery and elitism exist across the ideological spectrum. Moreover, many of the intellectuals Fred builds his argument on—people like Randolph Bourne, H. L. Mencken, H. G. Wells, Dwight Macdonald, Edmund Wilson, Susan Sontag—would hardly describe themselves as “liberals.” Macdonald and Bourne were radicals, Wilson at one time an apologist for Stalinism. Most of them exhibited a good deal of contempt for so-called liberals. In his search for a more humane alternative to the industrial age, Bourne, I believe, was even drawn to a certain kind of medieval-Catholic corporatism. Odder, it seems to me, is that when Fred wants to emphasize the radical and subversive nature of so-called liberalism, he enlists as allies figures such as Edmund Muskie, Hubert Humphrey, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., all of whom considered themselves mainstream liberals in good standing. And all of whom wanted to guide liberalism toward what Schlesinger famously called the “vital center.” A center, I might add, vehemently condemned by leftists. As Fred himself acknowledges, Schlesinger’s liberalism was “empirical, pragmatic, and incremental.”

I would argue that the liberalism of the past hundred years has more often been more empirical, pragmatic, and incremental than Fred allows. Do liberals need to combat the ideological extremism of some of their allies? Certainly. Does modern liberalism cast a more critical eye on capitalism and what Fred describes as traditional middle-class values—as well as on America’s proud celebration of individualism—than conservatism? Yes, it does. Is mainstream liberalism out to overthrow capitalism and destroy the family, as Fred insists? Again, I think such ambitions belong to a noisy fringe, elements of which unfortunately dominate facets of popular culture. When it comes to capitalism and traditional values, I think it is more accurate to describe liberals as a loyal opposition, with the emphasis on “loyal.” Has modern liberalism focused too much on individual rights and personal autonomy, neglecting the duties and responsibilities that come with citizenship? Has it downplayed the essential role that stable families play in forming the virtuous citizens democracy depends on? Yes, I think those are fair criticisms. But those are sins also evident on the right, where economic libertarianism increasingly holds sway. Am I concerned with the direction modern liberalism sometimes takes? Yes. I would argue, however, that a better outcome may rest on critiques and wisdom that come not from hanging judges, but from more sympathetic friends of liberalism.  

We live in a constantly changing, deeply materialist consumer culture. Most people spend most of their time working, and much of their free time anxious about economic security. It is inevitable that the utilitarian values of the marketplace will shape many of our decisions as individuals. I would endorse something Fred wrote in Commonweal many years ago. “Liberals,” he wrote,

“having finally grown sensitive to the inroads conservatives have made in playing on the fears of family breakdown, have argued that the chief threat to the family is the caprice of the market and not the impositions of the New Class. Behaviorally they’re right. Market and corporate decisions can destroy communities and uproot families on a scale grander than that of the most purblind Washington planner. And inflation has done far more to pull women away from their children than feminism.”

One important question raised by Fred’s indictment is whether liberalism, properly understood, has the resources to reinvigorate our efforts to articulate and pursue the common good. In her forthcoming book, The Lost History of Liberalism, historian Helena Rosenblatt reminds us that

that “most liberals were moralists. Their liberalism had nothing to do with atomistic individualism. They never spoke about rights without stressing duties…. They always rejected the idea that a viable community could be constructed on the basis of self-interestedness alone. Ad infinitum they warned of the dangers of selfishness. Liberals ceaselessly advocated generosity, moral probity, and civic values.… The idea that liberalism is an Anglo-American tradition concerned primarily with the protection of individual rights and interests is a very recent development…. It is the product of the wars of the twentieth century and especially the fear of totalitarianism during the Cold War. For centuries before this, being liberal meant…a giving and civic-minded citizen; it meant understanding one’s connectedness to other citizens and acting in ways conducive to the common good…. In the mid-twentieth century, the American philosopher John Dewey still insisted that liberalism stood for ‘liberality and generosity, especially of mind and character.’ It had nothing to do, he said, with the ‘gospel of individualism.’’’

Which brings me finally to a question I would be interested in hearing Fred respond to. In The Revolt Against the Masses, Fred condemns and dismisses writers such as Sinclair Lewis who ridiculed the middle-class lives and ambitions of most Americans. It is this assault, by the so-called elites, on the capitalist aspirations of the middle class that Fred finds particularly obnoxious and anti-democratic. I have considerable sympathy for this point of view. I come from several generations of middle-class strivers, and I think of myself as the lucky beneficiary of the material progress brought about by the modern economy. I am a believer in America’s claim to have lifted millions of immigrants and others out of poverty.

But as a Catholic there are complications. My faith tells me that a life of getting and spending, or of accumulating an ungodly amount of money, can be a snare and an illusion. Such a tight focus on family and career may also be an obstacle to the formation of virtuous citizens. My faith also warns me about the dangers of self-seeking and a constricted individualism. There are many passages in Scripture that take a rather dim view of the wealthy, and even a few that might be called anti-family. Scripture rather emphatically tells me that I will be judged by how I treat the poor. That is how we all will be judged. That, I would argue, is also a tenet of liberalism at its best, and certainly a core belief at Commonweal.

To be sure, not all of us are called to give up all our worldly possessions. Or at least that is what my church tells me. But we are called to take responsibility for the whole—for the general welfare—and not just for ourselves and our immediate family. Fred’s celebration of middle-class ambition and American individualism feeds into an interesting argument about U.S. Catholicism. There are those on both the Catholic left and right who think that, to the extent that Catholics have uncritically embraced the values of our consumer culture, they have necessarily abandoned their faith. You cannot, as the saying goes, serve two masters.

Now, as an empirical, pragmatic, and incremental liberal—and as a Catholic—I am naturally of two minds about this. Do I think the economic success of Catholics in America is something to lament? No, I do not. I am personally grateful for it. Do I think the American worship of money and success is a kind of idolatry? I certainly do.

So in the end, I think it is a good thing that my church insists on questioning the American values Fred is so keen to vindicate. I want to be chastened when I am tempted—as I usually am—to ignore the poor or to lionize society’s winners. I don’t think such moralizing, from my church or even from liberals, undermines the middle class. I think it strengthens those values of duty, responsibility, and loyalty that middle-class life and democracy depend on. I’m all for defending traditional middle-class aspirations, but our moral aspirations must not end there. I think you can challenge America at the same time you celebrate it.

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer. He is working on a book titled Why Do I Go to Church?

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