The biggest problem I have with populism is that it can become an ideology justifying the hatred of excellence. One big problem I have with liberalism is how it can become an ideology justifying contempt for the views of non-elites. In a rewarding interview with the author Fred Siegel, about his new book, The Revolt Against The Masses, the writer Sean Collins explores Siegel’s views on how identity politics took over from economic solidarity as the driving ideology of the American Left. Excerpts:
Collins: How important do you think the New Left and 1960s/early 1970s liberalism was for the character of the liberalism we see today, in particular identity politics? I was struck by how you described the 1960s movement as directed against the social-solidarity heritage of the New Deal. In the name of fighting racism, sexism and so on, liberals seemed to blame the unenlightened masses, including, in some cases, unionised workers, for social problems. Then, as you write, the workers reciprocate the animosity and start to leave the Democratic Party. Your narrative certainly goes against the typical story of liberalism’s unbroken continuity with the New Deal.
Siegel: There’s very little of what we think of today as identity politics that wasn’t there in embryonic form in 1972. Senator George McGovern, who I knew personally at the time, wrote the rules for the 1972 Democratic Party National Convention, which divided the delegates up by identity – by blacks, Hispanics, women, etc. And so the fragmentation into voting blocs is already there in 1972. The story of how identity politics captures more and more of the Democratic Party is the story of modern American politics since the 1970s.
Collins: You write that liberalism reached its political apex with the election of Obama. How so?
Siegel: Obama was a child of the 1960s. He represented the institutionalisation of a liberalism that had gone off the rails – and he further pushed it off the rails. When I listen to people tell me there were no scandals in the Obama administration, I tell them they’re right, and that’s because the mainstream media enlisted in the Obama campaign and the White House, and never reported on them. There were scandals at the Internal Revenue Service (Lois Lerner, the former head of the IRS, who used the IRS Nixon-like to constrain Obama’s enemies during the 2012 election); and at the Department of Veterans Affairs, where people genuinely died because of its breakdown. Under Obama the Navy wasn’t replenished, leaving the Chinese free to create as many artificial islands as they like in the South China Seas.
I always ask people: where did the Obama administration succeed in foreign affairs? People sometimes say ‘the Iran deal’. But half a million people died in Syria! When I say that, people go quiet.
Collins: Do you think the liberal elite today see themselves self-consciously as the ruling class of one nation, as Americans primarily, or do you think they see themselves as distinct from other Americans, maybe feeling they have more in common with the global elite? Are they almost embarrassed by their own society?
Siegel: Very much so. Something happens in the 1990s. The elites of Washington, New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles meld together. Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Washington and Wall Street all come together, and for the first time you have something like the British establishment. The British establishment could organise itself more easily because it was centred on London. For decades the American elite was divided among different coastal cities, plus the ‘third coast’ of Chicago, and it wasn’t until space collapses due to technology that you have the creation of this unified American elite. That unified elite is overwhelmingly liberal. Three hundred people who work for Google were part of the Obama administration at one time or another.
So this elite comes together, it looks across the Atlantic, it looks across the Pacific, but it doesn’t look at the heartland. The rest of the country recognises that. Whatever you want to say about Trump, he was the only candidate in either party who recognised that globalisation and immigration are the burning issues for much of America. One of the things he talked about early in the campaign, which was largely set aside, was the enormous mistake of allowing China into the World Trade Organisation in 2007. President Clinton pushed for this, President George W Bush pushed for this, and I supported it at the time. In retrospect it was an enormous mistake. If you draw a map of the places where jobs were lost due to competition from China, and look at the areas of Trump support, there’s a tremendous overlap.
Collins: In the past, Republican presidential candidates would use liberalism’s anti-middle-class tendencies as a foil – I’m thinking of Nixon and Reagan in particular. A good portion of Trump’s support, I believe, was down to his ability to draw a sharp contrast between himself and Hillary Clinton’s brand of liberalism. How would you compare Trump with other explicitly anti-liberal presidents?
Siegel: I think Trump is better compared with Nixon than with Reagan. Reagan was a free-trader, he had ideas about immigration that Trump wouldn’t agree with. But the hard edge of Nixon in denouncing George McGovern, with McGovern said to be representing ‘acid, amnesty and abortion’, that’s something you could hear from Trump. The elements of what we think of as Trumpism were coming for a long time. They were there in the 1992 Perot campaign, where he campaigned against free trade. I was working for the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) at the time, and I remember watching Al Gore, who was at one time the head of the DLC, debating Perot. In retrospect, Perot scored serious points (I don’t think either man was entirely correct, as is often the case in a debate). But it was interesting, it was a reasoned debate, and I haven’t heard reasoned debates over trade and immigration in recent years. People don’t debate, they exclude, especially the liberal-left. They cut people off, rather than debating them. The recent events at Evergreen College are an extreme example of that.
Identity politics has risen twice in this country. It rose to an apex in the early 1990s, but then it was diminished by a series of scandals. Some people may remember the Sokal hoax. Alan Sokal was a physicist who wrote an article for a postmodern magazine called Social Text, in which he claimed to prove that gravity was a social construction. And the magazine published it! It was obviously a parody.
But then identity politics fades. Bill Clinton is a moderating influence – he creates a broad coalition that sidelines an identity-based approach. But then Bush’s decisions in the Iraq War revive the left, and it slowly begins to gain force, until it rises again with Howard Dean, even before Obama. Howard Dean was a white male version of Obama. He barely considers Republicans human (even though – or maybe because – his father was a famous Republican fundraiser on Wall Street).
Collins: How do you view the liberal response to Trump’s election? You wrote in The Revolt that, ‘Liberalism is sufficiently adaptable, that even in failure, self-satisfaction trumps self-evaluation’. That sounds to me like a pretty good description of the past year. Liberals have struggled to come to terms with Trump, and to take responsibility for their losses – not just the presidency, but in both houses of Congress and in state governments.
Siegel: Liberalism has taken on a religious aspect. It’s a belief system, and not a system that represents political interests. Liberalism is seen as a source of grace, in religious terms. It is hard to talk to people, when you are effectively suggesting they are not among the blessed (or, to use Thomas Sowell’s phrase, the ‘anointed’), that they are in fact mistaken. Trump is wrong about many things, but you can argue with Trumpism. But it is very hard to argue with contemporary liberalism, especially in its West Coast incarnation.
I always shake my head when I read writers of the Left denouncing Trumpians for being supposedly enamored of “white identity politics.” The Left invented identity politics, embraces them, and institutionalizes them in academia and corporate America. It’s called “diversity.” And yet it is genuinely shocked when non-liberals do as they do. Don’t get me wrong, I am against identity politics across the board, because they tribalize us and dehumanize the Other. But if you are going to pick up that powerful but malignant weapon and use it against your political opponents, don’t be surprised if they do the same.