The last time I saw Fred Siegel was at a recent Encounter Books/New Criterion Christmas party. As had become customary, Fred did not merely attend our gatherings; he presided over them. In recent years, as his mobility decreased, he perched rather than circulated, and, with his wife Jan nearby, would receive and chat with his many admirers who approached seriatim for the pleasure of his wisdom. Fred exuded benignity. He was also among the best informed and most percipient observers of the political scene I have known. Whenever some contentious election was nigh and confusion reigned, Fred was one of the people I would call to help me cut through the haze and get to the nub of the issues and, what’s more, the likely outcome. I don’t recall Fred ever being wrong in his predictions, which is not something I can say for many people—certainly not for myself.
We published perhaps half a dozen pieces by Fred in The New Criterion and two books at Encounter—The Prince of the City, a 2005 account of Rudy Giuliani’s transformation of New York City, and The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class, in 2014. The former is probably the best summary of Giuliani’s “broken windows” policing approach to restoring the civilizational confidence that social comity requires—take care of the small stuff like graffiti and squeegee men, and the big stuff, like violent crime, will take care of itself. The latter, its title a play on Ortega y Gasset’s famous essay The Revolt of the Masses, is a prescient, historically literate anatomy of how liberalism turned rancid and gave birth to the monstrous, anti-democratic intolerance of progressive ideology.
“Liberalism,” Fred wrote in the conclusion to that book, “began as a literary construct in the wake of World War I [and] reached its political apex with the election of Barack Obama,” whose own career began as a “literary construct” set forth in the semi-fictional memoir Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. “The alluring political personality of Barack Obama,” Fred noted, “emerged even though he neither presented any new ideas nor even reconsidered old ideas on government reform.” As Fred continued:
Obama, who ran a picture-perfect top-bottom, upstairs-downstairs campaign in 2008, had been opposed to the two successful social-policy reforms of the 1990s. He lambasted both welfare reform and the “broken-windows” policing techniques that did so much—especially in black neighborhoods—to lower crime rates. But he had aligned himself with the rising force in the Democratic Party: the alliance of public-sector unions (including nominally private but heavily government-subsidized health-care unions) and gentry liberals.
The symbiotic compact between those “gentry liberals” and the mandarins wielding state power brought about the administrative Leviathan that long ago supplanted democratic governance.
The origins of this “deep state” apparatus, Fred saw, lay in the influence of Progressive Era titans like Woodrow Wilson. Herbert Croly, founder of The New Republic and one of the early spokesmen for this brand of authoritarian liberalism, summed up the casual arrogance of the breed. The “average American individual,” Croly wrote, was morally and intellectually inadequate to the demands of democracy. What he, what society, required was a “fourth department,” composed of “social experts” (like Croly himself, of course) who specialized in “modifying social behavior.”
Sound familiar? It was all Klaus Schwab avant la lettre. Fred saw it all before the rest of us. As had been intended from the beginning, the losers were “the working and middle classes squeezed from both above and below.”
In his work and person, Fred Siegel demonstrated what an honest, historically literate liberalism looked like, even as he chronicled its eclipse and eventual death in the soft totalitarianism of the administrative state. R.I.P.