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The Crisis of Liberalism

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The Crisis of Liberalism

10 Blocks podcast October 14, 2020
The Social Order
New York
Politics and law

Fred Siegel joins Brian Anderson to discuss the history of modern American liberalism and its architects, how the 1960s mirrors today’s politics, the uncertain future of New York City, and more. Siegel’s new book is The Crisis of Liberalism: Prelude to Trump.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks Podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today's show is Fred Siegel. Fred was editor of City Journal during its creation years, 30 years ago. And he has remained one of our most valued contributors. He's been a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for many years. In his academic career, among other appointments, Fred has taught history and humanities at The Cooper Union. And since his retirement, he's been a scholar in residence at St. Francis College in Brooklyn.

Fred Siegel is the author of a number of important books, including one of the great books ever written on the American city, The Future Once Happened Here: New York, D.C., L.A., and the Fate of America's Big Cities. A book that has been a big influence on us at City Journal in the way we think about the trajectory of recent American history. The Prince of the City: Giuliani, New York, and the Genius of American Life was another book. That one looked at the remarkable turnaround in New York under the Giuliani mayoralty. In 2014, appeared The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class.

But his latest book, and the reason he's joining us today, is called The Crisis of Liberalism: Prelude to Trump. It's published by Telos Press and you can find it on their website, Amazon, or wherever books are sold. So welcome, Fred.

Fred Siegel: Oh, thank you.

Brian Anderson: Fred, your book is a history in many ways of our current moment. The culmination of trends that emerged in full force during the long 1960s as you call them, but that, in fact, originated much earlier. The first section of your book is on the intellectual origins of modern American liberalism. And one of the figures profiled is H.G. Wells. Now people mostly remember Wells these days as the author of science fiction classics, War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, and so on, but he was for a time during the early decades of the 20th century, a kind of astonishingly influential figure. A futurist public intellectual meeting presidents and prime ministers, and basically having his every pronouncement on politics and society taken seriously. Why do you see Wells as the godfather of liberalism as your chapter calls him?

Fred Siegel: Well, Wells wants society to be ruled by the new samurais, he calls him at one point. He calls them many different names, but what he wants is an aristocracy for America. And he wants to see a British aristocracy revived, not the House of Lords, the dimwitted House of Lords of elderly gentlemen in decline, but a new aristocracy for England and an aristocracy for America. He's a kind of bi-Atlantic guy. He's at home in America as he is in England. And in fact, at one point he had thought about relocating to America. But everything he writes in England is published here. And sometimes he publishes things that first appear in any American press.

He's a great student of 19th-century American Utopian socialism, not Marxian socialism. He has no use for Marx, no use for the Bolsheviks, but Utopian socialism. The kind that are associated with experiments in communal living. I did a long article for City Journal which appears in this collection, in which I talk about that, about his admiration for the Oneida community, for instance. Best known now for place, but one once upon known for their communal experiment.

Brian Anderson: But in Wells' case, Wells you say wanted to establish a kind of aristocracy, a new samurai class in the United States, but this would not be an aristocracy based on hereditary basis, right?

Fred Siegel: No, it would be an aristocracy of merit. So he saw the emerging class of scientists as people who destined to rule in the long run. Experts. Well, we have a touch of that today. When Joe Biden says whatever the experts tell him he'll do, that's the kind of thing we're talking about.

Brian Anderson: So the connection in the case of Wells with today's liberalism is really a kind of contempt for democracy, you might even call it.

Fred Siegel: He's hostile to democracy. He's hostile to democracy, but Wells is not alone. All the founding fathers, so to speak, of modern American liberalism have this hope. Herbert Croly, the fellow who creates The New Republic.

Brian Anderson: Right. People don't really remember or read Croly, but he too was very influential in the early part of the century, right?

Fred Siegel: Yes, very. Croly more than any other individual creates modern liberalism. And Croly's objection to America is it's not French enough. Croly's roots are intellectual roots. This is a long story I won't bore you with. His intellectual roots are in French, in August Comte. I'm mispronouncing the name I'm sure as I mispronounce all French names, even when I lived in France. The rule of experts, that's where Croly places his hopes.

Croly at one point is a great admirer of Mussolini. He thinks Mussolini is bringing that to Italy and he's reviving it. He changes his mind. He's not a fascist, but he's most definitely an admire of Mussolini. Randolph Bourne, who wrote for the New Republic, very thoughtful. Also, an admirer of French neo-fascist trends. He died before fascism comes full born.

Another person who fits in this mold is literary critic and wit, H.L. Mencken. I think Mencken might still be known today. Is that fair to say, Brian?

Brian Anderson: Yes. I think that Mencken certainly is better known these days and still read compared with Croly who's truly become more of a historical figure. People who have studied the early 20th century political history of the United States know of Croly. But Mencken, some of his books still remain in print, for example.

Fred Siegel: When I was undergraduate several centuries ago in the 1960s, three different new additions of Herbert Croly's The Promise of American Life came out the same year in 1966. It was a Croly revival in America, which coincided with the 1960s. And one of the elements of the 1960s not much discussed was this desire to create a new elite. There was so much happening in the 1960s and early seventies. So much violence, so many manifestos of one sort or another, that we sometimes miss that.

Brian Anderson: So that would be the connection with these earlier figures like Wells and Croly or Bourne. And so maybe let's move forward to that era because you do write a lot about the sixties in The Crisis of Liberalism. And in particular, one figure that features in a number of chapters is John Lindsay, who was the mayor of New York city from 1966 through '73. He loomed large in the history of New York in that period. He is a major figure in your book. Why do you see Lindsey as such an important figure? And what do you mean by, you talk about this in the context of Lindsay's mayoralty, the emergence of a top-bottom coalition as characterizing modern liberalism?

Fred Siegel: Well, that is still with us. There was a tremendous article this past week in Tablet Magazine about Warren Buffett and other billionaires who are supporting, indirectly, Black Lives Matter through an organization called the Tides Foundation, and what we've seen in the last two, three, let's say maybe five years, is the emergence of an alliance between the upper middle class, the very wealthy, and Black Lives Matter.

And it's redolent in the 60s. And what was first seen in John Lindsay's New York. John Lindsay wins re-election by sweeping the black vote and carrying the vote of well-to-do New Yorkers and intellectuals and thinkers. Lindsay's not much known today. I mention his name, people look at me blankly. But in his time, he was a giant figure. He was considered on a par with Bobby Kennedy as forging the new politics.

Lindsay had the unfortunate situation of facing the collapse of the New York economy. In his last term in office, the city lost 600,000 jobs. That's not a misstatement, it's literal. 600,000 jobs disappeared. And New York went into a decline that it didn't really recover until the Rudy Giuliani years. And that's 25 years later.

And Lindsay was a very handsome guy, very appealing. He spoke well, he was sensitive, but he was a classic liberal in that intentions counted for more than outcomes, and the trade-offs that we always have to make in order to make policy work, were alien to him. He didn't think in terms of trade-offs. He was the primary author of the Kerner Commission report on the riots in America and he concluded that the riots were primarily a function of racism. If that sounds familiar, it should.

Brian Anderson: This was in the 60s, of course, the riots of that era which does sound familiar to us these days because we're going through a similar experience in 2020 with American cities. So really, over the last five or six years.

Fred Siegel: Yes, the Lindsay emphasis on racism as a source of all of the problems among African-Americans, stays with us. It phased somewhat in the 1990s, but it comes back. It's come back in the last dozen years or so. And it's no more intelligent now than it was then. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, where I write about in two chapters of the book, saw at the collapse of the black family, was the key to the problems of the African-American community.

Brian Anderson: This was his famous 1965 report on the plight of the black family, which we've written about a lot in City Journal, warning about the rising out of wedlock, birth rates among African-Americans, which were far lower than they are today. But seeing these as a big problem looming.

Fred Siegel: Moynihan's report also foretells the kind of canceled culture we have now. There was an attempt to destroy Moynihan. Literally, he had close to a nervous breakdown. He was denounced as a fascist, a racist. It was nothing of the sort. He had considerable sympathy for African-Americans, and he did not go after African-American culture. He was very respectful. He'd grown up as a son of a single parent in Brooklyn. First Manhattan, and then Brooklyn.

And he knew what the struggles were of being raised in a single-parent family. But Moynihan was swatted and belittled and the Moynihan report, although it eventually received intellectual acclaim 30 years later, the consequences were minimal. What happened was two things, the growth of the great society, which created a permanent welfare income for the black underclass, and the Black Power movement, which-

Brian Anderson: All the social problems come back to white supremacy or structural racism or-

Fred Siegel: In contemporary language, yes. These are half century old arguments, that they're still resonant, is what's stunning because as we deal with them today, there's very little intellectual heft to this.

The books that have come out, the White Fragility, the collection of secondhand anecdotes, but the hard statistical analysis that Moynihan did, there's very little of that today among people who are influential in the democratic party.

Brian Anderson: It's striking that Moynihan really embodied the crisis of liberalism that you describe in his own life and thought, right?

Fred Siegel: Yes.

Brian Anderson: He was a lifelong Democrat. He was very deeply hurt by the accusations that he was a racist after his report came out. And it perhaps influenced the way he addressed issues of poverty and culture and race later in his career, right?

Fred Siegel: Yes. He played around with the idea of, and he went to work for Nixon in an art alliance. He went to work for Nixon and he started talking about a guaranteed national income. It didn't fly. The economics didn't fly and it was eventually a shutdown. It never really took off, but one hand was a presence on the intellectual scene.

He was a senator with the joke was, had written more books that most of the senators had read. He wrote books on a variety of subjects. Intelligence, he wanted to abolish the CIA. Long before the current attempt or attempt five years ago by the CIA and the FBI to take Trump down in a coup, he wanted to bring the CIA to an end. He thought they were incompetent.

Brian Anderson: Right. Now, another theme in your book, and it's related to some of what you were just talking about with Moynihan is what you've called... I think you coined this phrase, "The riot ideology."

Fred Siegel: Yes.

Brian Anderson: And again, this was a phenomenon that was born in the 60s, but is certainly re-surging again today with cities again facing outbreaks of violent protests and looting, which occurred after the horrible death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis in the early part of the summer. Could you describe what you mean by that phrase, "The riot ideology," and what might be done to counter it?

Fred Siegel: Well, what the riot ideology said was that rioting was a legitimate bargaining chip that people who were not being given their due, were right to go into the streets, right to riot, right to loot.

And that the upshot would be that they would be rewarded so to speak, rewarded by funds from Washington. And that story hasn't changed. I mean, essentially there are many democratic governors in States that are now locked down, New York, New Jersey, California, Illinois, that are counting on a Biden presidency to bail them out.

House speaker, Pelosi, had a bill where about $600 billion would have been sent to failing cities. What's different this time, is that the ethnic populations of the cities which stood firm against the riots in the 1960s and 70s, that population is no longer there. It's been replaced by an immigrant population, which is not politically engaged. The upshot is that the opposition to funding the police doesn't have that once would have had.

Another irony here is, that if you look at the group in Minneapolis most opposed to defunding the police, it's African-Americans, because they're most undermined by the rise in crime.

Brian Anderson: Yeah. It's striking. And certainly, we do see this idea that rioting is a legitimate response to dissatisfaction with policing or to inequality, or there's just been a wave after wave of that this year.

The top bottom politics which you've described in this book also include a Republican version, as well as the progressive kind. You argue that this fed the rise of populist politics in the country, and certainly the rise of Donald Trump. With the presidential election looming, how do you see the future of that kind of populism in American politics, whatever the outcome of this election is?

Fred Siegel: Brian, it's hard to say, since the people I know who are supportive of Trump have gone quiet, they've gone silent. They know that there'll be mocked, reviled if they openly voice their support for Trump. So I don't know, I'm personally at sea.

My suspicion is that on election day, Trump will win at the ballot box by a reasonable margin. But having watched this happen in California, I see how it works now. The Democrats will be given a target for the number of votes that need to be attained or manufactured in the coming weeks. And depending on how much time they'll get, and so this will be something that they will finally be adjudicated in the courts, they'll narrowly win, and that will put us in a constitutional crisis. That's what I anticipate. I may be completely wrong.

Brian Anderson: Well, we'll see soon enough. It is certainly going to be a tumultuous period. Now, in fact, you describe America as descending into a kind of soft civil war in this book, and you do look at the political landscape right now and see something very close to that.

Another theme though, of this book, and I'd like you to talk a little bit about this, is just the contribution of the university world to the developments that you detail in the book. You've been an academic for a long time, many years as a teacher. What's your take on what's going on in the university today with this speech suppression and the woke students? How much is that contributing to this soft civil war climate that we're experiencing in national politics?

Fred Siegel: It's an expression of the soft civil war. The universities have done everything they can to sabotage themselves. It's hard to talk in groups at this point because of COVID, people, and I'm talking about older people, my age, grandparents, parents, they've lost all respect for the universities.

There's no pretense. They want their children or grandchildren to get a fine degree from a fine college, but not because they think that they're learning anything of substance, because they think it will be a ticket into the upper middle-class. So I think academia is in a very bad place.

But speaking of academia, let me speak to the one academic who probably had more influence on this than anyone else. And I'm not referring to Herbert Marcuse, I'm referring to Richard Hofstadter.

Brian Anderson: And you have an excellent chapter in this book on Hofstadter's legacy, yes.

Fred Siegel: Hofstadter was a brilliant historian, although he didn't do any work in the archives. He really took secondary works and molded them into imaginative interpretations. He wrote an essay in 1964 called “The Paranoid Style,” and it came out just at the time that Goldwater was collapsing, and it seemed like a revelation.

The argument was that the reason Goldwater failed so badly in 1964, giving Johnson a landslide and setting the motion of the things we've just talked about, like the great society and black power. The reason for this was, that the people on the right imagined enemies, they they conjured up threats that didn't really exist. This was the paranoid style.

But the essay, The Paranoid Style is widely quoted today. If someone doubts me, go to Google, write in Hofstadter The Paranoid Style, and you'll see hundreds of entries will come up.

But the paranoid style is no longer just on the right, it's alive and well on the left, part of what we call woke liberalism, if liberalism it be, I don't consider what we have today liberalism. Liberalism had its flaws, but it was in favor of vigorous debate. It was in favor of free inquiry.

What we have now is something that approaches a religion, revealed religion. To be woke is to be given the sacred truths, but they're not sacred in the traditional sense. Let's say secular truths that have to be respected, have to be bowed before.

Brian Anderson: And certainly no respect for open debate or freedom of speech, even. I think it's true that the kind of woke progressivism we're seeing today gets angriest in some ways, at people who would still regard themselves as traditional liberals, in that more old fashioned sense of believing in the free exchange of ideas.

Fred Siegel: Unfortunately, those kinds of liberals are dying off. You might've noticed recently the death of Stanley Crouch.

Brian Anderson: Right. Stanley Crouch was somebody who was close to City Journal. He used to come to our events. So a really dynamic figure, a great writer on jazz music and an enormous personality.

Fred Siegel: Yes, I would agree with all of that. And someone not afraid to criticize his fellow African-Americans if he thought they were speaking nonsense.

And so he famously went after Harvard law professor Derrick Bell, who's the founder of Critical Race Theory. Which hearkens back to the assumptions of the '60s, the problems of African-Americans are all really just the problems of whites. The upshot of this is going to be greater separatism. I don't mean just black separatism, I mean whites will say nothing, but just keep their distance.

Brian Anderson: Well, we could certainly see that development beginning again, over the last several years, and gaining intensity in this very difficult 2020.

Final question, Fred, would be about 2020 and about New York city where City Journal's located, where you've been a long time New Yorker. I think it's fair to say that New York was one of the hardest hit places in the world, certainly one of the hardest hit cities by the pandemic and then the subsequent lockdowns and urban unrest.

Brian Anderson: And now, for the first time in a long time, and this preceded the pandemic, the city is starting to see rising, violent crime rates. How do you see the near-term future of New York? We have a mayoral election on the horizon, what's the city going to look like in two years?

Fred Siegel: I'm not sure, but here's what we can say with some certainty, that New York's strength is density. It was turned against it by the pandemic. People didn't want to be on subways. They didn't want to be in elevators. And so Midtown is a ghost town. Even now, there is some slight rise in bus ridership, actually more than a slight rise in bus ridership, but only a minuscule ride in subway ridership, the commuter trains that come into New York are running at about 20% of capacity. So the joke, it used to be why do executives like to come into Midtown? Answer, to go to lunch. A place where you socialize over great food, there were marvelous restaurants. All those restaurants are closed down. Broadway is closed down. The chances of Broadway reopening anytime soon are slim. So it's hard to see what's going to happen in a positive light.

Brian Anderson: It's hard to see the situation improving dramatically until we are on the other side of the pandemic.

Fred Siegel: Yes.

Brian Anderson: You do go to the outlying suburbs of New York and go to the MTA stations and drive by them and the parking lots remain empty.

Fred Siegel: Yes.

Brian Anderson: So the commuting population is working remotely now and they haven't come back into the city for those lunches and for those events. And a lot of their companies are looking at the situation. We're able to function with everybody working out of the office, so there's going to come a moment where there's going to be a pretty significant impact, I think on commercial real estate. So the quicker we can find ourselves victorious in this battle against the pandemic the better for a place like New York, which is as you described a very dense city and that much of its energy is based on people just coming together and that's been turned against it. You're absolutely right. What about the political dynamic though in the city? Do you think post-de Blasio, we're going to see greater concern again for the crime problem or has the city moved in a more progressive direction?

Fred Siegel: Well, I don't know. Progressive doesn't mean what it once did.

Brian Anderson: Right.

Fred Siegel: I wrote a piece actually for City Journal entitled Progressives Without Progress, a rhetoric about wokism. It has very little to do with what we traditionally thought of as progress. It has to do with power. The wokely is aligned in New York with the African-American poor and Puerto Rican poor. Puerto Ricans who left New York have done fairly well. Puerto Ricans who stay here have sunk into the slough of long-term poverty. So what's going to happen here? Our current mayor couldn't be more dysfunctional. He's high most of the time. I don't say this sarcastically. I happen to know people he deals with, and they say this quite openly, that he comes into their shops high. He's smoking constantly, smoking weed. The governor was responsible for the death of probably, it's hard to say what the number is, somewhere between six and 10,000.

Brian Anderson: Cuomo, because of the requirement to send elderly people who had gotten sick from COVID, who weren't in immediate risk of death, back into nursing homes, right? That this is now widely seen as having been one of the big drivers of the early death rates in America, which thankfully have flattened out. Things are not that bad. But that original period, there were a lot of unnecessary deaths because of that, for sure.

Fred Siegel: No question. And, Cuomo has a book out this week describing his heroic triumphs. He just thinks he can lie his way through this, and he probably can. He's not been held to account. The networks laud him. I have friends who think he's a great governor. When we get to this question, the nursing homes, the ones who are more rational say, "Yes, he made a mistake but no big deal." And if you are cynical, you think that Obama's tilt toward eugenics was coming to the fore under Cuomo.

Brian Anderson: Yeah. It is a situation and a political scene that's frustrating, but I think anybody would benefit for understanding the trendlines of America's politics by reading this marvelous book, The Crisis of Liberalism. I want to thank you, Fred, very much for stopping by to discuss the book. Again, it's called The Crisis of Liberalism: Prelude to Trump. It's just out from Telos Press. And we're very glad the portions of the book were born in City Journal over the last 10, 15 years. The listeners can get a copy of the book as I had mentioned earlier on Amazon and at other booksellers, and we will provide a link to it in the description. We would also love to hear your comments about today's episode on Twitter at City Journal. And lastly, if you like our show and want to hear more, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes. So thanks very much for listening. And thanks, Fred again for joining us.

Fred Siegel: Thanks for having me.

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Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images


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