1919: The Year Liberalism Broke

City Journal this week published an outstanding piece on World War I and its aftermath in America.  In “1919: Betrayal and the Birth of Modern Liberalism”, Fred Siegel, a City Journal contributing editor and a visiting professor at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, challenges the notion that liberalism is a direct descendant of 19th and early 20th century reformers.  “Today’s state-oriented liberalism, we are often told, was the inevitable extension of the pre–World War I tradition of progressivism….  After the unfortunate Republican interregnum of the 1920s, so the story goes, this progressivism, faced with the Great Depression, matured into the full-blown liberalism of the New Deal.”

However, it’s not as simple as that.  Siegel writes that

But a central strand of modern liberalism was born of a sense of betrayal, of a rejection of progressivism, of a shift in sensibility so profound that it still resonates today. More precisely, the cultural tone of modern liberalism was, in significant measure, set by a political love affair gone wrong between Wilson and a liberal Left unable to grapple with the realities of Prussian power. Initially embraced by many leftists as a thaumaturgical leader of near-messianic promise, Wilson came to be seen—in the wake of a cataclysmic war, a failed peace, repression at home, revolution abroad, and a country wracked by a “Red Scare”—as a Judas. His numinous rhetoric, it was concluded, was mere mummery.

One strand of progressives grew contemptuous not only of Wilson but of American society. For the once-ardent progressive Frederick Howe, formerly Wilson’s Commissioner of Immigration, the prewar promise of a benign state built on reasoned reform had turned to ashes. “I hated,” he wrote, “the new state that had arisen” from the war. “I hated its brutalities, its ignorance, its unpatriotic patriotism, that made profit from our sacrifices and used it to suppress criticism of its acts. . . . I wanted to protest against the destruction of my government, my democracy, my America.”

Like John Emerson’s great piece on the Bourbon Democrats and H. L. Mencken, Siegel reveals fascinating historical tidbits.  Almost 500,000 million Germans left America to join the ranks of the Kaiser’s army.  He details the era’s paranoia over all things Teutonic.  Little did I know that there was some justification for the fear:

Charles John Hexamer, president of the National German-American Alliance, financed in part by the German government, insisted that Germans needed to maintain their separate identity and not “descend to the level of an inferior culture.” Germans even began attacking that inferior culture. The most important instance of German domestic sabotage was the spectacular explosion on Black Tom Island in the summer of 1916, which shook a sizable swath of New York City and New Jersey. The man-made peninsula in New York Harbor was a key storage and shipping point for munitions sold to the British and French. The bombing sank the peninsula into the sea, killed seven, and damaged the Statue of Liberty. Wilson denounced Germany’s supporters in America: “Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out.”

The war, with its jingoism and repression of dissent, together with Prohibition and the Red Scare, soured many forward-minded thinkers on American “progress.” 

What followed was not so much protest as simmering scorn. In 1919, the Germanophile H. L. Mencken, writing in The New Republic, called sarcastically for honoring the civilian heroes who had suppressed Beethoven by bedizening them with bronze badges and golden crosses. Mencken ridiculed the mass of Americans who had backed “Wilson’s War,” branding them a “timorous, sniveling, poltroonish, ignominious mob”; a great admirer of Kaiser Wilhelm, he denigrated American democracy as “the worship of jackals by jackasses.” Taking its cues from Mencken, the liberalism that emerged from 1919 was contemptuous of American culture and politics. For liberals, the war years had shown that American society and democracy were themselves agents of repression. These sentiments deepened during the 1920s and have been an ongoing current in liberalism ever since.

Siegel leaves out that Mencken himself was scornful of liberals.  His unleashes his wrath on them throughout Notes on Democracy.  Moreover, I don’t think liberals are alone in the their contempt of American society.  It would be more accurate to say they, like conservatives, hold a contempt for those stretches of the nation’s landscape that don’t adhere to their principals and values.  For some, gay marriage, atheism, and war resistance are vitally American.

To his credit, Siegel identifies one of liberalism’s best qualities:

The new liberal ethos was not without its virtues. In picking their fights with Prohibition and their former hero Wilson, liberals encouraged the sense of tolerance and appreciation of differences that would, over time, mature into what came to be called pluralism. “The root of liberalism,” wrote [Harold] Stearns, “is hatred of compulsion, for liberalism has the respect for the individual and his conscience and reason which the employment of coercion necessarily destroys.” Though not always observed by liberals themselves, the call for an urbane temper would come to mark liberalism at its best.

This is no small point.  In Notes, Mencken himself contrasts repressive America with “more liberal and enlightened countries.”  Mencken’s “philosophy, stated one critic, was ‘thoroughly American,’ the remnants of nineteenth-century liberal thought,” Marion Elizabeth Rodgers explains in her introduction to Notes.

Regardless of Siegel’s views on liberalism, his piece is fascinating.  Anyone who’d like a backgrounder on the political and intellectual climate that fostered Mencken’s dark, cynical position on democracy and America should read it.

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