The smug style has always existed in American liberalism, but it wasn’t always so totalizing. Lionel Trilling claimed, as far back as 1950, that liberalism “is not only the dominant, but even the sole intellectual tradition,” that “the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse … do not express themselves in ideas, but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”
Richard Hofstadter, the historian whose most famous work, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, this essay exists in some obvious reference to, advanced a similar line in writing not so well-remembered today. His then-influential history writing drips with disdain for rubes who regard themselves as victimized by economics and history, who have failed to maintain correct political attitudes.
But 60 years ago, American liberalism relied too much on the support of working people to let these ideas take too much hold. Even its elitists, its Schlesingers and Bells, were tempered by the power of the labor movement, by the role Marxism still played in even liberal politics — forces too powerful to allow non-elite concerns to entirely escape the liberal mental horizon. Walter Reuther, and Bayard Rustin, and A. Philip Randolph were still in the room, and they mattered.
Sixty years ago, the ugliest tendencies were still private, too. The smug style belonged to real elites, knowing in their cocktail parties, far from the ears of rubes. But today we have television, and the internet, and a liberalism worked out in universities and think tanks. Today, the better part of liberalism is Trillings — or those who’d like to be, at any rate — and everyone can hear them.
Rensin’s essay was making the rounds last month, and if you missed it then, do read it now; it’s a good one. I just recalled that section in order to take minor, gentle exception to it, because as it happens, I’m currently reading Christopher Lasch’s The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics, written in 1991, and he identified a fairly prominent example of the smug style as far back as 1922, when the Nation ran a collaborative, state-by-state series entitled “These United States”, in which contributors strove to outdo each other in performing their scorn and contempt for the shortcomings of each state. (As Lasch tells it, Walter Lippman and H.L Mencken made this sort of attitude mainstream):
Croly’s confidence in public opinion and “virtuous social actors” struck most liberals by this time as old-fashioned and unsophisticated. They were more impressed by Walter Lippman’s analysis of the irrationality of public opinion and by H.L. Mencken’s ridicule of democracy as the reign of the “booboisie.” Mencken taught liberal intellectuals to think of themselves as a “civilized minority” and to wear unpopularity as a badge of honor… Evidently the editors of the Nation saw no contradiction between a celebration of regional diversity and a satire of local customs bound to leave the impression that the United States was populated largely by rednecks, fundamentalists, and militant adherents of the Ku Klux Klan.
…Taken as a whole, these reports conveyed an unmistakable impression of liberal intellectuals’ sense of alienation from America. It was not that the country had failed to “keep faith,” as Croly wrote in 1922, “with its original idea of the United States as a Promised Land.” The Nation’s contributors seldom invoked the “original idea” of America. Most of them wrote as if the “promise of American life” had been a swindle from the beginning. Croly’s brand of social criticism implied that whatever democracy Americans managed to achieve in the future would have to rest on their achievements in the past. The authors of “These United States” assumed, on the other hand, that “breaking from the past” was the precondition of cultural and political advance. That Americans refused to make the break proved the country’s backwardness and immaturity, its hatred of intellectual and artistic freedom, its fear of new ideas, its intolerance of of anything that called the old ways into question, its puritanical obsession with sexual purity, and worst of all, its suspicion of intellectuals.
…[M]ost liberals had come to identify liberalism with the cultural critique of backwardness and provincialism. Thinking of themselves as a civilized minority in a nation of Babbitts, Rotarians, and rednecks, liberals fell into a style of social criticism that had the curious effect of reinforcing complacency instead of disturbing it. The authors of “These United States” implicitly invited their readers to count themselves among the elect. The rest of America might live in darkness, but they themselves — the knowing authors and their readers — had seen the light. A perceptive commentator, Louis Siegel of Cleveland, noted in a letter to the Nation that Mencken’s criticism of American life, seemingly so sweeping, lost most of its force in its very excess, since readers understood that his spleen was directed not at themselves but against everyone else. Mencken voiced the mockery and contempt for their neighbors, based on a conviction of their own superiority, that his readers also felt but hesitated to express. “Each and every American thinks himself too intelligent to be the target of Mencken’s venom, admiringly endorses it as aimed at his neighbor, and takes a vicarious satisfaction in brutality his [own] humaneness inhibits.” The only readers who resented Mencken’s satire were those who failed to recognize his appeal to exempt themselves from his indictment of the common man.
Mencken’s view of social criticism assumed that since we find fault with others more easily then we find fault with ourselves, we need to turn our neighbors into aliens before we can find fault with them. But “such easy fault-finding,” as Michael Walzer has recently remarked in another context, quickly becomes self-defeating. It makes social criticism “superfluous,” Walzer argues, because it does not “touch the conscience of the people to whom it is addressed” — and the “task of the social critic is precisely to touch the conscience.”
Ploosa shawnje, ploosa la memshows. Progressives long ago outgrew fantasies about creating heaven on earth; now, they’re content, almost eager, to see everything go to hell just so they can get the smug satisfaction of screaming “I told you so, you idiots, but you wouldn’t listen!” Hell, their reaction to Trump has a barely-concealed kinky sexual vibe to it, like they would have the most mind-blowing transgressive orgasms if he were to get elected and confirm all their worst suspicions about the nation. Seriously, someone hook a group of progressives up to a libido meter and ask them to imagine Trump getting sworn in. I’ll bet you a large amount of imaginary money that you’ll get some interesting results.