I’m reading Thomas Main’s new book The Rise of Illiberalism.
According to Main, “illiberalism” is “the basic repudiation of liberal democracy, the very foundation on which the United States rests.” It can also be traced back to Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. This is the illustrious story that progressive liberals have told themselves.
Is it true though? Has the United States always been a “liberal democracy”?
No, it hasn’t.
The Founders created a federal republic, not a “liberal democracy.”
The liberal intelligentsia in the United States emerged in the late 1910s and early 1920s and broke away from the Progressive movement over Prohibition and World War I. The current “mainstream” in the United States can be traced back to the rise of New York in the 1920s and is something that rose with the development of radio and news magazines and later television in the decades that followed.
The following excerpt comes from Gary Gerstle’s article “The Protean Character of American Liberalism” in the American Historical Review:
“Whenever the character of liberalism changed, so did the composition of the liberal community. The transition from classical to strong-state liberalism brought agrarian reformers such as William Jennings Bryan into the liberal fold and alienated those who still clung to laissez-faire. The trauma of World War I resulted in the exit of many moral reformers from liberal ranks (including Bryan) and the entry of H.L. Mencken and his libertarian legions. These and other changes in constituency make it unwise to treat the liberal community as a stable political entity or to presume that the criteria for identifying liberals in one period can be applied to another. Any effort to define the liberal community must be firmly located in time and space.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the liberal community was strongest in the industrial and commercial centers of the Northeast and Midwest. It had cohered in the 1910s among European immigrants and their children, progressive trade unionists such as those who belonged to the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and Amalgamated Clothing Workers, settlement house workers, social workers, and others involved with urban reform. These liberals could be found in both the Republican and Democratic parties, although by 1916 the Democratic Party had emerged as their preferred home. In the 1920s, the liberal constellation expanded to include Menckenite libertarians, liberal Protestants, and growing numbers of intellectuals affiliated with universities or with newly established social science foundations such as the Social Science Research Council, the Spelman Fund, the National Bureau of Economic Research, and the Institute for Government Research.
The intellectuals in this liberal community are of particular interest. They were the ones most imbued with the new liberal faith in science as a tool of reform and in the capacity of a strong state to educate and liberate. Those with the greatest influence were concentrated at a relatively few elite universities: Wisconsin, Chicago, Harvard, Yale, and, above all, Columbia. The number of Columbia academics who shaped American liberalism through their writings or, in the 1930s, as New Deal policy makers exceeded that of any other institution: John Dewey in philosophy, Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict in anthropology, Robert Lynd in sociology, Rexford Tugwell and Wesley Chair Mitchell in economics, Adolph Berle and William O. Douglas in law.
Columbia’s distinction arose not simply from the size and academic prestige of its faculty but also from its access to New York’s thriving metropolitan community of independent intellectuals, writers, magazine editors, book publishers, and reformers. Hungry for ideas and eager to turn ideas into print, this urban public encouraged university-based intellectuals to seek influence beyond their academic specialties. They were invited to give public lectures, to join study groups, and to comment in print on major political issues of the day. As Thomas Bender has noted, John Dewey became a “wide-ranging and cosmopolitan intellectual” only after leaving Chicago for New York. Dewey’s graduate student Max Eastman introduced Dewey to Greenwich Village, and his colleague Charles Beard asked him to join the “X” Club, a high-powered group of New York intellectuals, journalists and political activists that met biweekly from 1903 to 1917. In this milieu, “Dewey learned to put his talk on general social, cultural, and political issues into print”; by the 1920s, he had become “America’s great public philosopher.”
New York City’s success in nurturing liberal intellectuals affected the entire country. Much of the nation’s liberal thought reached the public through one of the city’s liberal journals. The country’s premier liberal magazine, The New Republic, operated out of a brownstone on West 21st Street. The Nation also had its offices in New York, as did the Survey Graphic. New York was liberalism’s heart. For this reason, a disproportionate number of liberal intellectuals made New York their home, including several who will receive close examination in this essay – Herbert Croly, John Dewey, Robert and Helen Lynd, and Horace Kallen. To understand the liberalism they constructed in the 1920s and 1930s, we must first consider the liberalism – Progressivism – they cast off. …
The tsar’s fall and the consequent enthusiasm for war had two major effects on the politics of left-leaning Progressives – or liberals, as they increasingly called themselves …
In this climate of disillusionment, some left-leaning Progressives abandoned politics altogether. The flight of intellectuals to Europe reflected widespread despair in artistic circles concerning the possibility of progress or any sort – cultural or economic, liberal or socialist. Political demoralization was equally apparent in the bitter delight aroused by H.L. Mencken’s biting social commentary, especially his savage depictions of average Americans as small-town buffoons and his ridicule of ill-conceived liberal attempts at education and uplift. Walter Lippmann, a central figure in Herbert Croly’s New Republic liberal circle was profoundly shaken by the war’s outcome and taken with Mencken’s iconoclasm, maintained his belief in progress and in the efficacy of rational social action but not in democracy … Only the rule of experts, of men like himself, could render government in the United States effective and just.”
“Liberal democracy” was an ideal that was created by these people and was only established as a regime and exported abroad in the post-World War II era.
As Fareed Zakaria points out, “liberal democracy” or the “mainstream” was based on a cartel of television networks, newspapers and news magazines. Thomas Main celebrates these liberal gatekeepers and the power that they used to wield over the 20th century mass media. In retrospect, we can look back on it as a time when New York as a metropole dominated American culture.
In 2022, New York is well on its way to losing its empire like Boston before it. The city is declining in wealth, population and influence. A handful of gatekeepers in New York can no longer set the tone of American culture. More people now live in Texas and Florida than New York. Technology has made these gatekeepers irrelevant. The “mainstream” bubble seems to shrink with each passing year. New York liberalism had its run and is declining back into just another American regional culture. The rest of the country has its own values and media and has never been as globalist and cosmopolitan as New York.
This is what is so disturbing to Thomas Main. In states in Iowa and Alabama, “authoritarianism” and “illiberalism” are rising, which is to say that the folks who live there aren’t looking to New York cultural elites like they used to several decades ago. No one looks at New York City and thinks we ought to have its COVID regime or “Defund the Police” or letting illegal aliens vote in our elections. We still have democratic elections here. We still have constitutional rights too.