Manhattan Institute senior fellow and Cooper Union professor emeritus Fred Siegel’s new The Crisis of Liberalism: Prelude to Trump, a collection of his essays dating back to the early 1980s, helpfully lays out a century’s worth of instances in which liberalism’s elite experts have failed the citizenry. These failures have almost always resulted from the arrogance of those elites, who’ve thought their understanding and management of public policy to be superior to any exercise of self-government by their lessers. Many  of those elites, too many, reside in philanthropy.

The Crisis of Liberalism begins by bibliographically sketching the ideas of early Progressive intellectuals Herbert Croly and H. G. Wells, who envisioned college graduates as a new elite that would use the instruments of democratic governance to reverse the mistakes of the post-1789 European aristocracy. Those in this credentialed elite were a new class of liberal technocrats who knew best how to wield political power benificently for the “common good.”  

Siegel then examines the ideas of D. H. Lawrence, Sinclair Lewis, and H. L. Mencken, and he reviews the scholarship of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Richard Hofstadter. These “thought leaders” set the course for how the new educated elite were the right people, at the right moment, and in the right place to govern our democracy for the greater good of the common man.

[caption id="attachment_73561" align="alignnone" width="244"] Siegel[/caption]

Some of Siegel’s most-compelling essays in The Crisis of Liberalism explain how ideology came to displace evidence by the liberal “clerisy,” a term—also used by Joel Kotkin, author of the foreword to Siegel’s book—to describe the elite, sourced by the wealth of Silicon Valley and finance. In one section of the book, “The Long Sixties in America,” he harshly critiques the Great Society. He laments how ideologically inspired racial and cultural nihilists basically burnt their way through Newark and Detroit.

One incisive essay, “Moynihan’s Mistake and the Left’s Shame,” is of particular note. Siegel contends that the great mistake of Daniel Patrick Moynihan—an “empirically oriented” liberal intellectual and policymaker—was “allowing the self-serving panoply of government programs to survive,” and in so doing, resulting in “displacing the Burkean liberalism he otherwise tried to preserve.

“Moynihan was baffled by what had become of liberalism,” according to Siegel.

Time and again

The Crisis of Liberalism later features a chilling Siegel article from six years ago, “A Grotesque Pantomime of Repression and Redemption,” first published by the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal—of which Siegel is a contributing editor (and on the publication committee of which I serve). In it, he reflects on how to confront the reality of riots and racially tinged violence in America, comparing what happened in Newark and Detroit to the then-recent situations in Baltimore and Ferguson. Dishearteningly, there are even more-recent comparable situations now, of course.

In Detroit and Newark, according to Siegel, the physical, political, economic, and social consequences of the rioting and violence were more significant and longer-lasting than most have appreciated. Both cities lost much of their populations. Home values declined for all, and civic morale collapsed.

“The grotesque pantomime of repression and redemption, riots and never-quite-achieved rewards, plays out time and time again,” Siegel writes.

The drama persists in part because so many journalists and academics, not to mention black activists, have so much invested in it. … Sadly, to paraphrase the philosopher Ernest Gellner, some failed practices cannot be the subject of reconsideration, because they already shape the way we think.

No doubt little will be learned from Ferguson. No doubt there will be more Fergusons.

What of wokeness

Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal featured a great interview of Siegel by Tunku Varadarajan on liberalism and American society and politics. It underscores his work in The Crisis of Liberalism, while necessarily addressing the relatively new “woke” liberalism.

Having started as a man of the left, a protege of the democratic socialist literary critic Irving Howe, Seigel told Varadarajan that he fashions himself a proponent of bourgeois values. Quoting Siegel, Varadarajan describes him as thinking that “‘hard work, faith, family and autonomy’ have enabled America to thrive.” Bourgeois values are threatened by the clerisy, a “woke elite” with little or no connection to Middle America or middle-class America.

“Wokeness is a force that undermines the middle class,” Siegel tells Varadarajan, “and you couldn’t have had wokeness without contempt for the values of the middle class.” Middle-class Americans see political correctness, Seigel argues, “as a threat to the democratic republic they grew up in, where people could speak their mind.” Asked by Varadarajan to define political correctness, Siegel clarifyingly replies: “The inability to speak the truth about the obvious.”

Ideology trumps evidence. And Croly, and Moynihan. Thus liberalism’s crisis.

Inclusiveness and exclusion

Ideology trumps evidence in philanthropy, too—which has its own, or is at least a big part of, the country’s liberal clerisy. An increasing number of people are noting, and trying to suggest steps to deal with, this and what it’s doing to the entire charitable sector.

Siegel’s The Crisis of Liberalism has a good example of the general phenomenon. It features an adaptation of “The Poverty of Environmentalism,” from Society in 2014, in which he writes about poverty and fracking in upstate New York. As he tells the story, in the late 1990s, improvements in natural-gas drilling made possible by fracking seemed to promise a way out of poverty. They were a chance to rescue an economically dying region, in which property taxes, regulation, and small dairy herds made it difficult to eke out a living.

Landowners pled their case for fracking, but were outmatched by the opposition of a powerful and effective anti-fracking coalition. That coalition, Siegel points out, included the liberal gentry of upstate university towns such as Ithaca, Binghamton, and Oneonta; Manhattan’s upper crust; and liberal celebrities like Yoko Ono. 

When it sought financing for its efforts, the coalition approached Ithaca’s Park Foundation, which was led by Duncan Hines heiress Adelaide Gomez. Persuaded by the romantic sentiments of 19th Century, anti-industrial England, the Park Foundation financed much of the anti-fracking movement in New York. That support, along with the success of the movie Gaslands, helped persuade the state to impose a moratorium on fracking in 2008.

“Great Society liberalism had, for all its faults, an ideal of inclusiveness. The environmental and anti-industrial liberalism is implicitly organized around exclusion,” according to Siegel in The Crisis of Liberalism.

“Environmentalism, with its powerful not-in-my-backyard and not-in-your-backyard currents in upstate New York, has become an ideological cover for the pursuit of self-interest. New York’s liberals are fighting to preserve the status quo, poverty and all.”

Evidence, Croly and Moynihan, and many in poverty who need help—all trumped, as Siegel’s book helps show. And liberalism, including establishment philanthropy—in crisis.