The novels of Sinclair Lewis, the journalism of H. L. Mencken, and the literary criticism of Van Wyck Brooks heaped scorn on the vast and supposedly mindless Americans who worked hard at their jobs and joined civic groups — Mencken’s “booboisie.”
These 1920s liberals idealized the “noble aspiration” and “fine aristocratic pride” in an imaginary Europe, and considered Americans, in the words of a Lewis character, “a savorless people, gulping tasteless food,” and “listening to mechanical music, saying mechanical things about the excellence of Ford automobiles, and viewing themselves as the greatest race in the world.”
This contempt for ordinary Americans mostly persisted in changing political environments. During the Great Depression, many liberals became Communists, proclaiming themselves tribunes of a virtuous oppressed proletariat that would have an enlightened rule.
For a moment, idealization of the working man, but not the middle-class striver, came into vogue. But in the postwar years, what Siegel calls “the political and cultural snobbery” of liberals returned. …
… As Daniel Patrick Moynihan, an artist among social scientists, pointed out, social scientists didn’t really know how to eliminate poverty or crime. Policies based on middle-class instincts often worked better than those of elite liberals.
Some Democratic politicians learned lessons from this. Bill Clinton pursued welfare reform and honored, in rhetoric if not always behavior, people who work hard and play by the rules.
Barack Obama, in contrast, has built a top-and-bottom coalition — academics and gentry liberals, blacks and Hispanics, with funding and organizational backing from taxpayer-funded public-sector unions. In 2008, Obama carried those with incomes under $50,000 and over $200,000, and lost those in between.
The Obama Democrats passed a stimulus package tilted toward public-sector unions and financial regulation propping up the big banks. Those at the top got paid off.
Less has gone to those at the bottom. Those in the middle have seen their health insurance canceled by Obamacare and sit waiting for HealthCare.gov to function.
Suddenly, this “aristocracy based on talent and sensibility,” in Siegel’s words, seems to be discrediting its own policies — and its conceit that it is uniquely fit to govern.