Against liberal "pluralism"

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.: JFK sycophant and embodiment of liberalism

In the time of Trumpism, Michael Paul Rogin’s great book The Intellectuals and McCarthy: The Radical Specter (1967) shouldn’t be as neglected as it is. It’s quite relevant. I recall reading Jesse Lemisch’s brilliant little pamphlet On Active Service in War and Peace: Politics and Ideology in the American Historical Profession (1969) and taking notes on it where I quoted Lemisch’s appreciative discussion of Rogin’s work. I should have read Rogin then.

So here are some notes on a wonderful old book.

Its target is the postwar, Cold War school of liberal thought called “pluralism,” expounded by such intellectual luminaries as Richard Hofstadter, Louis Hartz, Seymour Martin Lipset, Daniel Bell, Talcott Parsons, Daniel Boorstin, etc. It’s still with us, at least implicitly, throughout the political mainstream. And Rogin’s criticisms still very much hold up.

But let’s start at the beginning, where Rogin poses the problem that the book sets out to answer: how to understand McCarthyism, which had traumatized the intellectual class.

When McCarthy first became prominent, most liberals interpreted the danger he posed in fairly straightforward terms. To them McCarthy was simply the most successful a number of conservative Republicans capitalizing on the Communist threat to attack the New Deal at home and the Fair Deal abroad. “McCarthyism” was a synonym for smear attacks on liberals, its roots were in traditional right-wing politics, and its principal targets were innocent individuals and liberal political goals…
But to many writers such traditional analysis failed to account for McCarthy’s strength. In their eyes, McCarthy was getting support not from established groups with which traditional conservatism had been associated but rather from the dispossessed and discontent… Moreover, McCarthy appealed to the mass of people over the heads of their elected leaders. And the established eastern elite, unsympathetic to the Wisconsin senator, was one of his important targets. All this suggested that popular democracy constituted a real threat to the making of responsible political decisions. McCarthy appeared not in the guise of a conservative smearing innocent liberals but in the guise of a democrat assaulting the political fabric.

Meanwhile, just as faith in democracy suffered during the McCarthy years, so did sympathy for radicalism. To many intellectuals, McCarthy seemed like “the bearer of the historical radical mission,” challenging established institutions like earlier leftists had. People started talking about the “radical Right,” and radicals or extremists as such, whether on the left or the right, were seen as dangerous anti-democrats. This view, as you may have noticed, still predominates in the mainstream.

“In this new view, McCarthyism was a movement of the radical Right that grew out of movements of the radical Left.” This reminds me a little of Zeev Sternhell’s analysis of European fascism, which he argues grew out of earlier ideological currents among Marxists and syndicalists. It seems centrist intellectuals like to blame the left for the right, and associate the two. (What a surprise.) “Left-wing protest movements, democratic in their appeal to the popular masses, radical in the discontent they mobilized, had borne fruit in McCarthyism. To some, McCarthy was directly descended from an agrarian radical tradition [Populism, etc.]…”

This might seem like an absurd thesis, but it’s true, after all, that McCarthy and earlier agrarian radicalism had a similar geographical base of support. Outside the South (which opposed McCarthy just because he was a Republican and the South was Democratic in the 1950s), protest movements from the 1880s to the 1930s were strongest in the West and the western Midwest. Later, political leaders in these states vociferously supported McCarthy. In fact, the same state that had produced the great radical Progressive Robert La Follette—Wisconsin—also produced McCarthy! So the evidence seems compelling.

Nevertheless, Rogin rejects the thesis. When you look more closely, McCarthyism had only a traditional conservative heritage and no “agrarian radical” character at all. You can’t blame it on the masses or excessive democracy or the heritage of the left. You can blame it on the elites, and on the dangers of too little democracy.

Summing up the view he rejects, Rogin says,

Those connecting it with the earlier [left-wing] movements see McCarthyism, first, as a democratic revolt of dispossessed groups against the educated, eastern elite. Like McCarthyism, agrarian radicalism is also said to have substituted moralistic, irrational appeals for a rational politics. For many writers, these movements embody a nativist mystique which, glorifying the ordinary folk, threatens the civilized restraints of a complex society.

You’ll notice, again, that contemporary mainstream denunciations of “populism”—as if the fascist and leftist versions of populism are essentially the same—are the descendants of these earlier revisionist interpretations of McCarthyism and agrarian radicalism. We’re still living, to some extent, in the framework of a (decaying) “centrist” politics hammered out during the Cold War.


Rogin follows this introduction with a very thoughtful and interesting chapter on the ideology, or the political theory, of “pluralism” that produced these interpretations of left and right radicalism. He summarizes it as follows:

Modern pluralism, I will argue, is not simply a defense of shared power or a sympathy for diverse values but also a theory of history in which industrialization is the major actor. [Notice the ahistorical substitution of an abstract “industrialization” for concrete conflict between classes and subclasses. See also modernization theory.] Industrialization destroys traditional stability, but the success of industrialization enables group politics to dominate a society. Mass politics is defined by its orientation to the institutions and norms of industrial society. Group politics does not eliminate political moralism [which pluralists don’t like, preferring issues-based pragmatism] but rather directs it to its proper concern—social cohesion in a constitutional, industrial society. Group politics is the conflict not among groups but among group leaders, socialized into the dominant values and associations of industrial society. Pluralism does not extend its tolerance for diversity to mass movements and anti-industrial attitudes felt to threaten the conditions of diversity.

From this brief description, you can already recognize the ideological heritage of most of the political gerontocracy that runs the U.S. today. Especially in the Democratic Party (the Republican is actively discarding mainstream traditions, despite behind-the-scenes efforts of so-called “moderates” like Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski to keep it still residually semi-sane), Cold War pluralism, proceduralism, pragmatism, centrist liberalism, elitism is the ideology that governs the leadership. When Biden a few months ago said, nauseatingly, that the country “needs a Republican Party that’s principled and strong,” that was pluralism speaking. The liberal hatred of Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez is the reaction of pluralist elitism to critiques of elitism. In order for real progress to happen, we need this pluralist centrism to decline, as it’s finally doing today. (Of course, that opens the way for neofascism, but the left simply has to fight this challenge off.)

Rogin’s discussion of pluralism is extremely rich; I wish I could reproduce even a fraction of its richness here. The pluralists were/are, in essence, conservatives concerned above all with social cohesion and stability in an industrial society. They share avowed conservatives’ fear of the irrational masses and mass society itself—since it can lead to disorder, mass movements, totalitarianism, and the like—but they think the masses can be disciplined and controlled by belonging to a network of formal and informal groups in a bureaucratized society. They share Durkheim’s worry that an epidemic of anomie and alienation, and thereby dangerous mass movements, can arise in a modern individualistic society in which old traditions and communities have been lost, but they respond that the solution to mass society is the pluralist society in which “groups provide individuals with specific channels for realizing their demands, focusing their members on the practical desires that can be realized in ordinary democratic politics… Moreover, when an individual belongs to many groups he cannot act in an extreme fashion in support of one group without threatening his commitment to another. He thus becomes committed in general to the society and is unable to threaten that commitment through the support of a particular extremism.”

It’s a nice little theory, especially as it’s fleshed out in distinctions like that between rational class politics (not ideological but involving clashes of narrow economic interests between groups) and irrational status politics, based on vague status anxieties that bring forth things like the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, later McCarthyism, earlier Progressivism, and Populism. But pluralism isn’t hard to criticize. For instance, an argument Rogin could have made is that the modern, “stable” society its theorists love was made possible precisely by ideological mass movements like abolitionism, which indirectly abolished slavery, and the unemployed workers’ movement of the 1930s, which led to the welfare state. The civil rights movement, too, which had a “mass” character, was necessary to expand democracy and the liberal constitutional order that is the pluralists’ be-all and end-all. It seems these writers aren’t the most perceptive historians (despite including in their ranks famous historians like Hofstadter).

Their views of agrarian radicals can also be criticized right off the bat. For example, in line with their fetish of “industrial society,” pluralists interpret both earlier radicals and McCarthy as having directed irrational moralistic appeals “against the development of an instrumental, bureaucratized industrial order.” Whatever the truth about McCarthy, recent scholarship by Charles Postel, for example, has demolished this view of Populists: they were actually quite forward-thinking, industrial, modern, and highly rational in their analyses of social ills and prescriptions for a more just and democratic social order. This is also one of Rogin’s main arguments.

Certain other pluralist arguments might seem more plausible. Like the argument that McCarthyism and Populism/Progressivism had a petit-bourgeois base in common, receiving support from the small, independent, old middle class (which, out of its status anxiety, supposedly feared concentrated industry).

In the pluralist view, certain specific similarities between McCarthyism and agrarian radicalism are due to the rural, small middle-class basis they shared in common. The movements were anti-British, anti-Wall Street, anti-international bankers, anti-eastern aristocracy. They were pro-German. They stood for the moral absolutes associated with agrarian virtue, such as personal integrity and religion. They were against bigness, favoring equal opportunity and the small producer. Calling upon the traditions of a rural, individualistic America, McCarthyism and agrarian radicalism threatened in the name of the popular will to destroy the pluralist society in which they lived.

Most of this is a caricature of reality, as Rogin will show.

The relevance to the present, again, is that pluralist analyses of small-p “populism” still dominate mainstream perceptions, insanely associating the far left with the far right as equally dangerous, undemocratic, and irrational.


As an aside, here’s an intriguing comparison of the pluralist, or centrist-liberal, thinking with that of America’s “Founding Fathers” the Federalists (James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and their followers, who were opposed to the more democratic Jeffersonians):

[The Federalists’] political outlook resembles that of the pluralists. Here [with the Federalists] is the same fear of an uprising of the masses, the same suspicion of democracy. Federalists and pluralists alike place a considerable reliance on responsible leadership. Both groups of thinkers are pessimistic about human nature and optimistic about the power of institutions to check and control human beings. Both are preoccupied with the importance of balance. Both rely heavily on a pluralism of interests and institutions. Both express powerful nationalistic sentiments while asserting the primacy and legitimacy of (mainly economic) individual self-interest. Both insist that political institutions must [inevitably] be rooted in social conflict, yet desire those institutions to stand apart from and mediate social conflict.

Birds of a feather. Neither Federalists nor pluralists were the true conservatives of their day (Edmund Burke and other monarchists/feudalists were the real conservatives at the end of the eighteenth century), but they share the more general conservatism of belonging to the establishment and wanting to suppress the people.

Anyway, Rogin has no trouble dismantling some of the absurdities of pluralist theory. Like the typical attacks on left-wing radicalism and right-wing McCarthyism for their supposed moralism, populism, intolerance, extreme and apocalyptic rhetoric, conspiratorial and utopian thinking, etc. He has only to point out that good, respectable, mainstream conservatism has been just as susceptible to all these tendencies. (Just read newspapers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to be amazed by the wild hysterical overreactions to labor unions, strikes, and agrarian organizing.) Which, from pluralist theory, you wouldn’t think would be the case. So much the worse for pluralist theory.

Let’s move on to something more interesting. How does the base of support for Populism/Progressivism compare with the base for McCarthyism? Is it largely the same, as the pluralists argue? Rogin conducts a few case-studies, namely of Wisconsin and the Dakotas. With regard to Wisconsin, for example, after a long and expert analysis of voting patterns Rogin concludes as follows:

Progressivism in Wisconsin mobilized poor Scandinavian farmers against the richer areas of the state… McCarthy, on the other hand, rose to power with the votes of the richer German inhabitants of the farms and small cities in southern and eastern Wisconsin—anti-Progressive except when they were victims of McCarthy-type tactics during World War I [when Germans were demonized all over the country]. McCarthy’s unique strength was not as important as this [traditional] Republican Party strength. In any case, it reflected less a continuity with the Progressive past and more the particular issues, preoccupations, and individual attachments of politics in the Korean War decade…

For instance, Czechs and Poles tended to support him, not because of any “status anxiety” or whatnot but probably because of the Communism issue. Czechoslovakia had recently been the victim of a Communist coup d’état and Poland was under the thumb of the Soviet Union. So Communism was on the minds of Czechs and Poles.

Summing up his extremely detailed discussions of three Midwestern states, Rogin says that after the social base of agrarian radicalism had declined by the 1940s-50s, there was no longer a significant force to challenge conservative Republicanism.[1] “McCarthyism rose to power in the Middle West in the context of conservative dominance. While he had marginal agrarian radical support, the overwhelming majority of those who sent McCarthy-supporters to the Senate was part of the regular Republican constituency.” Unlike radicalism, McCarthyism was not a “mass” phenomenon, nor did it realign the bases of the two major parties in any way.


Rogin dedicates a couple of chapters to demolishing pluralist attacks on Populism and Progressivism—not a difficult task, but he’s a virtuoso at it. (E.g., Progressives weren’t just backward-looking rural nostalgists, Populists were no more anti-Semitic than the rest of their society, etc.)

He raises the important, and still very timely, question of why rural America has been prone to conservatism. Again, a crucial factor has been the decline of farmers’ radicalism since the 1940s, which isn’t only a result of prosperity and the relatively small numbers of farmers but also the fact that farming was increasingly mechanized and commercialized, even dominated by agribusiness. But why had non-farm rural areas, like small towns, always been prone to conservatism, going back to the nineteenth century? Well, just because local elites always tend to be conservative, so they can maintain their power. They don’t want the outside world horning in on the little sets of power relations they’ve constructed in their town or small city, and they have always viciously opposed unions, agrarian radicalism, and, since the 1930s-40s, the New Deal state. (See, for example, Elizabeth Tandy Shermer’s Sunbelt Capitalism: Phoenix and the Transformation of American Politics (2013). Phoenix gave us Barry Goldwater, so you can guess how conservative it was.) In the South, of course, the conservatism even goes back to slavery and Reconstruction, and racism has been of inestimable benefit to local power-structures. So the conservatism of “Trump country” has very deep roots, even if political realities in the last fifty years, such as Democrats’ abandonment of the working class, have intensified the problem.

(But don’t forget that—despite what the media says—it isn’t so much the “white working class” that is Trump’s base as the petty bourgeoisie and middle class: small business owners, managers, supervisors, real estate and insurance agents, in general moderately affluent people who, in many cases, lack a college degree. These are always the popular base of fascism or neofascism.)

McCarthy’s base of support overlapped to a large degree with Trump’s. First, it’s worth noting that the contemporary split in the Republican Party—between, roughly speaking, the lunatic base and the corporate-bureaucrat elite, or (oversimplifying) small business and big business—already existed in embryo in the 1940s. As the big corporations on the east coast became more established and bureaucratized by the 1940s, more integrated into a colossal New Deal state, they became less militantly conservative than they had been. They became the “liberal Republicans” of the postwar era, the Rockefellers and so on. On the other hand, the more provincial and smaller centers of business in the western Midwest and South/west remained ultra-conservative: isolationist, fearful of cosmopolitan values and ways of life, suspicious of big cities and big bureaucracies, religious, and fiercely opposed to unions and the New Deal state. These were the conservatives who most supported McCarthy, given his attacks on Communists, liberals, cosmopolitan intellectuals, government bureaucrats, the United Nations, etc. Such rhetoric, or such an ideology, wasn’t new in American conservatism; just think of the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. McCarthy only used it in a more extreme, successful, and mainstream way. Later politicians from Goldwater (well, sort of) to George Wallace, Nixon to Reagan, George W. Bush to Trump—amid hordes of lesser figures—would follow a similar “anti-elitist,” demagogic playbook. Actually, this has been a crucial component of the so-called “New Right” of the post-1950s.

Trump is certainly nothing new. He’s just an unusually vulgar and successful player of the proto-fascist game. Similar in a lot of ways, actually, to the pioneering McCarthy. (E.g., McCarthy was a complete nihilist and sadist, cared only about his own power and prestige, was dismissive of civil liberties and democratic rights, had contempt for established political norms, and liked to think of himself as a “tough guy” who “thinks with his gut.”)

According to polls, McCarthy did get a sizable amount of support from the populace. It fluctuated a lot, from 15 percent in 1951 to 50 percent in early 1954 (after which it declined permanently). Not surprisingly, Republicans were much more likely than Democrats to view him favorably. Professionals and executives were least likely to support him, while small businessmen and unskilled laborers were more likely to. (There are some similarities here with Trump.) But it seems that most of his support, especially among the working class (to the extent that it supported him), was simply a function of his being identified with anti-Communism at a time of huge propaganda campaigns against Communism, in the context of the Korean War.

Thus, contrary to what the pluralists argued, the meaning of McCarthyism wasn’t some “revolt of the masses” against established institutions and responsible political leadership.[2] After all, Eisenhower, the most “respectable” figure imaginable, remained widely popular in these years. Rather, it was elites, not the masses, who were to blame for McCarthyism. “Conservative Republican activists [such as many businessmen] provided McCarthy with the core of his enthusiastic support,” but the actions and inactions of political elites helped to augment his power:

Some, like moderate Republicans in their battle with the Democrats, congressmen in their battle with the executive, newspapers in their search for news, thought they could use him. Others, like Southern Democrats, saw no need to treat McCarthy differently than they treated other senators. Still others, moderate Republicans in their desire for party unity [such as Eisenhower, who didn’t denounce McCarthy but actually enabled him], [or] liberal Democrats in their desire for reelection, were afraid of him.

As with Trump—who was, and still is, made possible by Democratic elitism, corruption, and incompetence[3]—the whole establishment was complicit in McCarthyism. The rot extended down to provincial newspapers across much of the country that supported him; even establishment newspapers that opposed him, like the New York Times, gave him abundant publicity. “To understand the role of the press in the McCarthy period one must realize that a figure who gains notoriety sells more papers, and that to ignore such a figure is to risk losing sales to competing publishers.” Yep. There’s nothing new under the sun.


The book’s final chapter consists of an unremitting evisceration of pluralism. Rogin demolishes the whole sociological/political metaphysic that still animates the Democratic Party. If Biden and the rest of the gerontocracy were capable of self-critical thought, I would think someone should recommend that they read this chapter. Pluralism, or liberalism, is so intellectually bankrupt that it isn’t very interesting to argue against anymore, so I won’t reproduce the arguments he makes. But here’s a paragraph that gets to the heart of the matter regarding mass movements (which liberals always fear):

Behind the pluralist misinterpretation of McCarthyism and fear of agrarian radicalism [or any other radicalism] lies a legitimate suspicion of mass movements. But this fear, fed by the triumph of totalitarianism in Russia, Italy, and Germany, obscures the differences among mass movements. To find radical roots for McCarthy’s support is to underestimate the middle-class diversity of the American populace. For the pluralists, McCarthyism and agrarian radicalism were united by their petit bourgeois character. But in America the petit bourgeois class is both enormous and diverse. Different political movements can call on support from different segments of that class; their support can be petit bourgeois without being significantly related. It is a mistake to identify mass movements with authoritarianism and pressure groups with democracy. Rather there are authoritarian and democratic mass movements, just as there are authoritarian and democratic pressure groups. [E.g., labor is democratic; business is authoritarian.] The Populist mass movement operated within the established constitutional framework of the republic; it was not a threat to democracy.

The petit bourgeoisie can go either way, left or right. As can the “middle class” in general, or rather different strata of the middle class. An immigrant small business owner in New York City might very well join a left-wing movement; a white small business owner in the Midwest will probably be conservative or proto-fascist.

Let’s hope and pray that mass movements of the democratic kind spring up in the coming years, to demolish the complacent technocratic liberalism that was so beloved by the pluralists.

[1] The most important reason for the decline of agrarian radicalism was probably that there were vastly fewer farm families in 1950 than in 1890. Also, World War II had brought prosperity to most farmers, nullifying their former grievances. “Economically radical movements had generally pitted farmers against their conservative, small-town rural neighbors. As the relative proportions of farmers in the Middle West declined drastically, the conservative, nonfarm vote increased in importance. Hence, conservative strength in South Dakota and other former agrarian radical territory indicated in large part the disappearance of the agrarian radical social base.” Very different from what the pluralists would have you think!

[2] Here, there is somewhat of a difference with Trump. Americans by now share a broad disgust with established institutions, and some of them—generally belonging to the middle layers—incline toward fascist solutions. I’d venture to say, though, that the majority incline toward the left, favoring, e.g., universal healthcare, higher wages, and heightened public investment in infrastructure.

[3] If Democrats want to avoid Republican gains in 2022 and a possible Trump victory in 2024, they have to enact an ambitious legislative program. The reason they won’t is that they’re elitist, corrupt, and incompetent.

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