Babbitt Is Back
Is Babbittry alive and well in twenty-first-century America?
George F. Babbitt is novelist Sinclair Lewis's protagonist in the novel of the same name. Babbitt is a real estate man, which is to say a salesman, but the newfangled 1920s term is "Realtor™." Incurious, smug, self-satisfied, and utterly predictable, Babbitt is well pleased with his life in fictional Zenith. As a strident booster of his hometown, he urges displays of "Zip for Zenith" among his delegation to the convention of real estate boards. Like all glad-handers, Babbitt is neither particularly concerned with life's mysteries or how he came to enjoy his own comfortable place in the world. Things which benefit him are good; things which threaten the unexamined ease of his career, family, town, and, above all, social status are bad.
Babbitt is thus an avatar of know-nothingness, and "Babbittry" is a descriptive term similar to H.L Mencken's "booboisie." Both denote uncultured and material impulses, the kind of ugly provincialism we all imagine ourselves above.
Murray Rothbard in The Betrayal of the American Right devotes a worthwhile chapter to "The Tory Anarchism of Mencken and Nock." Here Rothbard discusses the origins of Old Right thinking in the early twentieth century, with Baltimore journalist and social critic Mencken as a leading light. Mencken is revisionist, having opposed US entry into the Great War. He is also a strong critic of 1920s culture, the do-gooderism of Prohibition, and the general leftover stench of Woodrow Wilson's zeal for state planning. Given this, Mencken sees Babbitt as a literary triumph, capturing the amalgamated essence of many American businessmen of the era:
I know of no American novel that more accurately presents the real America. As an old professor of Babbittry, I welcome him as an almost perfect specimen. Every American city swarms with his brothers. He is America incarnate, exuberant and exquisite.
Mencken was no leftist, and was certainly a scathing skeptic of government in all forms. Lewis was a dyed-in-the-wool socialist who dabbled in commune life. But both identified in George Babbitt a dangerous underbelly beneath the superficial bonhomie. In the credulous Babbitt, Mencken saw the seeds of censorship and attacks on civil liberties. Lewis saw an archetype of protofascism in the guise of civic chauvinism. The analogies to American society today, one hundred years after Lewis published Babbitt, are readily apparent.
Surely today's Left would cast Trumpists as modern Babbitts, purposefully ignorant rubes who clamor against the rapid changes of a new progressive era. But this is inaccurate precisely because the polarity of smugness and self-certainty have shifted so rapidly toward the woke monoculture. Babbitts certainly exist across politics and across red and blue America. But the open hatred and contempt afforded to Deplorables, Fox News viewers, Karens of all stripes, covid deniers, antimaskers, antivaxxers, and other assorted lepers in America today go far beyond even Sinclair Lewis's scathing social criticism. And if we define provincialism as the inability to imagine or sympathize with a life and world view much unlike one's own, then blue America is anything but cosmopolitan. Make America Great Again grates on progressive ears as jingoism, but what are Sí se puede and Build Back Better if not pure Babbittry?
Lewis is at least somewhat sympathetic to his main character. Babbitt shows humanity when he falls in with a fast set and pursues an unrequited love affair with a young party girl. He even defends his new Bohemian friends against the raised eyebrows down at the athletic club. Deep down, rebellion against his many responsibilities and financial obligations and encroaching middle age stirs something in him. Carrying on in late-night speakeasies, Babbitt is for a brief moment the conservative who has been to jail. Lewis does not exactly redeem him; Babbitt in the end chooses to stay with his dutiful wife and unexciting job. But at least he ventures outside his comfortable bubble, to catch a glimpse of (presumably) a more beautiful and aspirational life. Lewis didn't hate Babbitt in the way many seem to hate Trump America.
Babbittry is here to stay. As the political world grows in importance, civil society necessarily and inexorably shrinks. But civil society is where the results are. Yes, our superficial, nonintellectual, and media-drenched culture produces plenty of incurious Babbitts. But there they remain, localized and anodyne. The political world, by contrast, gives us Mencken's charlatans, mountebanks, and bunco artists: people who create no value but live quite comfortably off those who do. People without skin in game, who are rewarded time and again for the grossest misdeeds and failures. Politics weaponizes the Babbitts, turning them into monsters—otherwise harmless men and women who become true believers in their own mythology. If politics mattered less, the Joe Bidens and George W. Bushes of the world might have chosen to sell real estate like George Babbitt. We should have been so lucky.
Babbittry is a feature of mass democracy, not a bug. Unthinking acceptance is at the heart of what politicians sell, by necessity, in a country of 330 million people. If democracy is sacred, bunkum is sacred. The people selling us democracy believe in it the same way George F. Babbitt believes in a new listing from the Babbitt-Thompson Realty Company: in the most hollow and self-serving way imaginable.