Commentary Magazine

The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, by Christopher Lasch


The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy.
by Christopher Lasch.
Norton. 256 pp. $22.00.

The historian Christopher Lasch, who died of cancer in February of last year, was a rare commodity, a cultural analyst and critic whose work actually grew steadily more interesting, and more independent of conventional ideological constraints, as he grew older. It makes for a poignant experience, then, to read his final book, completed in the weeks just before his death, when his labors must have been sustained by a deep sense of urgency.

Even more than any of his other books, this one is written in direct language, with a broad, nonacademic audience clearly in mind. Perhaps Lasch hoped this work would be a kind of intellectual testament, a distillation of his evolving perspective on contemporary American society. Though historically informed, it makes no pretense of being a work of historical scholarship, devoting most of its attention instead to the discontents of the present day and the prospects for tomorrow.

The view that Lasch takes of these prospects is often bitterly angry and almost unrelievedly gloomy. As his book’s title, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, suggests, he renders a harsh judgment on the college-educated professional and managerial elites in America, whom he accuses of having abandoned the common life and subverted democracy.

Never before in American history, Lasch argues, have the privileged classes been so “dangerously isolated” from the rest of the country. Previous American elites had their faults, but these elites were at least rooted in the mores of a particular locale and their behavior was constrained by expectations of noblesse oblige. Not so the new elites, who have turned their back on the dreary banalities and soggy pieties of “Middle America” and opted instead for a tourist’s-eye view of life: the ceaseless pursuit of excitement, variety, and mobility in the rootless international market of “fast-moving money, glamor, fashion, and popular culture.”

In an increasingly global and information-based economy, the gap—economic, cognitive, and moral—between the lives of those in the elite and the rest of America seems to grow inexorably, as the manufacturing sector continues to decline, and as the middle and working classes experience relentless downward pressures and social disintegration. Indeed, there is “a question,” Lasch writes, whether the members of our new elites “think of themselves as Americans at all.”

Feeling more closely linked to the pulsating global marketplace than to the mundane life of their locality and country, the new elites prefer the cosmopolitanism of enclaves like Cambridge and Silicon Valley to the parochialism of settled communities. “Patriotism,” Lasch observes, “does not rank very high in their hierarchy of virtues”—not nearly so high as “multiculturalism,” which “suits them to perfection, conjuring up the agreeable image of a global bazaar” in which the exotic can be “savored indiscriminately, with no questions asked and no commitments required.”



The development of such a class, although it surely reflects a multitude of individual choices, also has deeper and broader sources, which Lasch attempts to explore. To him it is not a paradox, or even very surprising, that the growing integration of the world economy has been accompanied by such a high degree of political instability and disintegration in so many parts of the world. The denationalization of business, he argues, inevitably erodes the foundations of the nation-state itself, and gives rise to a transnational elite whose only loyalty is to itself. One could speculate that the unusual domestic coalition that arose against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)—Buchananite conservatives, Naderite liberals, environmentalists, blacks, and trade unionists—found common cause in their shared opposition to this perceived erosion of the nation-state, and to the class that seemed to be benefiting from it.

Lasch’s analysis suggests that not only in the United States, but in virtually every other advanced country as well, “reactionary” nationalist political movements combining traditional elements of the Left and the Right are likely to arise against the new globalized elite. Such a view recalls the fears of radical-right extremism, “working-class authoritarianism,” and McCarthyite populism articulated by social analysts of the 1950’s like Seymour Martin Lipset, Richard Hofstadter, Daniel Bell, Edward Shils, and David Riesman. But Lasch has reversed the terms of their analysis, just as he has reversed the terms of Jose Ortega y Gasset’s classic, The Revolt of the Masses, in his own title.

Lasch is firmly, though not uncritically, on the side of the “reactionaries.” He calls into question the very premises which the new elites (and many other Americans) accept without question: that meritocracy is the fairest and wisest (and most efficient) way to recruit a leadership class; and that the universal desire for “social mobility” is the surest sign of good health in the American economy and society. On the contrary, he argues, meritocracy has only had the effect of intensifying class division because it gives an impregnable “objective” standing to claims of social privilege. And the frenzied pursuit of “social mobility” is, to him, just another way of signaling that the classes from which the ambitious seek to ascend are intrinsically unworthy.

As against such premises, Lasch proposes something else: a recovery of what he calls the “populist tradition,” and a fresh understanding of democracy, not as a set of procedural or institutional arrangements but as an ethos, one that the new elites have been doing their best to undermine.

Such an understanding, in Lasch’s articulation of it, relies heavily upon the contemporary revival of civic-humanist and republican political thought, with its emphasis upon the moral and practical responsibilities of citizenship. It presumes that vigorous public debate is essential to the common life as a component in the education of citizens. It also presumes that the broad distribution of property is a good thing, economically and morally, and that excessive class polarization is inimical to democracy. But it does not make the abolition of economic inequality its governing passion, since it proposes to assure all citizens, no matter how humble their station, of a “civic” equality that transcends wealth and position. Above all, it emphasizes the acquisition of habits of self-reliance, personal responsibility, and individual initiative—not as freestanding “individualist” traits, but as aspects of the “civic virtue” that is required in self-governing communities. Such communities, Lasch asserts, are “the basic units of democratic society,” and it is their decline that imperils democracy.



It is noteworthy how many points in this argument echo or resemble those put forward by such other contemporary writers as Mickey Kaus, James Davison Hunter, Robert Reich, Alan Wolfe, Robert Bellah, Wendell Berry, E.J. Dionne, Amitai Etzioni, and, it should be added, Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein. Yet none of them wields the sword of criticism with anything approaching the intensity and abandon of Christopher Lasch, who slashes Left and Right with broad strokes that are sometimes exhilarating, sometimes infuriating, rarely unsanguinary, and almost never boring. Consider this spirited swipe:

Only in a world in which words and images bear less and less resemblance to the things they appear to describe would it be possible for a man like [Robert] Reich to refer to himself, without irony, as Secretary of Labor or to write so glowingly of a society governed by the best and brightest.

Or this:

The ideology of compassion . . . is one of the principal influences, in its own right, on the subversion of civic life. . . . Compassion has become the human face of contempt.

Or this:

The civil-rights movement originated as an attack on the injustice of double standards; now the idea of a single standard [is] itself attacked as the crowning example of “institutional racism.”

Although the book rips at the Right as well, including attacks on the corrosive effects of “the market,” one cannot help noticing that, for Lasch, the Left proves the more enticing and target-rich environment. This fact serves to underscore the painful dilemma faced by Lasch at the end of a career spent largely as a critic of the Left from within the Left. Perhaps nothing had disgusted him more deeply than the American Left’s consistent willingness to subordinate political and economic reform to a self-indulgent agenda of cultural and moral radicalism—an agenda that he disdained partly on its own merits, and partly because he knew its pursuit would alienate working-class Americans and wreck any chance at other reforms.

Lasch was right, but he fought a losing battle. As he subjected cultural radicalism to ever more intense criticism, the Left became ever more intransigently committed to its defense, to the point where it is now impossible to imagine the moral renewal of the nation ever coming from that direction. As a consequence, Lasch’s most careful and admiring readers in recent years have more and more been found on the Right, a fact that cannot have made him very happy.



Lasch sometimes strains to differentiate his position from the Right as well as from the Left, but in ways that are increasingly unconvincing. In his discussion of the curricular wars roiling higher education, for example, he asserts that both of the quarreling sides are equally wrong. He reminds us that the controversies over “the canon” are far less important than the ever-declining standards of student preparation and performance in our universities. True enough; but it is hard to believe Lasch really thought that conservatives have been unconcerned about declining standards—or that standards of performance are unrelated to the objects of study.



A somewhat different problem manifests itself in Lasch’s concluding chapter on religion, which is peculiarly monochromatic and joyless, offering Calvinism without consolation. Lasch argues, correctly, that most intellectuals and other secularists have a shallow understanding of religion, thinking of it as little more than a crutch for those too weak to face life squarely. Lasch recognizes how wrong this assumption is. Indeed, he praises religion for its willingness to come to terms with human limits, with evil and death—and its unwillingness to oblige our narcissistic conceits about the ultimate significance of our lives.

The secret of happiness that religion teaches, Lasch argues, “lies in renouncing the right to be happy”—a statement that flies in the face of a thousand therapeutic platitudes, and would probably be flatly unintelligible to a growing number of Americans. In the face of a God Who utterly transcends all our concepts and attributions, we have no choice except to abandon our narcissistic fantasies, and fall back into a mature appreciation of our smallness and dependency.

This may be true as far as it goes. But it, too, is very much an intellectual’s version of religion, bearing no reference to the particular creedal affirmations that make real religions cohere and persist, or to the real institutions in which believers are obliged to be deeply involved. Indeed, Lasch’s conception of God as utter transcendence ignores the fact that, at least in the context of the biblical faiths, God’s character and His wishes for man have a particular if not always easily discernible content, and are not entirely mysterious.

In brief, Lasch’s conception of religion is defined too much by those aspects of contemporary American culture he laments, and not enough by the tenets and features of religious practice, both attractive and unattractive, as they actually exist. That his concluding chapter is entitled “The Soul of Man Under Secularism” indicates where his true interests lie: less in religion itself than in the things against which it might be deployed.

In the end, Lasch’s work may be defined too much by his enmities. The rage that drove him made his books and articles compulsively readable, but it may also have prevented them from reaching the highest level of achievement. In particular, his emphasis upon the recovery of civic virtue seems to stem more from his disgust with the slackness, incompetence, and self-indulgence permeating contemporary America than from a positive moral vision. Yet such feelings did push him, in this final book, to a positive awareness that we

need a revisionist interpretation of American history, one that stresses the degree to which liberal democracy has lived off the borrowed capital of moral and religious traditions antedating the rise of liberalism.

Lasch was absolutely right about that, and right to recognize that one of the principal challenges facing us will be that of renewing and rebuilding this moral capital—a task for which the current academic fashions of victimization and identity politics are doing less than nothing to prepare us.

Liberal democracy, argues The Revolt of the Elites, depends upon a prior moral order. It is not a machine that will run of itself on well-laid procedural tracks alone. In this recognition, Lasch may well have had much of America with him. Some such conviction is undoubtedly fueling the unprecedented support in the new Congress, and the country, for what is being called “devolution”: the reversion of power from the central government to the states and localities. Many of the measures being proposed reflect the spirit of a revived classical republicanism, and a revitalized conception of citizenship.

One can welcome this development, as I do, but at the same time attend to the questions Lasch would ask of it: how can we preserve the possibility of self-governing communities that promote civic virtue (and all that it presupposes), while at the same time embracing all the possibilities and advantages inherent in an increasingly globalized economy—the novus ordo seclorum symbolized for Lasch by those rootless and self-interested new elites? And will it be possible, in the midst of such changes, also to restore the fortunes of the crumbling nation-state upon which the stability and future of so much depends, including the threatened middle classes? These are troubling questions, questions which have no obvious answers. Christopher Lasch, restless shade, deserves our thanks for leaving us with them.

About the Author

Wilfred M. McClay, who holds the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in the Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, contributed “Is Conservatism Finished?” to the January COMMENTARY. His latest book is Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past.

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