Our Prophet: Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites, Part 2Greg Johnson
Part 2 of 2 (Part 1 here)
The Question of Public Virtue
When Lasch wonders whether American democracy can survive crime, drugs, and urban decay, he is sounding another populist theme that harks back to classical republicanism: the dependence of popular government on public virtue. Of course, “Liberals have always taken the position that democracy can dispense with civic virtue” (p. 85). But America hasn’t always been that liberal, as Lasch repeatedly demonstrates.
Lasch endorses a revisionist reading of American history which holds that “liberal democracy has lived off the borrowed capital of moral and religious traditions antedating the rise of liberalism” (p. 86). But liberals have not merely failed to replenish this capital. They actively undermine it. Lasch counsels “a heightened respect for hitherto neglected traditions of thought, deriving from classical republicanism and early Protestant theology, that never had any illusions about the unimportance of civic virtue” (p. 86). He also praises such thinkers as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Orestes Brownson, Josiah Royce, John Dewey, and Randolph Bourne, who “understood that democracy has to stand for something more demanding than enlightened self-interest, ‘openness,’ and toleration” (p. 86).
Upward Mobility vs. the Dignity of Labor
But hasn’t America always prized upward mobility? In one of his most interesting essays, “Opportunity in the Promised Land,” Lasch argues that “the promise of American life came to be identified with social mobility only when more hopeful interpretations of opportunity had begun to fade” and that “the concept of social mobility embodies a fairly recent and sadly impoverished understanding of the ‘American Dream’ . . .” (p. 50). Specifically, social mobility became central to the American self-image only in the mid-twentieth century.
Should it really surprise us that throughout most of American history, trappers, farmers, ranchers, and sailors were not dreaming of raising doctors, lawyers, and dentists? The idea that a society is redeemed by offering the “best and the brightest” the ability to go to college and train for the professions is a brahmin prejudice, an expression of a traditional caste system that disdains labor and exalts learning — that prefers ink on the fingers to dirt on the hands. But if society can only be redeemed by its professional classes, then work is forever considered degrading and unclean, fit only for slaves or machines. American workers rejected this worldview as an affront to their dignity.
According to Lasch, throughout most of American history the promise of America was not seen as an opportunity for the few to rise, but as the dignity of all free men in whatever station they occupied. America promised a decent life to all working people, not misery for the majority and upward mobility for the few. According to Lasch, America offered all free men “the opportunity to mingle on equal footing with persons from all realms of life, to gain access to larger currents of opinion, and to exercise the rights and duties of citizenship” (p. 58). Lasch distinguishes three important themes here: civic equality, the dignity of labor, and “the democratization of intelligence.”
Nineteenth-century America understood itself as a classless society in which “Patrician and plebian orders are unknown,” as Charles Ingersoll wrote in 1810 (p. 59). According to Lasch, the classless society did not mean equality of income, but “the absence of hereditary privilege and legally recognized distinctions of rank” (p. 64). Beyond that, though, Americans refused to “tolerate the separation of learning and labor” (p. 64).
Traditional societies are ruled by elites that specialize in war and knowledge — kshatriya and brahmins — and that despise farmers, merchants, and laborers. Americans wanted to make do without these snobs as much as possible. Hence American defenses of civic equality and the dignity of labor were often combined with polemics against standing armies, priestly and scribal elites, and even public education, which was promoted on egalitarian grounds but criticized as a foothold for creeping elitism. (Lasch’s essay “The Common Schools” should be required reading for today’s homeschool movement.)
Americans believed that popular government required appropriating and democratizing the functions of the higher castes. Hence the First Amendment to the US Constitution bars a state church and establishes freedom of religion, the press, speech, and assembly. In short, the goal is to prevent rule by priests and experts and ensure that all citizens have a say in government. In Lasch’s words:
Citizenship appeared to have given even the humbler members of society access to the knowledge and cultivation elsewhere reserved for the privileged classes. Opportunity, as many Americans understood it, was a matter more of intellectual than of material enrichment. It was their restless curiosity, their skeptical and iconoclastic turn of mind, their resourcefulness and self-reliance, their capacity for invention and improvisation that most dramatically seemed to differentiate the laboring classes in America from their European counterparts. (p. 59)
The Second Amendment, moreover, ensures the right of citizens to keep and bear arms, eliminating the need for a warrior caste. Many nineteenth-century Americans did not just oppose imperialism and interventionism but standing armies as such. Julius Evola would be appalled, but America would still be better governed if we selected our rulers by lot than by today’s credentialed elites.
The People vs. the Experts
The nineteenth century was the high watermark of public participation in American democracy. Polarization was intense, discourse was uncivil, conspiracy theories were rampant, and people who are dismissed today as “cranks” reached large audiences. Parties gathered in mass rallies. There were torchlight marches. There were brawls in the streets. But voter turnouts were very high (over 80% from 1830 to 1900), political debates were lengthy and substantive, and ordinary people intently educated themselves on the issues.
In short, today’s populism is nothing new but instead the return of something very old and deeply encoded in American culture. It is the voice of the American people, demanding accountability from the rich, powerful, and connected.
To Lasch, “Populism is the authentic voice of American democracy” (p. 106). Whereas elite discourse is characterized by expressions of “goodwill” (what we now call “virtue signaling”) and attempts to “sanitize speech” (p. 7), populism “stands for plain manners and plain, straightforward speech” (p. 106). When elites wish to shut down the people, they brand them as cranks, conspiracy theorists, and “uncivil.”
Such rhetoric often turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy, because when the voice of the people is not heeded — or actively suppressed — things can turn uncivil rather fast. You really can’t blame them. This is just how the people speak. If the elites want them to speak better, the proper response is to raise the level of popular discourse, not shut it down.
Given the robustness of populism in nineteenth-century America, why has American democracy declined into “liberal democracy,” which today’s elites now candidly brand as “our democracy” (their democracy), i.e., cosmopolitan minority rule? It’s complicated, but for Lasch it ultimately goes back to the modernist project of the scientific investigation and technical mastery of nature. Although American populists had little use for priestly and warrior castes, they loved science, and this proved to be their undoing.
America has always been a land of autodidacts and tinkerers, with an insatiable appetite for “popular science” and “popular mechanics.” But as science and technology have progressed, they have become increasingly the preserve of experts, even “authorities.” Thus even American populists became increasingly willing to be diddled out of public debate and self-government by elites promising to make journalism “objective” and government “scientific.”
In his essay “The Lost Art of Argument,” Lasch notes that “Political debate began to decline around the turn of the century, curiously enough at a time when the press was becoming more ‘responsible,’ more professional, more conscious of its civic obligations” (p. 163). The press promised to be more objective, factual, and independent rather than rabidly partisan. However, it simply replaced candid partisanship with more hidden forms, while lulling the public into complacency. Instead of being a medium of frankly partisan public debate, the press claimed to be dispensing objective information, which the grateful public was to consume without questions and complaints.
Today’s resurgent populist electorate has dispensed with such illusions, aided by the rise of the Internet, which has empowered countless amateur journalists, pundits, and savants to unmask the bias, incompetence, and partisan agendas of the experts. Again, Lasch shows us that this is nothing new, but rather the return of something old and deeply rooted in American culture.
The professionalization of journalism coincided with the rise of the progressive movement, which also sought to make politics more “scientific,” “objective,” and “professional” rather than partisan. Progressives demanded a non-partisan, independent civil service. They preached “good government,” “efficiency,” and “bipartisanship.” They demanded that policy-making be placed in the hands of technical experts, rather than ambitious politicians and the voters they so shamelessly pandered to. “Most political questions were too complex, in their view, to be submitted to popular judgment” (p. 167).
Due to the prestige of science, Americans increasingly accepted rule by experts. They came to think that politics was “over their heads.” But they were comfortable with the new order, because they trusted the experts to do the right thing. Today’s populist electorate no longer shares such illusions, which became especially clear in the public response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Citing John Dewey, Lasch points out that sitting quietly, believing what experts tell us, and not talking back is actually foreign to the scientific spirit that Americans revere. As Dewey pointed out, “even scientists argue among themselves. . . . The knowledge needed by any community — whether it was a community of scientific inquirers or a political community — emerged only from ‘dialogue’ and ‘direct give and take’” (p. 172).
Science is a collective enterprise. Critical dialogue between different points of view is an essential part of its method. If the project of the Enlightenment is to recast society as a whole on the model of scientific inquiry, this would imply a healthy role for democracy, not elite rule:
If we insist on argument as the essence of education [and science], we will defend democracy not as the most efficient but as the most educational [and most scientific] form of government, one that extends the circle of debate as widely as possible and thus forces all citizens to articulate their views, to put their views at risk, and to cultivate the virtues of eloquence, clarity of thought, and sound judgment. (p. 171)
Thus, when the political establishment responded to Covid skepticism with censorship and demands of deference to authority, it was not just undemocratic, it was unscientific as well. Scientists submit all their findings to empirical testing and “peer review.” Obviously the experts don’t regard the public at large as their “peers.” But when science is the basis of policy, the public needs to have a voice in the process, and the experts need to muster the time and the patience to listen and respond to their concerns. Refusing to do so simply encourages the paranoia and crankery that the experts disdain.
Lasch & the New Populism
We can’t predict all of Lasch’s reactions to the rise of National Populism. That’s what makes his untimely death so galling. But based on his comments on the Right-wing populism of his time, one of his main challenges would be to avoid being co-opted by the free market boosters of the Republican Right.
Lasch noted that Republicans are happy to use populist talking points as a cudgel against the Left, but they always stop short of criticizing the role of capitalism itself in the decline of the family, the middle class, the nation, and the culture in general. But free-market economics drive offshoring and open borders, leading to the decline of the working and lower-middle classes as well as enormous accumulations of wealth at the top. Moreover, capitalist individualism and consumerism contribute to crime, drugs, and the decline of the family. Putting the family and the nation first require placing limits on economic activity for the greater good of society. (I discuss this issue in my essays “5 to 9 Conservatism” and “The Limits of Globalization.”) But many people who have traveled the libertarian to National Populist pipeline might balk at sentiments like these:
. . . economic inequality is intrinsically undesirable, even when confined to its proper sphere. Luxury is morally repugnant, and its incompatibility with democratic ideals, moreover, has been consistently recognized in the traditions that shape our political culture. The difficulty of limiting the influence of wealth suggests that wealth itself needs to be limited. When money talks, everybody else is condemned to listen. For that reason a democratic society cannot allow unlimited accumulation. . . . a moral condemnation of great wealth must inform every defense of the free market, and that moral condemnation must be backed up by effective political action. (p. 22)
I am unsure how Lasch would respond to the strong ties between the new populism and white identity politics. Lasch is a scathing critic of Leftist identity politics and praises Martin Luther King. But in today’s context, that makes him a conservative Republican. I can’t help but think, though, that he would have grown beyond Ben Shapiroism.
I am also unsure how Lasch would have reacted to Kevin MacDonald’s The Culture of Critique, but I think that his take on the Jewish question would be similar to that of Heidegger, who argued that Jewish overrepresentation in elites derives from the fact that Jewish culture has features that are a good fit with the preexisting trends of modernity and globalization. (See part 3 of my essay “Heidegger and the Jewish Question.”)
As a prophet, Lasch was ahead of his time. Today’s populists have much to learn from him. But before we can go beyond him, we have to catch up. The Revolt of the Elites is the best place to start.
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