Democracy Betrayed: Lasch’s Revolt of the Elites at 25

Christopher Lasch, who died from cancer in 1994 at the age of 61, was a leading historian and social critic. To read The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy after 25 years is to realize too that though he was not a religious man, Lasch was something like a prophet. He excoriated the ruling class for its decadence, and not only saw where American democracy was headed under their leadership, but also called Americans to turn to their own populist history as a source of rescue and renewal.

Events of the past quarter century make plain that we didn’t listen. Is it too late? “We are a working class party now. That’s the future.” So tweeted GOP Sen. Josh Hawley, on Election Night 2020. He’s probably right, but is the kind of populism available to Americans today anything like what Kit Lasch would have recognized, much less recommended? Or has the social decay Lasch identified in his posthumously published Revolt penetrated to the roots of American democracy, past the point of recovery?

Lasch burst onto the scene as a Marxist radical academic in the 1960s. His analyses of American history and culture would eventually lead him rightward in his cultural politics, though he never was a conservative. All his life Lasch retained his suspicion of market capitalism, though for culturally conservative reasons: he thought bringing market logic to all aspects of life destroyed family and social relations, and weakened democracy.

Though a Harvard graduate (his roommate was John Updike), Lasch was a Midwesterner by birth, the son of ardent prairie progressives. After discarding his youthful socialism, Lasch still believed that minimizing economic inequality was important for democracy. Because the greater the class divisions, the more difficult it is for people to understand themselves as part of a society oriented toward the common good.

He was also strongly moralistic, believing that a government of and by the people required individual virtue. The collapse of traditional moral codes and the rise of therapeutic strategies and modes of thinking disgusted Lasch, and provided the thematic core for his best-known book, 1979’s The Culture Of Narcissism. It also earned him the spite of many of his former allies on the Left. They did not appreciate his lacerating critique of progressive social values, which Lasch believed undermined the virtues that made families and communities strong.

Lasch, aided by his daughter Elisabeth, worked against the hard deadline of his impending demise to complete Revolt, which is mostly a collection of magazine essays from the early 1990s on standard Laschian themes. The contemporary reader will find the book stunning in its prescience. The difference between reading Revolt when it was first published and revisiting it today is the difference between a world in which the agents of decline identified by Lasch were still contending for control of the culture—and one in which they have triumphed.

Class and Culture

What did Lasch see coming?

His most important insight was the widening gulf between economic and cultural elites and the mainstream of American life, whose moral codes and traditions they hold in contempt. The book’s title refers to the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses, a 1930 volume analyzing the rise of mass democracy, and what he regarded as the decadence of the new personality type coming to dominate society. Ortega was no aristocrat; in fact, he was a leader among Spanish republicans. But he was also an intellectual who feared that mass man would create a society in which all cultural and ideational hierarchies would be replaced by mere appetite. “Barbarism is the absence of standards to which appeal can be made,” wrote Ortega.

Lasch inverted Ortega’s thesis, accusing American elites of rebelling against standards, and thus debilitating culture. Lasch’s targets were “upper middle class liberals” who, in his view, better exemplified the self-satisfaction, incuriosity, “radical ingratitude,” and hatred for anything not itself that Ortega found in mass man.

Lasch wrote the essays in Revolt near the beginning of the modern era of globalization, which can be dated to the end of the Cold War in 1989, the invention of the World Wide Web in 1991, and China’s growing presence as a global economic behemoth. The Clinton Administration, coming to power in 1992, made the Democratic Party’s peace with Reagan-era trade and economic liberalization. At the time, growing economic inequality troubled Lasch, who wrote, “People in the upper 20 percent of the income structure now control half the country’s wealth.”

Those were the days! According to a 2017 analysis by the Washington Post, the top 20 percent of Americans now control 90 percent of the country’s wealth. Both the decline of the working class thanks to post-1980s deindustrialization and the hollowing out of the middle class have been well documented.

So has the widening economic and moral chasm between what Charles Murray called the “New Upper Class” and the “New Lower Class.” The divide is not merely economic, but cultural. Lasch saw elites segregating themselves and their progeny into networks and institutions separate from the broader public. Unlike elites in past eras of US history, today’s elites feel less obligation to provide for the commonweal. Rather, they have seceded—socially, intellectually, and often into coastal liberal enclaves—from a country they do not understand and do not wish to understand, regarding it as a land of backward people “at once absurd and vaguely menacing.” Says Lasch, of these elites, “It is a question whether they think of themselves as Americans at all.” This has become so pronounced in the past quarter-century that it’s hard to feel the same sense of urgency Lasch brought to his discussion.

Elite discourse today—including media discourse—downplays or ignore class disparities, focusing instead on the advancement of racial and sexual minorities, and women. This is not new. In some of his book’s strongest passages, Lasch condemned intellectuals’ “eagerness to drag every conversation back to race,” and said that these partisans of “ideological fanaticism” behave as if “democracy can mean only one thing: the defense of what they call cultural diversity.” Our pluralist democracy, he says, cannot survive this “new tribalism.”

(One tectonic change of the past decade or so that might have surprised Lasch: the total conquest of corporate executive suites by left-wing identity politics. But then, maybe not. As Lasch’s agrarian populist friend Wendell Berry put it ages ago, in this new social order, if you say nice things about minorities, you can feel good about looking down on country people.)

In Lasch’s view, American elites have come to loathe their fellow Americans who do not share their rarefied progressive morality. What can any decent man (or woman, or Genderqueer-American) owe to a country and a people who are a stinking mass of bigotry? Revolt can be read as a defense of the white working-class Americans that would later come to be called “deplorables.” But it is also a defense of minorities, who, in Lasch’s view, are victimized by managerial elites in the name of kindness.

“Compassion has become the human face of contempt,” Lasch writes, denouncing the “cult of victimhood” as poisoning politics. Therapeutic-minded liberals think that imposing standards on minorities is unjust, but, says Lasch, “double standards mean second-class citizenship.”

When Lasch published Revolt, this position was controversial within the academy, but it was still being argued. Now, though, the therapeutic has become totalitarian. In the book, Lasch howls indignantly about the degrading of the humanities within academia, at the hands of what we now call the Woke Left. Alas, rigor mortis is setting in, with the corpse stiffening noticeably this past summer, when the death of George Floyd prompted paroxysms of progressive rage within universities. Faculties are spasmodically trying to purge themselves of any trace of “white supremacy” by anathematizing traditional humanities studies and silencing dissent. If Prof. Lasch were still teaching in the University of Rochester today, students or faculty colleagues would no doubt appeal to a commissar from the Office of Diversity and Inclusion to sanction him for bigotry.

Therapeutic politics—an outgrowth of both identity politics and welfare-state liberalism—were bad for democracy, in Lasch’s view, because it corrodes the moral structures on which self-government depends. Though a secular moralist, Lasch scolds with the severity of an old-school Presbyterian divine. In a democracy, he argues, social trust is the coin of the realm, and its value depends on “mutual respect.” Of course we pity those who suffer, he writes, “but we reserve respect for those who refuse to exploit their suffering for the purposes of pity. We respect those who are willing to be held accountable for their actions, who submit to exacting and impersonal standards impartially applied.”

Self-government can only be effective when the masses recognize a higher law restraining their passions. Adams knew it, and so did Lasch (“Democracy has to stand for something more demanding than enlightened self-interest, ‘openness,’ and toleration”). But most Americans have forgotten, if they were ever taught it in the first place.

How jarring those words sound today, in a culture in which the nascent “self-esteem” movement he lashes has gone from being a California fad to unquestionable orthodoxy among the so-called “snowflake” generations, and the institutions that coddle them. It was still possible for a man of the Left to say things like that in the early 1990s. Nowadays those sentiments would only leak from the thin lips or arthritic fingers of crusty reactionaries. A European friend finishing graduate work at Harvard a couple of years ago told me that the most shocking thing about his time there was observing how fragile and neurotic the coming generation of American super-elites were—even though they had no doubt that they were meant to rule.

This kind of thing is why Lasch proclaimed that “populism is the authentic voice of democracy.” He genuinely believed that genuine democratic virtue resided in the heartland, among the working classes, and those who would later be dismissed by presidential candidate Barack Obama as “bitter clingers” to guns and religion, to explain their own failures. At its core, Laschian populism is a moral vision that does not favor the interests of Big Business over those of the wider community; its populism is “anticapitalist, but not socialist or social-democratic.” There can be no future for democracy, Lasch avers, absent a rediscovery of solidarity—a fundamental unity that transcends identity politics and free-market individualism, and unites Americans in a shared feeling of moral purpose and common destiny.

The Flight from Limits

Lasch was right. Lasch is right. But I have bad news. In the Year of Our Lord 2021, Lasch’s vision sounds utterly utopian. My re-reading of Revolt dismayed me, because it compelled me to face how very long this process has been going on (it was interesting to see the passages I marked up in my copy 25 years ago), and how far beyond saving ourselves we have traveled over the last quarter century. The ship has sailed over the horizon, I fear, and can no longer see the shore. Here’s why.

Lasch’s vision does not work without virtue—which is to say, a shared sense of the common good, and a universal recognition that there are sound principles that limit individual will and desire for the sake of the whole. Yet a core Laschian theme is that Americans will not recognize natural limits. Jimmy Carter read Lasch’s A Culture of Narcissism, and invited him to the White House to talk about it. The result was Carter’s infamous “malaise” speech, which urged the nation to recognize limits, and to learn to live more modestly. If you have never read it, or haven’t read it in a long time, you should; it’s a shockingly conservative piece of oratory. But it bombed. Americans do not like being told that they can’t have what they want.

The examples are legion, but consider this one, which just flopped across my social-media transom. The New England Journal of Medicine published a paper in mid-December arguing that sex designations should be removed from birth certificates, as they discriminate against the genderfluid. The fact that this proposal is considered normative by editors of one of the world’s leading medical journals signals the triumph of ideology over science.

How are we going to persuade a nation that has come to believe that if a person wishes to change his or her sex, it is not only possible, thanks to technology, but it must be recognized in medical practice and (as Democratic politicians, including Joe Biden, demand) valid in civil rights law? Transgenderism has become a moral crusade for elites, who have propagandized so effectively for it that now, a substantial majority of Americans support transgender rights. And why not? The idea that there are no natural limits that should restrain human will is an old temptation, one to which few contemporary Americans seem to object. Philip Rieff, whom Lasch treats favorably in Revolt, wryly observed in his 1966 masterpiece The Triumph of the Therapeutic, that “difficult as the modern cultural condition may be, I doubt that Western men can be persuaded again to the Greek opinion that the secret of happiness is to have as few needs as possible.”

The one force that could have persuaded American otherwise—religion—has been cratered out, and is in decline. Lasch did not live long enough to see the dramatic falling-away from Christian belief that, we now know, began around 1992, and has continued today, with no sign of ending. Not only have the numbers of Americans professing a particular faith declined markedly—especially among those who were just children, or not yet born when Lasch died—but the quality of their faith has rotted. In 2005, sociologist Christian Smith documented that among most American youth, whatever their formal profession of faith, their de facto faith was a pseudo-religious creed Smith deemed “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” Its core teaching was that God wants you to be happy, and he wants you to be nice. It’s the perfect creed for a hedonistic, consumeristic society.

This means the death of sacred order, obviously, without which culture is impossible. “The death of a culture begins when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling, first of all to the cultural elites themselves,” Rieff wrote. If he’s right, then the cultural base on which American democracy rests is dissolving. This is what John Adams meant in his often-quoted remark about the US Constitution being designed “only for a moral and religious people.” Self-government can only be effective when the masses recognize a higher law restraining their passions. Adams knew it, and so did Lasch (“Democracy has to stand for something more demanding than enlightened self-interest, ‘openness,’ and toleration”). But most Americans have forgotten, if they were ever taught it in the first place.

Prospects for Revival

It is telling that the only iteration of populism we have seen in our own time is the rise of Donald Trump. As satisfying as it has been to some of us to see the Republican Party mandarins toppled by the Great Unwashed, we deceive ourselves if we think that Trumpist populism is mostly a healthy manifestation of plebeian virtue, and not performative réssentiment.

How else are we to understand the passions of the pro-Trump mob after his failed re-election attempt, given that Trump failed to deliver on most of his populist promises (e.g., immigration reform, industrial policy favoring workers)? The one thing Trump unfailingly did was anger elites. That, apparently, was enough. What’s more, popular pro-Trump orators, purportedly in the name of defending the Constitution, have spent the last two months denouncing and attempting to delegitimize Constitutional processes and institutions, such as the federal courts, and helped create the conditions for the riot on Capitol Hill. This is not a populism that Kit Lasch would have condoned. What if the problem is not that the elites are corrupt, but that the rot has spread more generally?

A schoolteacher in Poland, commenting to me on the recent uprising in that country, told me that no institution there—not the Catholic Church, not the state, not family or anything else—is powerful enough to overcome social media in forming the moral imaginations of the young. So it is with us as well. This is not going to change anytime soon.

The populist parties of Central Europe—Hungary’s Fidesz and Poland’s Law & Justice—have shown what this might look like when executed by more competent politicians than Trump. Though both parties have made mistakes, they offer new ideas that can revivify a post-Trump populist Right, in ways that Lasch might have embraced.

And there’s this: the disintegrating forces Lasch identified in Revolt have been vastly accelerated by something he did not live to see come to fruition—the Internet. In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt warned of several factors indicating that a society is vulnerable to totalitarianism. Most important of all are the atomization of society and alienation of the masses from its institutions. Also significant: the unwillingness of people to seek after truth, but rather to satisfy themselves with truth claims that resonate emotionally and ideologically. These factors were present in American society and culture when Lasch published what would be his final book. The Internet has metastasized them.

It is hard to see a path back to democratic revival in a society that has apotheosized the desiring individual, and that has provided people with a technology that trains its users to regard society as abstract, and the material world as nothing but stuff awaiting the formative imprint of an individual’s sovereign will.

But does that excuse us from trying? No, but it does mean we should be realistic about what we stand to accomplish. Trump’s populism has largely failed, owing chiefly to the faults of Trump himself, but he kicked down obstacles to a salutary populist renewal on the Right. If Trump can muster the humility to get out of the way—a big ask!—then perhaps certain conservative reform-minded politicians have a chance at building a coherent and effective GOP that orients itself as a working-class, populist party committed to structural economic reform and moral rigor. I’m talking about a Republican Party that supported an agenda that looked something like this:

  • limiting the power of globalist capitalism when it hurts the good of all Americans, especially the working classes
  • keeping the US out of unnecessary foreign wars, especially those in the name of “spreading democracy”
  • shoring up local economies and institutions from the disruptions of unbridled capitalism, including open borders
  • opposing identity politics and supporting of American solidarity and fairness for all
  • reining in the power of Big Tech and surveillance capitalism
  • fighting the cultural hegemony of left-wing ideologues within corporations and institutions, including inside professional associations (law, medicine, etc)
  • protecting churches, religious schools, and other local institutions within which self-reliance and other virtues that strengthen the capacity of democratic government can be cultivated

The populist parties of Central Europe—Hungary’s Fidesz and Poland’s Law & Justice—have shown what this might look like when executed by more competent politicians than Trump. Though both parties have made mistakes, they offer new ideas that can revivify a post-Trump populist Right, in ways that Lasch might have embraced.

Though we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good-enough-for-now, there is still the foundational problem of sacred order, for which our man offered no solutions. To my knowledge, Lasch never grappled with the insights of the University of Notre Dame philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who, in his 1981 classic After Virtue argued that Western societies had declined intellectually to the point where political discourse—that is, a debate over how to realize the good, in common—was impossible. We cannot speak of a common good if we deny that such a thing exists, and if we doubt that truth (theistic and otherwise) greater than ourselves both exists, and can be known through reason. All is cacophony amid the ruins, and eventually the assertion of will to power.

If the dour Scotsman of South Bend is right, we await not a revival of Christopher Lasch, but another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.