Does American Democracy Deserve to Survive?

In Rod Dreher’s customarily elegant and pessimistic essay on Christopher Lasch, “the bad news goes on and on.” That is as it should be, for it was Lasch who wrote that first in The Revolt of the Elites. There, Lasch argued that elites have used their material and cultural power to heap contempt upon the “mainstream of American life.” As elites detach themselves from their fellow citizens, they exacerbate the crisis of American democracy, which shows no signs of letting up.

For Lasch (and Dreher), resolving the crisis of American democracy requires a populist campaign against elites. “Populism is the authentic voice of democracy” because it realises democracy’s moral vision in a way elite counterfeit visions for democracy do not. As Lasch suggests in “Does Democracy Deserve to Survive?”, democracy does not deserve to survive if it is about best promoting ever-greater economic growth, pluralism, or diversity. These moral visions of democracy are not worth defending. What is worth defending is one that embodies the ethically demanding standard of self-limitation found in the best traditions of populist politics, from agrarian and syndicalist movements to the early civil rights movement.

Dreher, however, breaks from Lasch by contending he is too hopeful for American democracy; Dreher accuses Lasch of sounding “utopian.” For Dreher, America is lost: we are “far beyond saving ourselves,” and our “ship has sailed over the horizon.” In warning against impending totalitarianism and through his characteristic closing invocation of Alasdair MacIntyre and a new St. Benedict, Dreher pitches himself as both more realistic and radical than Lasch. As we shall see, Dreher allows the tensions in his own thinking to distract from Lasch’s realism and radicalism, from which we can still learn.

But first, we must clarify a critical aspect of Lasch’s analysis. Dreher concentrates on Lasch’s themes of class and cultural divisions. Yet Dreher does not discuss the pursuit of human excellence, or nobility, which orients the moral vision behind Lasch’s political and social critique. The allusion in the title of Revolt of the Elites to Ortega y Gasset’s Revolt of the Masses does not just speak to class and cultural divides, but to nobility and human excellence: this is the real concern of Ortega’s book. For Ortega, achieving nobility requires fostering common standards for excellence. Lasch agrees, quoting Walt Whitman: democracy’s test is whether it can produce “an aggregate of heroes, characters, exploits, sufferings, prosperity or misfortune, glory or disgrace, common to all, typical of all.”

Both Ortega and Lasch warn that this vision is being rejected. Yet Lasch flips Ortega’s argument on its head. Whereas Ortega recounted the ascent of “mass man,“ who surrenders the search for excellence, Lasch recounts the ascent of elites who surrender the search for excellence. For elites, the talk of heroes, exploits, glory, and disgrace is “suspect,” even “frightening.” The search for common standards and a shared vision of noble heroes threaten the egalitarian quest for diversity. Consumed with a “monomania” for racism, denouncing common standards as “institutional racism” standing in the way of diversity, elites replace those common standards with the double standards of racial preferences. In so doing, they turn swathes of the population into “second-class citizens.” By scorning common standards, democracy is replaced with the “hierarchy of privilege.” Democracy ceases to exist. In Ortega, scorn for common standards is the chief characteristic of barbarism. In Lasch, elites willfully abandon common standards; on Ortega’s terms, these elites are fundamentally barbaric. As Dreher’s pessimistic hero would say: “the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.”

This bleak assessment shows that harsh realism, not utopianism, lies at the forefront of Lasch’s argument. Is a remedy possible? For Lasch, democracy deserves to survive by the standard it sets for human excellence. It stands or falls by whether it can achieve what is noble. To that end, Revolt of the Elites calls for a “revisionist interpretation of American history,” which looks to explicitly non-liberal sources that could support individuals in their efforts to live up to noble and demanding ideals. One of Lasch’s most important last works, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics, was a study of various populist movements that sought to counter the “desiccation” of heroism. Lasch’s hope, expressed in the book’s denouement, was to find “moral inspiration in the popular radicalism of the past.”

Dreher shows little interest in Lasch’s more radical side. This is curious, because Dreher advances dire assessments of American politics. Since he appears to agree that American constitutionalism is self-destructive by its own logic, so that we cannot place our trust in its principles or practices to fight off the barbarians, we get the impression that Dreher points the way toward great populist radicals—even revolutionaries.

Nevertheless, Dreher often pulls his punches, and closes off the road toward any populism that might be in tension with contemporary American constitutionalism. He does the same in this essay. “Pro-Trump orators,” he writes, “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.” Following this repetition of mid-January’s pieties, Dreher writes his 2020 post-election autopsy, which repeats the populist and “reformicon” GOP agenda he has promoted for some time.

Lasch would regard Dreher’s aspiration for American right-wing populism as utopian, because he argued that the right habitually misunderstands who their constituents are and what they want.

Dreher’s pivot here exemplifies the tension in his own thinking. Have things gotten so bad that American democracy is finished? Must we then abandon the American ship of state to build new politics and practices—even subverting the venerable processes and institutions? Or should we continue to place our reverence and piety in the old ship of state, the old regime and its venerable processes and institutions—even to the point of ostracising its sceptics and revisionists? All the energy in Dreher’s thinking points toward the former. When pushed, however, he remains a pious citizen of the American regime, emphasising the latter. Dreher flirts with radicalism, but shies away from it whenever it becomes too controversial. Is he in the last analysis a loyal partisan for American constitutionalism? Or is he simply afraid of sounding too extreme?

Since we cannot resolve this here, it is worth raising Lasch’s own conclusions that tend in a more sceptical, revisionist, and impious direction.

First, Lasch would regard Dreher’s aspiration for American right-wing populism as utopian, because he argued that the right habitually misunderstands who their constituents are and what they want. For example, the constituency leading the tax revolt of the 1970s and 1980s was in large part working class, and it was a protest against regressive property taxes, not higher income taxes. This same constituency supported more income redistribution. But since the right interprets the tax revolt as a call for lower income taxes, they focus on lowering income and capital gains taxes. This is a quixotic bid to win the support of upper-income precincts, which disappoints the constituency most sympathetic to the right’s agenda.

Second, Lasch disdained the class-interest explanation for why elites are enamoured with the therapeutic sensibility—popular with the neoconservative right of the 1970s and 80s and with the present-day right. Instead, he blamed the historical development that turned the worker from a producer into a consumer. It was for this reason that Lasch insisted genuine populism must promote an ethic of production, rather than an ethic of consumption. But this approach would involve discarding the neo-classical economics dear to the American right.

Third, Lasch admired and sought to learn from American progressive thinkers, such as John Dewey, who were more interested in social thought than institutions per se. But these sources, essentially hostile to American constitutionalism, are far from the canon of American conservatism. Unlike many American conservatives, Lasch did not put his trust in American constitutional institutions; he regarded fixation on processes and institutions as a liberal impulse.

Fourth, Lasch’s quest to counter the desiccation of heroism in American democracy led him to add more risqué sources and thinkers to the canon of political thought. One such figure was Georges Sorel, whose exultation of the noble, heroic ethos goes beyond respectable liberal (and conservative) boundaries.

Lasch’s qualified defence of Sorel and other early 20th century French syndicalist movements begins not with an apology for showing interest in the author of Reflections on Violence, but with a counter-punch against liberal squeamishness. Driven by their “obsession with fascism,” he wrote, modern liberals have a “narrow conception of rationality,” and a “visceral reaction against the merest hint of violence and coercion.” For Lasch, however, Sorel was worth taking seriously because he offered a model for solidarity based on the epic model of republican military citizenship. The working class, Sorel argued, could only learn to be free by imitating that model of citizenship: it had to learn to act like an army. Those who sought to bury such notions of citizenship through appeals to proceduralism and progress were to be scorned, even if that entailed scorn for the legislators of corrupt representative democracies. For Lasch, the point was not to let the practical details of institutionalism overwhelm the intuition, nourished by Sorel and others, that life can be lived on a higher and nobler plane.

Lasch did not think that 21st century populism could resemble the new right or populist movements of the past. Yet it could find “moral inspiration in the popular radicalism of the past”; hence the importance of a non-liberal revisionist history, a new canon of political thought that could recover the relevant insights. By neglecting to discuss the noble, Dreher is not in a position to explore Lasch’s non-liberal revisionist history. Dreher provides a skillful and sober Laschian-inflected diagnosis of the crisis in American democracy. He provides much substance for dissidence from our status quo. But his canon remains limited. Lasch could have taken us further.

Reader Discussion

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on February 11, 2021 at 22:29:13 pm

Does American [Republican Constitutional Democracy Deserve to Survive? Yes.

Why? Because despite its historical and structural flaws and limitations, it has delivered a greater quantity of freedom and prosperity (aka human flourishing) to Americans and to non-Americans alike (including 600 million mainland Chinese in the CCP run China, and millions more Chinese and non-Chinese around the world).

Do Pinkoski, Dreher, Lasche, MacIntyre, Ortega, Dewey, or Sorel agree or disagree? I have no idea. Seven different minds and viewpoints in some mix of explication that I clearly do not have the background to follow. I have heard of Dreher and Dewey, but not the rest. But I don't blame myself for being a poor receiver if the sending is also so garbled. Essays used to follow the prescription of 1) tell the reader what you are going to discuss, 2) present your discussion, 3) summarize and conclude your discussion vs. your initially defined goals. I find 1:5 or 1:3 L&L essayists seem to follow this recipe. Right now those few gems continue to solicit and reward my attention here. But it is sometimes a real trial to stay tuned.

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on February 13, 2021 at 21:03:30 pm

I share your literary and intellectual exasperation. It seems that writing well, intelligently and with a clear focus is not a prerequisite here. Clarity, cogency and concision are exceptions to the rule of mediocre, disorganized, often confusing articles that are preeningly sprinkled with academic name-dropping and theory-referencing, which serve only to add to the disarray of thought and compound the reader's perplexity. In my experience, this weakness prevails in Forum articles, even those written by highly-regarded authors. I speculate in attributing at least part of the Forum problem to unenforced editorial standards and rushed authors who are subjected to no or inadequate editing by the publisher. There are numerous exceptions, of course, many talented L&L contributors, and myriad excellent articles, especially L&L's generally excellent book reviews, which I find among the best on the web, but the prevalence of ordinariness in L&L essays is off-putting.

I stick with L&L, despite having been banished three times (under different, prior pseudonyms,) because the format is attractive and the opportunity to comment both expansive and personally enjoyable for me, as a critic who is wont to reading and writing and does not want for critical judgment or shy from controversy.

Saying that, I must now read both articles on this Forum which discuss Christopher Lasch, an important scholar in my youth and middle-age, whom I have not visited in 25 years. I may comment on these two articles, unless they are to me as you say they were to you.

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on February 14, 2021 at 00:01:56 am

Three hours ago I replied to your comment, providing reasons why I agree with you. L&L has failed to post my reply, which suggests, on grounds of principle, that your "real trial to stay tuned" to L&L may not be worth your effort.

There is vast array of high quality material on the web. Too much to allow one to waste time on this site,
I'm done with it.

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on February 14, 2021 at 13:17:34 pm

L&L finally printed my initial reply AFTER they posted my complaint about their failure to print my initial reply, thereby distorting the actual time each comment was posted by me.
Such editorial management BS!

I'll stick with my decision to drop out of a game not worth the price of the candle.

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on February 12, 2021 at 13:19:16 pm

Does American Democracy Deserve to Survive? Long answer: Our government is not a democracy.

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Michael Connors
on February 12, 2021 at 21:17:52 pm

As a famous commenter here once said: "absopositively". I agree fully. My education during the 1950's and 60's did not emphasize this too strongly. It is only with my additional reading in the last decade or two, plus articles at L&L and elsewhere, that have helped bolster my appreciation of the Founders outlook concerning "pure democracy" and avoiding the passions of crowds and mobs.

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on February 12, 2021 at 13:48:52 pm

This article reads like a hit piece on Trump. The author is correct, and the 75 or more millions of Trump supporters are wrong. Now that Trump is no longer in office, through massive fraud more than anything else, the great push is to destroy his image and thereby destroy his support. Trump had no part in the riot and breach of the capital. No evidence exists to support this allegation. Far more evidence exists to prove that Antifa infiltrated and led the assault to give reason for all the totalitarian acts that have happened since, including the absurd attempt to label the millions of Trump supporters as terrorists and traitors. Trump's entire platform rested upon placing America first. He renegotiated new trade agreements, replacing those that were ruinous and placed the interest of the globalists and neocons above that of America. He worked to disentangle America from the global institutions that labored to strip us of our sovereignty. Foolish trade agreements had built-up communist China, robbing us of our manufacturing base, and establishing the greatest threat to America on the planet next to our own ruling class and the left. Trump also attacked the evil 1619 project by mandating the 1776 to replace it. He as well stood in opposition to those that are destroying our monuments and history. Trump stands in stark contrast to the neocons, and their policies of invite and invade the world, while pushing leftwing egalitarianism. Trump's platforms need a better analysis. He drew the greatest political gatherings in American history. He promised things that are appealing to the overwhelming majority of conservative voters. These supporters won't be driven off no matter how many disparaging articles are written. The old, useless and worthless GOP is doomed. Good riddance.

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Monte Poitevint
on February 21, 2021 at 16:53:32 pm

I'm not one of those anxious Christian conservatives in the trenches bewailing every setback. I am increasingly getting inpatient that perspective

Sudden unexpected changes always happen in the course of history. I am optimistic because of the coming collapse of the materialist philosophy. It's important to keep up with what's going on in science. Quantum physics negates any possibility of an underlying reality that supports a closed system of cause and effect. Physicists pursuing the ultimate reality of quantum physics: YouTube https://tinyurl.com/vr9q0mx5

Early proponents of evolution were sure that science would ultimately find simple carbon chemistry processes in the protoplasm of the cell as the source of life. They didn't have a clue. Evolution is not merely simplistic, it is stupidly simplistic. https://tinyurl.com/3oqmqfbf

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Jake Peachey

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.