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.