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The Betrayal of Democracy

On finding Christopher Lasch in a Steve Bannon listicle

As if the rote rightist defilement of our public life weren’t enough of a cognitive trial on its own, the Trumpist putsch just got personal for me in a way I never anticipated: Steve Bannon, the president’s chief policy consigliere, recently told Axios reporter Jonathan Swan that one of the most influential works of social criticism he’s read is Christopher Lasch’s posthumously published essay collection The Revolt of the Elites. Lasch—who happens to have been my graduate adviser—“called the populist nationalist uprising across the West fifteen to twenty years before it happened,” Bannon announced. “He called the ‘Party of Davos’ a decade before it became a thing.”

That was all the Lords of Axios needed; young Jonathan Swan was dispatched to race through the text of The Revolt of the Elites, to reel in provocative snippets that seemed to presage the Trumpist ascension. The resulting listicle ran under the clicky sobriquet “The one book to understand Steve Bannon,” and found our Axios correspondent advancing this honey of a sweeping claim: The Revolt of the Elites, we’re informed, “gives you deeper insight into how Bannon thinks—his disdain for experts and party establishments, his skepticism on [sic] multinationals, his commitment to information warfare and the Breitbart comments section, his antipathy toward ‘globalists’ and his particular trust of the West Coast elite Lasch writes feel [again, sic] more loyalty to Hong Kong and Singapore than they do to ‘Middle America.’”

Whoa there, Mr. Breathless Web Aggregator! Not to reprise Woody Allen circa 1977, but it does so happen that I have a lot of first-hand insight into how Christopher Lasch thought, and it is no exaggeration to say that the rise of Trump, the Breitbart takeover of our national policy agenda, the diminution of governing into a thuggish brand of racist agitprop—in short, the whole intellectual and moral carapace of the soi-disant “populist” Trump movement—would have horrified him, full stop. Donald Trump himself may as well have graced the cover of Lasch’s best-known work, The Culture of Narcissism, which mercilessly dissects the collapse of late twentieth-century liberalism into self-obsessed civic malaise. But that landmark book no more prophesied the rise of Reaganism—another pseudo-populist uprising on the right that Lasch had heartily despised—than his final work in any way prophesied (let alone blessed) the rise of today’s brown-shirted Trumpaneers.

Indeed, one is tempted to argue that neither Swan nor Bannon paid more than cursory attention to the subtitle Lasch affixed to The Revolt of the Elites—“and the betrayal of democracy.” The question of whether late twentieth-century America still supported the social conditions required to sustain democracy haunted all of Lasch’s work, particularly as he neared the end of his life.

Lasch argued that elites have systematically hollowed out the local institutions and impersonal forums for public debate that helped diffuse a democratic civilization.

Lasch, indeed, completed The Revolt of the Elites as he was succumbing to the ravages of cancer, and did not live to see it published; that’s why, among all of his books, it’s the hardest for me to read. I remember him being barely able to walk as he somehow managed to marshal the energy to draft what was to be his intellectual last will and testament.

And this is also, no doubt, why it’s especially difficult to see the book ransacked and distorted for the sake of a fistful of web clicks. To sunder Lasch’s argument from the central question of how democratic debate, political organizing, and casual social intercourse could survive the dizzying displacements of Information Age capitalism is to do profound violence to his thought. It’s indeed hard to imagine Bannon or his luxury-addled boss finding much succor in Lasch’s prescription for securing the material base of democracy:

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. Social and civic equality presuppose at least a rough approximation of economic equality . . . .[A] moral condemnation of great wealth must inform any defense of the free market, and that moral condemnation must be backed up with effective political action.

Suffice it to say that the early days of Trumpism, which have seen the first rude efforts to dismantle universal health care for other-than-wealthy Americans as a prelude to the enormous upper-class tax cut to come, are hardly advancing the downward redistribution of wealth, or the robust democratic-populist assault on moneyed privilege.

It is true that Lasch was keenly attuned to the formation of a new global economic elite in the early 1990s. But, unlike Bannon, he did not regard the members of this networked ruling class as suspiciously rootless luftmenschen. Rather, as a principled civic republican, Lasch derided them for the surrender of any spirit of loyalty to the democratic experiment as it must be lived through the enlivening civic rites instituted in local neighborhoods, schools, precincts, and small independent workplaces. In this sense, Lasch was indeed a capital-P Populist, trying to revive the valiant efforts of the late nineteenth-century producerist rebellion to secure the material bases of American self-governance. That’s why the rise of the American meritocracy—which has furnished the sturdiest self-enabling social myth for our brave new global knowledge elite—is, for Lasch, a first-order betrayal of democratic promise:

Meritocracy is a parody of democracy. It offers opportunities for advancement, in theory at least, for anyone with the talent to seize them, but “opportunities to rise,” as R.H. Tawney points out in Equality, are “no substitute for a general diffusion of the means of civilization,” of the “dignity and culture” that are needed by all “whether they rise or not.” Social mobility does not undermine the influence of elites; if anything, it helps to solidify their influence by supporting the illusion that it rests solely on merit. 

Put another way: the globalized power elite that may feel more at home in Taiwan or Singapore isn’t objectionable because its members may be in thrall to some sinister, unpatriotic economic loyalties, as Bannon and his retinue of Trump enablers tirelessly insist. No, the members of the placeless, merit-obsessed global ruling class deserve our scorn because they’ve turned their backs on the larger project of sharing democratic civilization on an equitable basis with their fellow citizens. Instead, they’ve arrogated knowledge—an artificially scarce social good—as their own monopoly franchise and, in the process, systematically hollowed out the local institutions and impersonal forums for public debate that helped diffuse a democratic civilization.

Lasch’s work applies with striking force to the performative takeover of left dissent by the likes of David Brock and Neera Tanden.

It’s important to fix this point clearly, because it also is central to the sections of The Revolt of the Elites that, wrenched from their polemic context, strike the callow guardians of discourse at Axios as Bannonism avant la lettre. In addition to descrying the now-epidemic civic secession of the one percent, Lasch, as was his wont, had few kind words for the liberal-left orthodoxies of his day. In truth, some of the passages Lasch devotes to the nineties campus battles over “political correctness” and the tortured racial and sexual etiquettes of elite campus radicals haven’t aged well, particularly now that the Steve Bannons of the world are seeking to institutionalize systemic racism at the highest levels of government. At the same time, though, Lasch’s insistence on the centrality of impersonal standards at the fount of democratic debate over against the self-dramatizing culture-war spectacles then convulsing elite college campuses sounded a cautionary note that’s still quite resonant today. Indeed, his summary of the hidden democratic costs of such displays still applies with striking force to the performative takeover of left dissent by the likes of David Brock and Neera Tanden—or Hillary Clinton for that matter:

Today it is widely believed, at least by members of the caring class, that standards are inherently oppressive, that far from being impersonal, they discriminate against women, blacks, and minorities in general. Standards, we are told, refer to cultural hegemony of dead, white European males. Compassion compels us to recognize the injustice of imposing them on everybody else.

When the ideology of compassion leads to this kind of absurdity, it is time to call it into question. Compassion has become the human face of contempt. Democracy once implied opposition to every form of double standard. Today we accept double standards—as always, a recipe for second-class citizenship—in the name of humanitarian concern. Having given up the effort to raise the general level of competence—the old meaning of democracy—we are content to institutionalize competence in the caring class, which arrogates to itself the job of looking out for everybody else.

As it happens, I have another personal interest to declare in championing the true message of The Revolt of the Elites. One of the book’s chapters, “Racial Politics in New York,” is an expanded version of one of the first magazine pieces I ever edited: a review essay that Lasch wrote for Tikkun about Jim Sleeper’s The Closest of Strangers, another neglected classic of nineties social criticism. Here Lasch revisits the case for pursuing racial justice along impersonal, economic lines, while also noting the baleful moral impact of the descent of New York’s once vibrant multiracial public sphere into a yuppified playground of exoticized cultural privilege: 

The “new tribalism,” which finds favor not only among postmodern academics but in the media, in the world of commercial entertainment, and in the cultural boutiques and salons frequented by yuppies, appears on the scene at the very moment when tribalism has ceased to have any substantive content. “Tribalism” is the latest fashion thrown up by a consumerist capitalism that is replacing neighborhoods with shopping malls, thereby undermining the very particularism that it eagerly packages as a commodity.

An analogous dynamic now appears to be afoot in the Trumpian perch of ruling-class privilege. Massive giveaways and subventions to the nation’s power elite will be unleashed in the name of Steve Bannon’s content-free vision of a resurgent white American economic nationalism. Bannon’s pet legislative cause—the $1 trillion infrastructure repair initiative that, on closer inspection, is little more than another package of cronyist corporate perks masquerading as an industrial policy—appears to be foundering already. Meanwhile, the blighted American interior that delivered the presidency to Trump is sinking into ever deeper, ever more casualized economic neglect. My hometown of Davenport, Iowa—formerly a center of unionized, high-wage manufacturing jobs during its heyday as the farm-implement manufacturing capital of the world—now generates much of its revenue via the gaming industry; Davenport’s new economic claim to fame is that it’s the first city along the Mississippi River to introduce riverboat gambling. It’s hard to envision a genuine populist ethic of mutual respect and economic competence gaining a foothold when the main business in town encourages all comers to gamble away their retirement.

And that leads, in turn, to the conclusion of Lasch’s chapter on the Sleeper book, which holds that impersonal standards of achievement are a necessary, but ultimately not sufficient, adjunct to the challenge of facing down the corrosive economic forces engulfing both New York and the American urban scene at large. I can’t convey how strange it is to see a piece I edited more than two decades ago speaking so directly to the present crisis of the republic:

Working people have a common stake in liberating the city from the parasitic interests and industries that now control it. To be sure, they also have a common stake in [what Sleeper calls] “upholding standards of personal accountability, public honesty, and trust.” A commitment to common standards is a necessary ingredient to any interracial coalition. But a populist coalition of the kind Sleeper has in mind has to include a commitment to egalitarian economic reforms, to a frontal assault on corporate power and privilege. Instead of a politics of radical gestures, Sleeper offers a substantive radicalism that would lead to real and not merely rhetorical changes—always an unwelcome prospect for those (including many self-styled radicals and cultural revolutionaries) with a heavy investment in the existing arrangements.

In other words: up against the wall, Steve Bannon.