The Hard Lasch the Left Deserves

Don’t ask me to explain why just now, but lately I reread Christopher Lasch’s last book, The Revolt of the Elites, published in 1995 shortly after his death. I recall disliking the book somewhat back then, in part because I had a bias against Lasch, who not only sympathized with the New Left in the 1960s, but whose 1978 book The Culture of Narcissism was said to be one of Jimmy Carter’s favorite books and the inspiration for Carter’s dreadful “malaise” speech of 1979.

But 25 years later, most of The Revolt of the Elites reads like an indictment of today’s dominant cultural left (Steve Bannon was reported to have been a fan), and a road map for Trump’s 2016 victory and likely re-election next year—much more so than a famous passage from Richard Rorty that people like to cite.* Lasch’s description of the self-regarding liberal elites of the 1980s and 1990s reads even more strongly today. Here’s one sample:

Upper-middle-class liberals. . . have mounted a crusade to sanitize American society: to create a “smoke-free environment,” to censor everything from pornography to “hate speech,” and at the same time, incongruously, to extend the range of personal choice in matters where most people feel the need of solid moral guidelines. When confronted with resistance to these initiatives, they betray the venomous hatred that lies not far beneath the smiling face of upper-middle-class benevolence. Opposition makes humanitarians forget the liberal virtues they claim to uphold. They become petulant, self-righteous, intolerant. In the heat of political controversy, they find it impossible to conceal their contempt for those who stubbornly refuse to see the light—those who “just don’t get it,” in the self-satisfied jargon of political rectitude.

Simultaneously arrogant and insecure, the new elites, the professional classes in particular, regard the masses with mingled scorn and apprehension. In the United States, “Middle America”—a term that has both geographical and social implications—has come to symbolize everything that stands in the way of progress: “family values,” mindless patriotism, religious fundamentalism, racism, homophobia, retrograde views of women. Middle Americans, as they appear to the makers of educated opinion, are hopelessly shabby, unfashionable, and provincial, ill-informed about changes in taste or intellectual trends, addicted to trashy novels or romance and adventure, and stupefied by prolonged exposure to television. They are at once absurd and vaguely menacing—not because they wish to overthrow the old order but because their defense of it appears so deeply irrational that it expresses itself, at the higher reaches of its intensity, in fanatical religiosity, in repressive sexuality that occasionally erupts into violence against women and gays, and in a patriotism that supports imperialist wars and a national ethic of aggressive masculinity. . .

The growing insularity of elites means, among other things, that political ideologies lose touch with the concerns of ordinary citizens. . . In some quarters the very idea of reality has come into question, perhaps because the talking classes inhabit an artificial world in which simulations of reality replace the thing itself.

There’s lots more in Lasch’s analysis, and some of it may make an appearance in a forthcoming lecture and article. Stay tuned.

* For the record, here’s the passage from the late lefty philosopher Richard Rorty that lots of people on the left have cited since Trump’s election, from his 1998 book Achieving Our Country:

Many writers on socioeconomic policy have warned that the old industrialized democracies are heading into a Weimar-like period, one in which populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments. Edward Luttwak, for example, has suggested that fascism may be the American future. The point of his book The Endangered American Dream is that members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking of to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will not longer be calling the shots.

You can see some sense in this, but among its flaws is the simple fact that rather than “overturn[ing] constitutional governments,” Trump and his fellow “populists” in other countries are actually the agents for restoring constitutional government.

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