Does American Democracy Deserve Survival?
Rod Dreher’s usually elegant and pessimistic essay on Christopher Lasch says, “The bad news goes on and on.” That is how it should be, for it was Lasch who first wrote it in The Rise of the Elites. There Lasch argued that elites had used their material and cultural strength to despise the “mainstream of American life”. When elites break away from their fellow citizens, they exacerbate the crisis of American democracy, which shows no signs of easing.
For Lasch (and Dreher), solving the American democracy crisis requires a populist campaign against the elites. “Populism is the authentic voice of democracy” because it realizes the moral vision of democracy in a way that elitist fake visions for democracy do not. As Lasch suggests in “Does Democracy Deserve Survival?”, Democracy does not deserve survival when it comes to best promoting ever greater economic growth, pluralism, or diversity. These moral visions of democracy are not worth defending. What is worth defending embodies the ethically high standard of self-restraint found in the best traditions of populist politics, from agrarian and syndicalist movements to the early civil rights movement.
Dreher, however, breaks off from Lasch by claiming that he is too hopeful for American democracy; Dreher accuses Lasch of sounding “utopian”. America is lost to Dreher: We are “far beyond saving ourselves” and our “ship has sailed over the horizon”. As a warning of the impending totalitarianism and through his characteristic final invocation of Alasdair MacIntyre and a new Saint Benedict, Dreher poses as more realistic and radical than Lasch. As we shall see, Dreher allows the tensions in his own thinking to be diverted from Lasch’s realism and radicalism, from which we can still learn.
But first we need to clarify a critical aspect of Lasch’s analysis. Dreher concentrates on Lasch’s topics of class and cultural differences. However, Dreher does not discuss the pursuit of human excellence or nobility that guides the moral vision behind Lasch’s political and social criticism. The allusion in the title of the revolt of the elites to Ortega y Gasset’s mass revolt speaks not only for class and cultural differences, but also for nobility and human excellence: this is the real concern of Ortega’s book. For Ortega, reaching nobility requires promoting common standards for excellence. Lasch agrees, quoting Walt Whitman: The test of democracy is whether it can produce “a collection of heroes, characters, exploits, suffering, prosperity or misfortune, fame or disgrace, common to and typical of all”.
Both Ortega and Lasch warn that this vision will be rejected. But Lasch turns Ortega’s argument on its head. While Ortega narrated the rise of the “mass man” who gave up the search for excellence, Lasch told the rise of elites who gave up the search for excellence. For elites, talk of heroes, heroism, fame and shame is “suspicious”, even “frightening”. The search for common standards and a common vision of noble heroes threaten the egalitarian pursuit of diversity. Elites who are confronted with a “monomania” against racism and denounce common standards as “institutional racism” that stands in the way of diversity are replacing these common standards with the double standards of racial preferences. In this way, they transform parts of the population into “second class citizens”. By disdain for common standards, democracy is replaced by the “hierarchy of privileges”. Democracy ceases to exist. In Ortega, disdain for common standards is the main characteristic of barbarism. In Lasch, the elites deliberately abandon common standards; For Ortega, these elites are fundamentally barbaric. As Dreher’s pessimistic hero would say: “The barbarians do not wait beyond the borders; You have been ruling us for some time. “
This gloomy assessment shows that harsh realism, not utopianism, is in the foreground of Lasch’s argument. Is there a remedy? For Lasch, democracy deserves survival according to the standard it sets for human excellence. It stands or falls whether it can achieve that which is noble. To this end, Revolt of the Elites calls for a “revisionist interpretation of American history” that contains explicitly non-liberal sources that could assist individuals in their endeavors to live up to noble and demanding ideals. One of Lasch’s most important recent works, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics, was a study of various populist movements that sought to counteract the “drying up” of heroism. Lasch’s hope, expressed in the book’s resolution, was to find “moral inspiration in popular radicalism of the past”.
Dreher shows little interest in Lasch’s more radical side. This is strange because Dreher promotes bad assessments of American politics. Since he seems to agree that American constitutionalism is self-destructive by its own logic so that we cannot rely on its principles or practices to fend off the barbarians, we get the impression that Dreher is pointing the way to great populist radicals – even revolutionaries .
Nevertheless, Dreher often strikes and closes the path to a populism that could stand in the field of tension with contemporary American constitutionalism. He does the same thing in this essay. “Pro-Trump speakers,” he writes, “have spent the past two months denouncing and delegitimizing constitutional processes and institutions such as the federal courts, and have helped create the conditions for the Capitol Hill insurrection.” This is not populism that Kit Lasch would have condoned. “After this repetition of piety in mid-January, Dreher writes his autopsy after the 2020 elections, which repeats the populist and“ reform iconic ”GOP agenda for which he has been promoting for some time.
Lasch would view Dreher’s pursuit of American right-wing populism as utopian because he argued that the law tends to misunderstand who their voters are and what they want.
Dreher’s linchpin here is an example of the tension in his own thinking. Did things get so bad that American democracy ended? Do we then have to leave the American ship of state to establish new policies and practices – and even undermine the venerable processes and institutions? Or should we continue to place our awe and piety in the old ship of state, the old regime and its venerable processes and institutions – to the point of marginalizing its skeptics and revisionists? All the energy in Dreher’s thinking points to the former. However, when urged, he remains a devout citizen of the American regime and emphasizes the latter. Dreher flirts with radicalism, but shies away when things get too controversial. Ultimately, is he a loyal partisan of American constitutionalism? Or is he just afraid of sounding too extreme?
Since we cannot solve this here, it is worthwhile to draw Lasch’s own conclusions, which are rather skeptical, revisionist and godless.
First, Lasch would view Dreher’s pursuit of American right-wing populism as utopian because he argued that the law tends to misunderstand who their voters are and what they want. For example, the constituency that led the tax revolts of the 1970s and 1980s was largely a working class, and it was a protest against regressive property taxes, not higher income taxes. The same constituency supported greater income redistribution. Since the law interprets the tax revolt as a demand for lower income taxes, they focus on lowering income and capital gains taxes. This is a quixotic attempt to enlist the support of higher-income districts, which disappoints the constituency most sympathetic to the right-wing agenda.
Second, Lasch despised the class interest explanation of why elites fell in love with therapeutic sensibility – popular with neoconservative law of the 1970s and 80s and current law. Instead, he blamed the historical development that turned the worker from producer to consumer. For this reason, Lasch insisted that real populism should promote a production ethic rather than a consumption ethic. But that approach would involve rejecting the neoclassical economy that is dear to the American right.
Third, Lasch admired and tried to learn from American progressive thinkers like John Dewey, who were more interested in social thinking than in institutions themselves. But these sources, which are essentially hostile to American constitutionalism, are a far cry from the canon of American conservatism. Unlike many American Conservatives, Lasch did not trust American constitutional institutions; he saw the fixation on processes and institutions as a liberal impulse.
Fourth, Lasch’s quest to counter the drying up of heroism in American democracy led to the addition of riskier sources and thinkers to the canon of political thought. One such figure was Georges Sorel, whose jubilation transcends the noble, heroic ethos beyond respectable liberal (and conservative) boundaries.
Lasch’s skilled defense of Sorel and other French syndicalist movements of the early twentieth century begins not with an apology for interest in the author of Reflections on Violence, but with a backlash against liberal squeamishness. Driven by their “obsession with fascism,” he wrote, modern liberals have “a narrow conception of rationality” and a “visceral response to mere reference to violence and coercion”. For Lasch, however, Sorel was worth taking seriously, as he offered a solidarity model based on the epic model of Republican military citizenship. The working class, Sorel argued, can only learn to be free by imitating this model of citizenship: it must learn to behave like an army. Those who sought to bury such notions of citizenship with appeals to proceduralism and progress should be despised, even if it brought contempt for the legislators of corrupt representative democracies. For Lasch, it was not about the practical details of institutionalism overpowering the intuition nurtured by Sorel and others, that life can be lived on a higher and nobler level.
Lasch did not believe that 21st century populism could resemble the new right-wing or populist movements of the past. Still, it might find “moral inspiration in popular radicalism of the past”; hence the importance of a non-liberal revisionist story, a new canon of political thought that could regain the relevant knowledge. By failing to discuss the noble, Dreher is unable to research Lasch’s non-liberal revisionist history. Dreher delivers a skilful and sober diagnosis, shaped by Laschian, of the crisis in American democracy. It provides a great deal of substance for disagreements about our status quo. But its canon remains limited. Lasch could have brought us further.