Lasching Elites

In late 1994, I was desperate to find out the real reasons behind the GOP’s takeover of Congress.

I was the editor of a lefty alternative newsweekly in Bloomington, Indiana, maybe the only truly liberal town in the state, and had this sinking feeling that I’d misunderstood nearly everything about national politics, which I often wrote about.

Our own congressman, the libby and genial Democrat Frank McCloskey, had fallen to a virtually unknown pro-life ideologue. The morning after the ’94 general election — it was cold and gray, I assumed, because God was pissed — one of my two reporters greeted me at the Uptown Cafe with, “Frank didn’t deserve this.” The problem was the Eighth Congressional District reached from Bloomington all the way to Evansville in southern Indiana. Who knew what those bastards in the hinterlands were thinking. Apart from the region’s fading coal and manufacturing industries and mounting job losses, what were they so upset about?

This is sounding familiar, right? Just replace “mounting job losses” with “stagnant wages,” and add an orange sociopath.

trump voter 2
Trump voter

Anyway, one of the books I loaded up on to understand the Republican Revolution was The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy by Christopher Lasch. I must have read a favorable review of it. I put it in the queue, but for some reason never got to it. Certainly not because I’d really figured out what happened.

I found the book the other day in the hallway closet. As I leafed through it, I got the feeling I might’ve screwed up by setting it aside 21 years ago.

Lasch, who died in 1994 before the Revolt’s publication, indicted the elites — the one-percenters of his day, but also the cultural, intellectual, and political firmament — for writing off the rest of the country as philistines, racists, sexists, homophobes, and xenophobes. The elites of Lasch’s time are the kind of people who today bounce between the Aspen Institute and Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Cal., and South By Southwest (slumming) and the World Economic Forum in search of edification and companionship. They’re citizens of the world, not so much of the United States. Decades ago, they were already avoiding eye contact with the middle class and muttering things like, “Let’s agree to disagree, mm-k?”

Who knew what those bastards in the hinterlands were thinking. Apart from the region’s fading coal and manufacturing industries and mounting job losses, what were they so upset about?

Like in every big city, we have shades of the same kind in San Antonio, elites writ small. A lot of them voted for Mike Villarreal in the 2015 race for mayor. (I know what I’m talking about — I was his communications director.)

Going deep, Lasch argued that what made this breed possible was the concept of upward mobility, which took hold in the late 1800s as the industrialism came into its own. Since then, success has meant getting ahead in one’s career and achieving material wealth. It became all about talent, the kind that’s useful in the marketplace.

Earlier in the republic, leading a successful life meant making a good living, but also taking advantage of the educational and cultural opportunities open to you. You also talked politics with neighbors, friends, and strangers in bars or other public gathering spaces, even when you disagreed.

Threaded throughout Revolt of the Elites is Lasch’s suspicion of the free market, which he said tended to remake everything, including social institutions and governments, in its own image.

But instead of me droning on about the book, here are a few excerpts:

“The aristocracy of talent — superficially an attractive ideal, which appears to distinguish democracies from societies based on hereditary privilege — turns out to be a contradiction in terms: The talented retain many of the vices of aristocracy without its virtues. Their snobbery lacks any acknowledgment of reciprocal obligations between the favored few and the multitude. Although they are full of ‘compassion’ for the poor, they cannot be said to subscribe to a theory of noblesse oblige, which would imply a willingness to make a direct and personal contribution to the public good. Obligation, like everything else, has been depersonalized; exercised through the agency of the state, the burden of supporting it falls not on the professional and managerial class but, disproportionately, on the lower-middle and working classes.”

“[I]t is our reluctance to make demands on each other, much more than our reluctance to help those in need, that is sapping the strength of our democracy today. We have become far too accommodating and tolerant for our own good. In the name of sympathetic understanding, we tolerate second-rate workmanship, second-rate habits of thought, and second-rate standards of personal conduct. We put up with bad manners and with many kinds of bad language, ranging from the common-place scatology [Blogger’s note: I don’t mind scatology] that is now ubiquitous to elaborate academic evasion. We seldom bother to correct a mistake or to argue with opponents in the hope of changing their minds. Instead we either shout them down or agree to disagree, saying that all of us have a right to our opinions. Democracy in our times is more likely to die of indifference than of intolerance. Tolerance and understanding are important virtues, but they must not become an excuse for apathy.”

And this, 22 years before Brexit:

“The same tendencies are at work all over the world. In Europe referenda on unification have revealed a deep and widening between the political classes and the more humbled members of society, who fear that the European Economic Community will be dominated by bureaucrats and technicians devoid of any feelings of national identity or allegiance.”

Finally, this one has San Antonio’s name all over it:

“The goal of liberal policy, in effect, is to remake the city in the image of the affluent, mobile elites that see it as a place merely to work and play, not as a place to put down roots, to raise children, to live and die.”




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