A Skewed View Of What Ails America


By Christopher Lasch

Norton 276pp $22

Americans are fearful about the future. Ethnic rivalries divide communities. Government is unwieldy. Public schools are failing, the drug trade is flourishing, and violent crime seems omnipresent. The middle class is losing job security in the competitive global economy. To social critic Christopher Lasch, who died last February, America's problems seemed so intractable that in his final book, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, he wonders whether democracy has a future. "At the moment of its dazzling triumph over communism, democracy is coming under heavy fire at home," he writes, "and criticism is bound to increase if things continue to fall apart at the present rate."

What has gone so dreadfully wrong? America's social decline was stock-in-trade for Lasch, who burst into prominence in 1979 with The Culture of Narcissism, a bleak portrait of Americans as self-absorbed and self-aggrandizing that greatly influenced then-President Jimmy Carter. But in his timely but ultimately unsatisfying new book, Lasch has focused on a fresh social evil.

Democracy is threatened, he says, by the rise of an educated elite who are at home in a global economy linked by computer, modem, and fiber-optic cable. These are people who thrive in "a world of abstract concepts and symbols, ranging from stock market quotations to the visual images produced by Hollywood and Madison Avenue, and who specialize in the interpretation and deployment of symbolic information." Unlike the traditional middle and working classes, this group has seen its earnings rise over the past 20 years, he says. Its members belong to "the fortunate fifth"--the 20% of the populace who control half the country's wealth.

Yet Lasch's real concern is not economics but values and culture. Members of the new aristocracy of brains, he asserts, have made a stunning break with past elites: They don't care about Middle America and the working poor. Their loyalties are not national. American members of this elite are more comfortable with their peers in Jakarta or Buenos Aires than mingling with the bourgeoisie at home, whom they perceive as reactionary, sexually repressed, and middlebrow. And since they pay for private schools, private police, and other private services, they have no sense of civic attachment or public service. This analysis echoes 1991's The Work of Nations, in which Robert B. Reich, now Labor Secretary, also depicted a professional and managerial elite poised to skim the cream from the global economy--and forget their obligations to less talented Americans.

What Lasch wants to see is a return to a kind of Jeffersonian democracy, a society of neighborhoods, a culture of personal responsibility, and a more equitable economy. Politics, which he sees as too tolerant and technocratic, would be vigorous and passionate. As in his earlier The True and Only Heaven, Lasch is proselytizing for a civic populism that embraces religion, rejects the welfare state, and limits the free market--because unrestrained market forces, in his view, destroy communities. Everyone, he believes, requires the "character-forming discipline of the family, the neighborhood, the school, and the church, all of which (not just the family) have been weakened by the encroachment of the market."

Within the context of "the revolt of the elites," Lasch touches on a remarkable range of issues preoccupying people these days--the consequences of growing inequality, the fraying of national cohesion by multiculturalism, the evasion of personal responsibility. Unfortunately, the book is often superficial and annoyingly written. Arguments tend to meander or dwell on obscure academic debates. Much analysis is marred by sweeping generalizations and cranky, weakly supported observations. Often, the book simply disappoints--as when Lasch calls for a politics that more directly confronts such controversial issues as affirmative action and abortion but remains vague about just what that would entail.

Worse, the evidence for a "revolt of the elites" is shaky at best. An aspect of the problem is the shrinking of the middle class around the globe, Lasch asserts--but in fact, from Poland to Argentina, vibrant middle classes are emerging. Certainly, there is no more troubling economic phenomenon than the rise of income inequality in America over the past 20 years--yet the discrepancy is far from unprecedented; Lasch simply tinges earlier generations with the glow of nostalgia. He ignores how information technologies such as the Internet are fostering new--and potentially inclusive--forms of communications and communities. And he under-estimates today's political ferment. Far from dodging controversy, the nation has been intensely debating federalism, mandates, welfare, constitutional amendments, and public spending for years.

In tracing America's current malaise to the emergence of a dangerously insulated elite, Lasch is not persuasive. As a result, his warning that democracy is imperiled doesn't ring true. But for all its flaws, The Revolt of the Elite keeps raising important questions--about the impact of the global economy on society, about the legacy of acquisitive individualism, about the demands a flourishing democracy makes on its citizens.