Rigorous analysis of democracy's decline Aug 16, 2012
by Eric K
In 1994, shortly after Christopher Lasch's death, Harper's published the first, eponymous, chapter of this book of interconnected essays. It made a strong impression on me, to put it mildly. This was partly due to the essay's prophetic recognition that the elites of this country (and indeed the developed world)--the professionals and managers of the upper-middle class and higher--were pulling away from the rest of the pack, tacitly renouncing their stake in and responsibility to our democratic social contract, and slowly changing the rules of the game so that this process of decoupling would accelerate and widen (as indeed has come to pass); and partly because Lasch's critique was based on conservative, some might even say reactionary, principles. The diverse pieces collected here, which comprise sections on the intensification of socioeconomic divisions, the decline of education and democratic discourse, and the modern transformation of spirituality and morals, form a cohesive whole more for their common conservatism of thought than their common subject matter. By conservatism, though, I don't mean the incoherent and ugly pudding of warmed-over Ayn Rand for Ignoramuses and hate-based Christianity that passes for "conservative" in our current time: Lasch was in fact an old-school, big-L Yankee Liberal, who believed that the Constitution deserved considered reverence and that democracy was less about rights than participatory responsibilities, such as voting, proper child-rearing, and paying one's taxes. He believed in all those things, such as God and Family Values, that today's ersatz conservatives pay lip service to, but fail to actually honor or subject to rigorous analysis. Lasch is Glenn Beck in reverse: he compares the founding Enlightenment principles of the United States to the current state of affairs, and produces thoughtful, historically accurate criticism, rather than hysterical rants based on distortions. As an adherent to Old Liberal principles, Lasch recoils from the shibboleths of the liberal left: condescending ideas that harden into institutional policy and cause more social problems than they solve. Along the way, he critiques works of John Dewey, Robert Bellah, Walter Lippmann, Horace Mann, Clifford Geertz, Sigmund Freud, Oscar Wilde, and Roger Kimball, among others. His conclusion is that democracy, for all its inherent weaknesses, is worth saving--all we have to do is let go of our apathy and cynicism, our desire to find easy solutions, and do the work to keep it alive.