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Family Man: Christopher Lasch and the Populist Imperative

Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch
Eric Miller (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010)

It is a recurring story of American politics: From the heartland, anger erupts, directed at Wall Street for fattening itself at the people’s expense and at Washington for endemic corruption and endless shenanigans. Moneychangers have occupied the temple, comes the charge, and no alternative exists but to sweep the place clean.

Yet no sooner do the plain folk raise their pitchforks than a great tut- tutting is heard from on high. The problem, it turns out, lies not with Wall Street or Washington but with the people themselves. Populism—synonymous with bigotry and ignorance—has once again raised its ugly head. The good of the Republic requires that order be restored. The people must return to their places. If they have complaints to make, they should express them quietly and respectfully. Suggestions that the whole game is rigged against them are inappropriate and not to be entertained.

The popularity of Sarah Palin and other right-wing firebrands, the rise of the Tea Party, perhaps above all the temerity of voters in Massachusetts who awarded the Kennedy family’s Senate seat to a pickup truck–driving nonentity have persuaded observers that populists are once again on the march. As if on cue, sophisticates unable to differentiate between a pitchfork and a honey spreader explain why this latest version of populism gets things all wrong and why it doesn’t deserve to be treated seriously.

Here is David Brooks, peering down from his perch at the New York Times , offering a tutorial on why ordinary citizens, as opposed to well-heeled newspaper columnists living in the nation’s capital, just don’t understand what makes America tick. Populists, writes Brooks, mistakenly view the country through the lens of social class. Convinced that “economics is a struggle over finite spoils,” they betray an “Us versus Them mentality.” They see politics as a “struggle between the enlightened and the corrupt, the pure and the betrayers.” Brooks wants it known that such heresies (which are, of course, daily fare within the Beltway) possess not even the slightest legitimacy when voiced by ordinary citizens from Indiana or Kansas.

Indeed, whatever slight problems the country may be facing—take the recession, for example—it’s populist carping that prevents their solution. If the rubes “continue their random attacks on enterprise and capital,” Brooks warns, “they will only increase the pervasive feeling of uncertainty, which is now the single biggest factor in holding back investment, job creation and growth.” Still, Brooks finds consolation in knowing that uppiti-ness coming from the hinterland never really amounts to much. The verdict of history is clear: “dynamic optimism”—that’s what real Americans believe in—“always wins,” whereas “combative divisiveness”—that’s what populism signifies—“always loses.”

Such condescension tells us less about populism than about the fears and prejudices of those who presume to police American political discourse lest it become tainted by unwelcome demands or expectations. The truth about American politics is this: disguised by the theatrics of squabbling Democrats and Republicans, Washington governs according to limits prescribed by a fixed and narrow consensus. The two main parties collaborate in preserving that consensus. Doing so requires declaring out-of-bounds anything even remotely resembling a fundamental critique of how power gets exercised or wealth distributed. Populism poses a challenge to that consensus—hence, the hostility with which it is treated by those purporting to express respectable opinion.

When it comes to political choice, devotees of the existing two-party system contend that Americans already have all they need or can handle. Folks inhabiting the middle of the country (while occupying the lower reaches of the socioeconomic ladder) don’t necessarily see it that way. So radicalism persists. What Brooks and other enforcers of ideological discipline deride as populism is radicalism in the American grain, expressing itself in an authentically American, if less than genteel, voice.

Populism frightens the fat cats and the defenders of the status quo, and with good reason. Yet for observers who find the status quo intolerable, the populist critique contains elements worthy of empathy and respect.

 

O ne such observer was the late Christopher Lasch (1932–94), historian, cultural critic, contrarian, and wayfarer. A son of the Middle Border, born and raised in Nebraska before his parents moved to Chicago, Lasch, writes Eric Miller, “was a surveyor, taking the measure of the wilderness.” The wilderness was modern America. What Lasch discovered there were pathologies advertised as “progress,” promoted by elites for their own benefit with little regard for the common good.

Miller, who teaches history at Geneva College, has written a biography of Lasch, with the evocative title Hope in a Scattering Time . A fine, thoughtful, and even moving book, its appearance could hardly be more opportune.

In our own day, the politics of progress have passed the point of exhaustion. Were there any lingering doubts on that score, the vast disparity between the expectations raised by President Obama’s election and the dispiriting reality of the Obama Era has dispelled them once and for all. Only knaves and fools will look to Washington to devise solutions to the problems afflicting American society today. Indeed, further deference to established centers of power, on issues domestic or foreign, will surely perpetuate and even exacerbate those problems.

So the times call for a searching reassessment of the American condition. Neither left nor right—especially in the adulterated form found in the actually existing Democratic and Republican parties—possesses the capacity to render such an assessment. To reconsider first principles requires an altogether different vantage point, firmly grounded in the American experience yet offering something other than the recitation of clichés and posturing in front of cameras.

Lasch occupied and speaks from such a vantage point. Through a series of books, chief among them Haven in a Heartless World (1977), The Culture of Narcissism (1979), and The True and Only Heaven (1991), he sought, in Miller’s words, “to convince and persuade Americans of the true nature of their circumstance.” Like some prophet from the Hebrew Bible transported to an America at the very height of its power, Lasch “moved in the spirit of reckoning, freely casting judgment on all.” His countrymen could choose to listen or to turn a deaf ear: that was not his to decide. His calling was simply to speak the truth and offer it for their consideration. This he was determined to do, however harsh or unwelcome others might find the verdicts he handed down.

Begin with the issue of progress itself. Conservatives and liberals pretend to differ on how to define it and on how best to achieve it. Yet both camps subscribe to this common baseline: the progress they promote is quantitative. It entails amassing more: choice, abundance, access, autonomy, and clout.

So defined, progress incrementally enhances American life, making it more democratic and enabling Americans in ever greater numbers to exercise freedom. Lasch rejected this proposition. Progress, he believed, was converting America into a spiritual wasteland. “The question for serious historians,” he wrote in 1975, “is not whether progress exacts a price but whether the history of modern society can be considered progress in the first place.” His own answer to that question was a resounding “No.”

Where others saw progress, Lasch saw destruction. His own interpretation of the nation’s past, according to Miller, “was centered not on grand, heroic movement from authoritarian control to freedom, as most Americans supposed, but rather on the shift from one form of overweening social control to another.” A nefarious collaboration between market and state was transforming citizens into consumers, while intruding into the most intimate spheres of human existence. Rootlessness and chronic anxiety increasingly defined everyday American life, and individuals sought to fill the resulting void through compulsive efforts to satisfy unappeasable appetites. The marketplace proffered an array of solutions, usually chemical or technological, to “age-old discontents” such as “loneliness, sickness, weariness, [and] lack of sexual satisfaction.” Others pursued a different route of escape, attaching themselves, however tenuously or even vicariously, “to those who radiate celebrity, power, and charisma.”

Seeking relief, ordinary Americans instead purchased dependence. The “modern obsession with personal liberation” was, in Lasch’s view, “itself a symptom of pervasive spiritual disorder.”

A bit over the top? Watch some network TV tonight and don’t leave the room when the commercials come on. Hang out awhile at your local Wal-Mart (“Save money. Live better.”). Leaf through one of those glossy celebrity mags the next time you’re stuck waiting in the checkout line. Consider how teenagers obsessively caress their cell phones and iPods as if cradling in their hands some sacred amulet. Ask yourself why movies like George Clooney’s recent Up in the Air —wherein a man defines fulfillment as gaining entry into American Airlines’ “Ten Million Mile Club”—strike a chord.

This process of cultural debasement was not the product of spontaneous combustion. It occurred because it served the interests of large institutions and of individuals directing their fortunes. Writing in 1958, while still a graduate student, Lasch accurately discerned the implications: “The greatest rewards will fall to those whose job it is to keep consumers consuming.” Those rewards included money, status, and power and were by no means restricted to the private sector. Once members of Congress figured out that the distribution of largesse held the key to perpetual incumbency, keeping consumers consuming—cash for clunkers!—became a key component of their job description as well.

As they accumulated cars, gadgets, and brand-name clothes, filled their bathroom cabinets with potions promising to make them look and feel good, and dragged their kids off to theme parks, Americans were told that life itself was getting better and better. Indeed, during the Cold War (as again, after September 11), government agencies promoted American-style freedom as the model to which the rest of the world was destined to conform. As interpreted by Washington, such was the will of Providence.

According to Lasch, however, all of this was bogus. Americans were being played for chumps. By defining progress as more stuff combined with the shedding of self-restraint, they were not gaining greater freedom. Instead, they were donning a strait jacket. “Beneath the appearance of contractual freedom, individual autonomy, and the rule of reason,” he insisted, “domination still continued as the motor of history, class rule as the basis of wealth and economic power, and force as the basis of justice.”

Individual Americans were forfeiting control over their own destinies. Lasch railed against “the pathology of domination, the growing influence of organizations (economic as well as military) that operate without regard to any rational objectives except their own aggrandizement.” He decried “the powerlessness of individuals in the face of these giant agglomerations and the arrogance of those ostensibly in charge of them.”

The upheaval of the 1960s briefly persuaded Lasch that a New Left might constitute the counterweight needed to reverse these trends. The antics of the counterculture soon disabused him of this expectation, however. “Hedonism, self-expression, doing your own thing, dancing in the streets, drugs, and sex are a formula for political impotence and a new despotism,” he wrote with characteristic severity. The New Left contained its own elitist and authoritarian tendencies. “Mastery of the technological secrets of a modern society,” Lasch believed, would enable the savvy few to “rule over an indolent population which has traded self-government for self-expression”—a prediction finding eventual fulfillment (of a sort) amidst the mindlessness of social networking and manufactured celebrity.

So the forces of revolution, such as they were, turned out to be fraudulent. Lasch soon forswore further political activism and thereafter remained apart, unleashing his thunderbolts, in Miller’s words, “from a place well above, or below, the usual ideological perches.” Lasch defied categorization. As a consequence, although his books and other writings commanded attention and attracted admirers, he had few real allies. Lasch was his own drummer. His was a lonely movement of one.

 

M iller describes Lasch’s quest as a search for “another way of achieving America.” With evidence of spiritual disarray piling up, that search aimed to salvage and preserve as much as to create something new. “The development of political freedom,” Lasch wrote in 1973, had proceeded “hand in hand with the growth of a system of private enterprise that ravaged the land, eradicated the past, destroyed older traditions of commercial life, and accentuated class conflict.” How to stem this malignant tide constituted the central problem of the age. So Lasch, in Miller’s words, began to articulate an altogether different vision of progress or freedom, one “rooted not in personal liberation but in the dignity of privacy, kinship ties, moral order, and civic duty.” He sought to restore “joy in work, stable connections, family life, a sense of place, and a sense of historical continuity.”

In the context of American politics, of course, words like kinship, duty, family, and place carry deeply conservative connotations. Indeed, over the course of his intellectual journey, Lasch moved toward a cultural conservatism, which drew upon older Jeffersonian, agrarian, and—above all—populist traditions. Conservatism in this sense was less an ideology than an orientation, one that recognized, valued, and sought to defend an inheritance assailed by the proponents of progress. Once squandered, Lasch believed, that inheritance was likely to prove irretrievable.

(A note to those for whom “conservative” conjures up images of Karl Rove or Newt Gingrich: don’t confuse the sham conservatism of the Republican Party with the authentic article. Lasch expressed complete contempt for those styling themselves as conservative while worshipping at the altar of capitalism, employing conservative-sounding tropes to justify a worldview profoundly antagonistic to conservative values. To understand this point, ask yourself, for example, what, if anything, George W. Bush, an ostensible conservative, managed to “conserve” during his eight years in the White House.)

For Lasch, only a genuinely conservative orientation was entirely consistent with his radical self-identity. Indeed, in late-twentieth-century America, only an anti-progressive sensibility could provide the basis for serious radicalism.

Here lay the makings of a true counterculture, he believed, one that opposed excessive concentrations of wealth and power, rejected the notion that limitless economic growth held the key to human happiness, and stood for political decentralization, self-sufficiency, meaningful work, the closing of gaps between rich and poor, a decent respect for received wisdom, and modesty in claiming to interpret God’s will or history’s purpose.

This Tory radicalism, as Miller dubs it, placed Lasch at odds with other would-be radicals of his time. Nowhere was this more evident than on matters relating to gender. In Lasch’s eyes, the chief accomplishment of contemporary feminism, with its emphasis on self-actualization and empowerment, was to deliver women into the maw of the marketplace. For the most part, the women’s movement served as an adjunct to “the dominant culture of acquisitive individualism,” rather than offering up a meaningful alternative. A small percentage of women benefited, as a result; the vast majority did not.

Although Lasch devoted the preponderance of his attention to domestic affairs, his critique has considerable implications for foreign policy. The progressive impulse to construct a secular utopia at home finds its counterpart in dreams of doing likewise in the great, wide world abroad: this has become an enduring theme of American statecraft. Do not mistake this rushing to the aid of others—Cubans in 1898, Afghans in 2010—for altruism, however. The impulse to do good remains bound inextricably to a determination to do well. Whether acknowledged or not, the exercise aims to sustain the existing American way of life, or, as Lasch put it, “to maintain our riotous standard of living, as it has been maintained in the past, at the expense of the rest the world.”

 

L asch declared progressivism, especially in its virulent Wilsonian form, to be “a messianic creed.” In international politics, messianic tendencies foster illusions of omniscience and omnipotence. They also point ineluctably toward great crusades, since those standing in the path of righteousness necessarily represent the forces of darkness and put themselves beyond the pale.

The combination of conviction and power induces grandiosity reinforced by vast self-assurance, evident in Woodrow Wilson’s “war to end all wars” and in the younger Bush’s insistence that the time had come for Muslims everywhere to embrace American-style democracy—along with the American definition of human rights. For those of a messianic bent, inaction implies complicity with evil. Given such a mindset, prudential considerations need not apply: That which should be must be.

“The thirst for action, the craving for involvement, the longing to commit themselves to the onward march of events—these things dictated war.” Lasch refers here to the progressives who threw their support behind Wilson’s campaign to make the world safe for democracy. Yet the same might be said of the neoconservatives, faux conservatives, and militant liberals who formed the cheering section for Bush’s preposterous “global war on terror.” The most important thing was not to be left out or left behind. “Accordingly, they went to war and invented the reasons for it afterward.” Written in connection to the events of 1917, Lasch’s judgment applies just as neatly to the period following September 11.

The progressive mindset pervading both of the major American political parties refuses to acknowledge the existence of limits. An appreciation of limits—not simply of power, but also of understanding—infuses and distinguishes an authentically conservative sensibility.

Writing in 1983, Lasch located “the real promise of American life” in “the hope that a self-governing republic can serve as a source of moral and political inspiration to the rest of the world, not as the center of a new world empire.” The record suggests that rather than erecting an empire—or fulfilling the obligations inherent in global leadership, as some would have it—the United States will serve as a moral and political exemplar only by keeping faith with the aspirations expressed in the nation’s founding documents. In that regard, we have a long way to go.

Of at least equal importance, whereas the proponents of progress believe that the key to success is to entrust power to a corps of experts—a power elite, to use the classic formulation devised by C. Wright Mills—any serious conservative rightly sees this as mostly bunk. Do four-star generals, high-ranking government officials, insider journalists, corporate executives, and Wall Street financiers possess a demonstrably superior understanding of the way the world works? Are they any smarter, more sophisticated, or better intentioned than your Aunt Betty Lou or your Uncle Fred? Survey the various and sundry debacles of the past decade alone—the September 11 attacks, the invasion of Iraq, the collapse of Enron, Hurricane Katrina, the Madoff scandal, the Lehman Brothers downfall (the list goes on)—and the question answers itself.

“America in denial,” writes Eric Miller, was “Lasch’s perennial story.” In our own day—still very much a scattering time—denial persists, in spades, reinforced by a ruling class that throws money at problems in hopes of concealing them and by a national security apparatus that promotes an atmosphere of perpetual crisis in order to justify its existence. Washington attempts with one hand to buy people off and with the other to frighten them into acquiescence.

In 1962, the young Lasch observed that “progress is not enough.” Sometimes progress isn’t progress at all, especially in the cultural and spiritual realms. Instead it’s backsliding.

The record suggests that counting on large, distant, impersonal, and largely unaccountable institutions to make good on America’s promise is misguided. This is the insight to which populists from the time of William Jennings Bryan to the present have returned again and again. The demonstrable truth of that insight explains why populism is not going away any time soon. It also explains why Christopher Lasch, the great exponent of democratic populism, deserves our respectful attention today.

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His book, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War, will be published in August.

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