The Betrayal of Democracy

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Chris Lehmann is the editor-in-chief of The Baffler. 

As if the rightist defilement of our public life weren’t enough of a cognitive trial on its own, the Trumpist putsch just got personal for me in a way I never anticipated: Steve Bannon, the president’s chief policy consigliere, recently told Axios reporter Jonathan Swan that one of the most influential works of social criticism he’s read is Christopher Lasch’s posthumously published essay collection The Revolt of the Elites. Lasch—who happens to have been my graduate adviser—“called the populist nationalist uprising across the West fifteen to twenty years before it happened,” Bannon announced. “He called the ‘Party of Davos’ a decade before it became a thing.”

That was all the lords of Axios needed; Jonathan Swan was dispatched to race through the text of The Revolt of the Elites, to reel in provocative snippets that seemed to presage the Trumpist ascension. The resulting listicle ran under the clicky sobriquet “The one book to understand Steve Bannon,” and found our Axios correspondent advancing this honey of a sweeping claim: The Revolt of the Elites “gives you deeper insight into how Bannon thinks—his disdain for experts and party establishments, his skepticism on [sic] multinationals, his commitment to information warfare and the Breitbart comments section, his antipathy toward ‘globalists’ and his particular trust of the West Coast elite Lasch writes feel [again, sic] more loyalty to Hong Kong and Singapore than they do to ‘Middle America.’ ”

Whoa there, Mr. Breathless Web Aggregator! Not to reprise Woody Allen circa 1977, but it does so happen that I have a lot of first-hand insight into how Christopher Lasch thought, and it is no exaggeration to say that the rise of Trump, the Breitbart takeover of our national policy agenda, the diminution of governing into a thuggish brand of racist agitprop—in short, the whole intellectual and moral carapace of the soi-disant “populist” Trump movement would have horrified him, full stop. ...

It is true that Lasch was keenly attuned to the formation of a new global economic elite in the early 1990s. But, unlike Bannon, he did not regard the members of this networked ruling class as suspiciously rootless luftmenschen. Rather, as a principled civic republican, Lasch derided them for the surrender of any spirit of loyalty to the democratic experiment as it must be lived through the enlivening civic rites instituted in local neighborhoods, schools, precincts, and small independent workplaces. In this sense, Lasch was indeed a capital-P populist, trying to revive the valiant efforts of the late nineteenth-century producerist rebellion to secure the material bases of American self-governance. 

That’s why the rise of the American meritocracy—which has furnished the sturdiest self-enabling social myth for our brave new global knowledge elite—is, for Lasch, a first-order betrayal of democratic promise:

"Meritocracy is a parody of democracy. It offers opportunities for advancement, in theory at least, for anyone with the talent to seize them, but ‘opportunities to rise,’ as R.H. Tawney points out in Equality, are “no substitute for a general diffusion of the means of civilization,” of the “dignity and culture” that are needed by all “whether they rise or not.” Social mobility does not undermine the influence of elites; if anything, it helps to solidify their influence by supporting the illusion that it rests solely on merit."

Put another way: the globalized power elite that may feel more at home in Taiwan or Singapore isn’t objectionable because its members may be in thrall to some sinister, unpatriotic economic loyalties, as Bannon and his retinue of Trump enablers tirelessly insist. No, the members of the placeless, merit-obsessed global ruling class deserve our scorn because they’ve turned their backs on the larger project of sharing democratic civilization on an equitable basis with their fellow citizens. Instead, they’ve arrogated knowledge—an artificially scarce social good—as their own monopoly franchise and, in the process, systematically hollowed out the local institutions and impersonal forums for public debate that helped diffuse a democratic civilization....





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