The Democratic Malaise

revoltThis morning I picked up my copy of Christopher Lasch’s 1995 book The Revolt and the Elite and the Betrayal of Democracy and started reading it again.  I am still trying to process it all from the perspective of the so-called age of Trump, but here is a relevant passage from the Introduction.

p. 5-6: Thanks to the decline of old money and the old-money ethic of civic responsibility, local and regional loyalties are sadly attenuated today…Advancement in business and the professions, these days, requires a willingness to follow the siren call of opportunity wherever it leads.  Those who stay at home forfeit the chance of upward mobility.  Success has never been so closely associated with mobility, a concept that figuted only marginally in the nineteenth-century definition of opportunity…Anbitious people understand, then, that a migratory way of life is the price of getting ahead…The new elites are in revolt against “Middle America,” as they imagine it: a national technologically backward, politically reactionary, repressive in its sexual morality, middlebrow in its tastes, smug and complacent, dull and dowdy.  Those who covet membership in the new aristocracy of brains tend to congregation on the coasts, turning their back on the heartland and cultivating ties with the international market in fast-moving money, glamour, fashion, and popular culture….The new elites are at home only in transit, en route to a high-level conference, to the grand opening of a new franchise, to an international film festival, or to an undiscovered resort.  Theirs is essentially a tourist’s view of the world–not a perspective likely to encourage a passionate devotion to democracy.

As I read this passage I began to wonder how much the ascension of Trump is really a story that can be explained through the lens of “place.”  Healthy democracies often require face-to-face engagement in public spaces where ideas can be exchanged in civil ways. Sadly, it is hard to find these kind of spaces in America today.  Ambitious kids in search of the American dream no longer seem to find that dream at home, unless, of course, home is on the coasts.  They go off to college and never come back, depriving the communities that raised them of the intellectual resources and skills in informed, evidence-based conversation that are necessary for democracy to function at the local level.  (This, of course, assumes that they are getting these skills and resources from college.  With the rise of professional programs at the expense of the humanities this kind of education is no longer a given).

While Lasch’s juxtaposition of the “elite” and the “people may be a bit contrived, I think he does have a point.  If time allows, I will try to develop some of my thinking along these lines and post some more stuff from Revolt of the Elites.  I want to reread Revolt alongside J.D. Vance’s celebrated Hillbilly Elegy.

Stay tuned, and thanks for thinking with me on this front.

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