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Christopher Lasch on the Elites’ Betrayal of Democracy ~ The Imaginative Conservative

Though a self-described “man of the left,” Christopher Lasch was once and always a populist. By the end of his life, he was concerned with the rise to power of American elites who, as of the mid-1990s, were already alien to—and divorced from—the masses of ordinary American citizens.

The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, by Christopher Lasch (276 pages, W.W. Norton, 1996)

Historian Christopher Lasch was a man of the left who never left the left. At least he never formally declared that he had left—or would ever leave—the left. And yet Lasch never ceased to irritate his alleged allies on the left, even increasingly anger them, during the course of his all too brief career as the author of many books and essays.

On the whole, the Lasch canon revealed his growing skepticism of, even disillusionment with, both the American left in general and with American liberalism in particular. But nothing had prepared his erstwhile friends and allies for his final book, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy.

Born in 1932, Lasch died of cancer in 1994. And yet during that all-too-short life there was plenty of time for growth. But the growth of a skeptical and disillusioned Christopher Lasch was not necessarily growth of the sort that was guaranteed to gain applause from the left. Of course, the direction of the ideological/political growth that is sanctioned by the left finds one moving from right to left, and much more often than not that sort of movement (growth?) stems from falling for the dual, and not unrelated, lures of power and Potomac fever.

A product of the American Midwest (Omaha and Chicago), Lasch taught briefly at the University of Iowa and Northwestern University before heading further eastward to the University of Rochester, where he would settle in for nearly a quarter of a century of highly productive, if always idiosyncratic, scholarship. And, yes, Professor Lasch did grow there. But ideological shifts in places like upstate New York do not necessarily correspond to the patterns of “growth” that routinely take place in and around our nation’s capital.

To be sure, Lasch was also a product of Harvard and Columbia, but that was then and this is now. In other words, neither institution was then in the expressed business of doing what it could to make sure that there would be no subsequent need for their graduates to “grow” from right to left during their post-graduate lives and careers.

In Lasch’s case, he was already a young man of the left when he arrived at Harvard, and there he would remain until he died. Or at least that’s where he thought he had remained. And yet a case can be made that by the time he was at work on what would prove to be that final book, Christopher Lasch was at best (or should that be “at worst”?) a thoroughly disillusioned man of the left who was well on his way to becoming a man of the right, whether he knew it or not—or whether he would admit it or not.

That case can be refined and narrowed in this way. Christopher Lasch was once and always a populist. The young Lasch had been a left-wing populist, while the older Lasch had gradually transformed himself into a right-leaning populist.

That case can be further refined in this way: Transformations taking place in the country at large, as well as within the circles of our elites, and especially those within the Democratic party in particular, gradually led Lasch to alter his understanding of—not to mention his practice and defense of—populism. In other words, Christopher Lasch, the populist of the 1960s, was not at all at home in the Republican party of the 1980s, but Christopher Lasch, the populist of the 1990s, would likely be supportive of the Republican party of the 2020s.


The trend of his thinking can be clearly seen in that final book, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, which was published posthumously shortly after his death. This book could easily have been written today. That parts of it were written better than three decades ago alone makes the case for Lasch’s then budding transformation—and his prescience.

Parts? Lasch was primarily an essayist, and this book is essentially a collection of essays. That said, the entire project hangs together very well, maybe even surprisingly well, given Lasch’s wide-ranging concerns and interests.

Taking his cue from Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses, first published in 1929 and not translated into English until 1932, Lasch had a very different “revolt” in mind. Ortega’s concerns centered on the potential dangers of the rise to power of the masses in any society. Lasch’s concerns in this volume focus on the rise to power of American elites who, as of the mid-1990s, were already alien to—and divorced from—the masses of ordinary American citizens.

And yet there might still be a point of connection between Ortega’s concerns and those of Christopher Lasch. The separation of today’s elites from today’s masses might well result in a new reason to be concerned about a “revolt of the masses.” At least that certainly could become a concern of many on the left today. Would that be a concern of Christopher Lasch were he still with us? Or would Lasch sympathize with those masses and their reaction to the “revolt of the elites,” which he then contended was a revolt against much of middle America? In sum, would he now praise a version of the revolt that had worried Ortega a century ago?

Such questions cannot be answered with any certainty, but the subtitle of this still timely book seems to suggest as much. Ultimately, Lasch was less concerned with the “revolt of the elites” than with their “betrayal of democracy.” In any case, it was his contention that the “revolt” had led to the “betrayal,” a betrayal which he strongly suggests will have to provoke a populist counter-reaction if the country is to be renewed and restored.

Writing nearly a third of a century ago, Lasch’s “new elites” were already in open revolt against the masses of middle America, masses whom they looked upon with what Lasch characterizes as “mingled scorn and apprehension.” For these elites, their fellow Americans were standing in the way of progress. But even then Lasch was not at all sure that such was actually the case.

Foreshadowing Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables,” the elites that Lasch had in mind had come to regard the American mass-man as “hopelessly shabby, unfashionable, and provincial.” And in their way. This was “wokeness” in its infancy.

For that matter, Lasch doubted that his “new elites” thought of themselves as Americans at all. Cosmopolitans at their core, assuming he thought they had a core, theirs was essentially a “tourist’s view of the world.” For that matter, it amounted to a tourist’s view of their own country as well. But theirs was not a tourist’s view filled with wonder and excitement. If anything, it was a view dripping with disdain and disregard for middle America. In sum, it was a view that was “not likely to encourage a passionate devotion to democracy” on the part of such tourists.

Explaining the collapse of American democracy, and the role of our elites in contributing to that collapse, occupies half the book. The other half seeks to point toward its restoration.

At his kindest, Lasch places blame for the “deterioration of public debate” on the “best people,” given their skepticism of the “capacity of ordinary citizens to grasp issues.” And vigorous, informed public debate always remained at the heart of Lasch’s understanding of democracy. At his harshest, that skepticism was so entrenched among our elites that it was already “indistinguishable from nihilism.”

At his most thoughtful—and most worrisome—Lasch also takes on the entrenched secularism of our revolting elites. For them, “identity politics” had already come to serve as a “substitute” for religion. While silent on the subject of his own religious beliefs, or the absence thereof, Lasch, like John Adams and others, was not at all silent on the importance of religion for a truly democratic society.

Nor was Lasch silent on the subject of the prevailing attitude of the elites toward religious belief. In his mind their default presumption was that religion served the ordinary, benighted individual as little more than a combination of crutch and excuse (to claim a “privileged moral status).”

As far as Lasch was concerned, this amounted to an unthinking thought on the part of our “thinking classes” (his occasionally preferred term for his elites in revolt). For those who take religion seriously, Lasch asserts, belief was a “burden” rather than an opportunity to exude self-righteousness. If anything, Lasch surmises, a sense of self-righteousness was likely to be much more prevalent among skeptics than among believers, if only because a “spiritual discipline against self-righteousness is the very essence of religion.”

Lasch also worried that those “thinking classes” had “fatally removed” themselves from the “physical side of life.” Fatally for whom? The elites themselves or their targets? Neither. Lasch’s ultimate concern was for the fate of democratic society at large.

Here Lasch borrows from an openly acknowledged refugee from the ranks of the left. That would be writer and blogger Mickey Kaus. Born in 1951, Kaus was still very much on hand in 2016, when he voted for Donald Trump, and in 2020 when he preferred a different candidate with a similar message. But as early as the early 1990s, Kaus’ own worries had led him to regard the “routine acceptance” of American “professionals” (read “elitists”) as a separate class to be an “ominous development.”

As younger men of the left, both Lasch and Kaus criticized growing disparities between rich and poor in America. By the 1990s, however, Lasch had come to agree with Kaus that the most serious threat to American democracy was not the maldistribution of wealth, but the decline of social equality, combined with the decay, or even the outright abandonment of both public institutions and vigorous public debate.

To be sure, there are moments in the book when Lasch manages to recover his former self long enough to declare economic inequality to be “intrinsically undesirable.” Gathering steam, he decrees that a society that thinks of itself as democratic “cannot allow unlimited accumulations of wealth.” Seemingly in full recovery mode, he could even intone that a “moral condemnation of great wealth must inform any definition of the free market.”

But as the book proceeds the new Lasch returns. That would be the Christopher Lasch who objected to the present, worried about the future, and longed for the past.

The American past that Lasch most seems to have longed for is the America of Alexis de Tocqueville, the America of the early to mid-19th century, the America of small landholdings, small communities, and, yes, vigorous public debate.

This America may well have reached its high point with the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Lasch doesn’t persist here, but those debates proved to be a prelude to a Civil War, which in turn ushered in a new America, an America far removed from what Lasch would come to regard as having been the heyday of American democracy.

This would also prove to be an America at odds with the American dream of men as different as Abraham Lincoln and Orestes Brownson. Notwithstanding the differences between the prairie skeptic and the New England believer, Lasch contended that the two had much in common when it came to their shared understanding of the American democratic experiment and its significance. In sum, both sought to build and sustain an America of small property holders.

For Lasch, the dual purpose of the Homestead Act of 1862 was to assure that as many Americans as possible would be property owners and/or connected to the land. Moreover, its “deeper symbolism” was meant to appeal to the need to establish roots, rather than to any “spirit of restless ambition.”

The Morrill Act of 1862, which established land grant universities, was also consistent with what Lasch labeled the “Jeffersonian tradition.” But Lasch also regarded that legislation as marking the onset of the undoing of that very tradition. For him, the legislative intent was “ambiguous” at best: exalt the usefulness of labor on the one hand, but elevate “professional status” on the other.

Lasch, the professional scholar, had his own ambiguous attitude toward schools, schooling, and schoolmasters. The “wreckage” that was the school system in America as of the early 1990s was traceable to none other than Horace Mann. To be sure, Mann’s efforts for the common school “bore spectacular success,” but the “great weakness” of his educational philosophy was his assumption that the only education that truly mattered must take place in schools.

Moreover, Mann wrongly believed that formal education could replace all other character-forming experiences. Lasch, for example, goes on to indict Mann for lacking any appreciation for the connection between “martial virtue and citizenship.”

And today? Would Lasch approve of a highly secular public school system driven by an ideologically inspired political agenda? It’s not likely.

And Lasch three decades ago? It was his view that we had incorporated the worst of Horace Mann, while “somehow manag(ing) to lose sight of the best.” Whether despite or because of the “bureaucratization of education,” the one lesson that Lasch hoped might have been learned was that schools cannot save society. Maybe the time had come, “if it hadn’t already passed,” concluded Lasch now long ago, simply to “start all over again.”

Why might that have been necessary then—and perhaps even more necessary today? Lasch posits that the most important choice that a democratic society has to make is whether to emphasize raising the general level of competence and virtue or “merely” recruiting the next generation of elites. Guess which alternative he preferred. Then guess which alternative he thought the country had opted for.

If any doubt remains, here is Lasch’s conclusion as expressed in the essay on education in this collection: The reign of “specialized expertise” is the antithesis of democracy. Or at the very least it is the antithesis of those, like Lincoln (and Lasch?), who saw the United States as the “last best hope on earth.”


Lasch also found kindred spirits among late nineteenth century populists in general. Unlike his Columbia University mentor, Richard Hofstadter, who dismissed these populists as racists or worse, Lasch stresses—and praises—both their spirit of “self-reliance” and their quarrel with large-scale production and centralization.

Lasch also takes the trouble to dismiss the racist charge against white America in more general terms. In the first place, the “thinking classes” (there he goes again) had been laboring under the “delusion” that they alone had overcome their racial prejudices. In the second place, the governing assumption of those thinkers then (and now?) was (and is?) that most Americans have remained racists at heart. For Christopher Lasch this was simply an assumption that “cannot stand up to close examination.”

Before leaving the topic of Lasch on race behind, it must be noted that he considers Martin Luther King, Jr., to have been first and foremost a populist, rather than a civil rights leader. To be sure, Lasch declares the civil rights movement of the early 1960s to have been a “triumph of democracy.” He also justly praises King’s leadership for “transforming a degraded people into active, self-respecting citizens.” That praise extends to King’s refusal to claim a “privileged moral position” for the victims of oppression. In sum, Lasch highlights King’s call for a color blind society and pointedly ignores King’s shift to the left near the very end of his life on both economic disparities and governmental solutions for those disparities.

And by the end of his own life? If his final book is any indicator, Christopher Lasch seemed either unable or unwilling to decide whether the main devil in his story was ultimately big government or big business. Perhaps that explains why he lumped both their advocates and representatives together under the general heading of revolting “elites,” who were in turn to be revolted against.

For that matter, he saw twentieth-century liberalism being pulled in two directions at once: toward the market and toward the state. He then saw himself as another Wendell Berry (whom he does reference), as well as and a modern day G. K. Chesterton (whom he doesn’t reference). Therefore, he would simultaneously pull against both the market and the state. In other words, he had become a Chestertonian distributist without calling himself that.

What Lasch did call for the necessity of pursuing a “third way,” otherwise defined as a way to avoid dominance by either the market or the state. His hope, maybe even his goal, was to somehow allow what he termed “moral obligation” to emerge from “everyday life,” rather than to have it be the purview of either the market or the state.

The center of that life for both Wendell Berry and G. K. Chesterton was the family. And by the end of his life, not to mention the end of this book, the family was center stage for Christopher Lasch, as well.


There is little doubt that both the market and the state constitute a serious challenge, nay a threat, to everyday family life, even as they both claim to offer support and solutions. There should also be little doubt today that the left dominates much of the market and most of the state. Therefore, there should be no doubt that the left presents a greater challenge, nay a greater threat, to the family than does the right. Indeed, today some on the left openly call for the destruction of the nuclear family.

Christopher Lasch could see it all coming thirty years ago. But he could also see something going. That would be religious belief. In the final essay/chapter Lasch returns to the importance of religion when it comes to maintaining and/or restoring the health of a democratic society. Once again, he proves to be more prescient than he could possibly have realized.

When all is said and done, what we have here is a story of corresponding senses of disillusionment. On the one hand, Lasch sees leftist elitists as having stripped themselves of religious belief or even interest; hence their particular disillusionment. On the other hand, Lasch sees himself as having grown disillusioned with a thoroughly secularized left.

His revolting and disillusioned elites had come to take it for granted that theirs was an age that had “outgrown its childhood.” Having jettisoned all sense of religious faith, they lacked any awareness of what Lasch regarded as the “proper understanding of religion.” At the heart of that understanding for Lasch was the role that religion played in saving man from the all too “agreeable illusion” that he is the center of the universe.

Of course, all of us, not just revolting elitists, are always open to falling victim to such an “agreeable illusion.” At the time, Lasch was no doubt correct to zero in on our increasingly secular elites of not so long ago. He would be even more on target to do so today.

That said, would he cast his net much more widely today? What has happened since then may well amount to a story of trickle-down elitism, meaning that the attitudes of Lasch’s revolting elites have begun infect the rest of the culture.

The double whammy of the loss of religious faith and the rise of the machine age have made it all too possible for any of us to “imagine ourselves as the masters of our own fate.”

While Christopher Lasch, social critic, regarded this illusion as both “dangerous” and as “tenacious as ever,” Lasch the populist did have his hopes. At the end of his life—and at the end of this book—he lets himself at least entertain the notion that his fellow Americans were beginning to come to terms with the limits of man’s ability to exert “control over the natural world.”

Would Lasch be more hopeful—or less hopeful—today? Will Ortega’s mass-man ultimately rally behind a Lasch agenda or against it? We don’t yet know. Is the apparent power and attraction of the fad of transgenderism evidence that the desire to be masters of our own fate is as dangerous and tenacious as ever? Probably.

Where, in sum, would Christopher Lasch, man of the left, find himself today? With this book as final testament, all that can be known with any degree of certainty is that at the time of his death his attachment to the left was shaky at best and anything but as “tenacious as ever.”

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The featured image is “Changing of the Guard” (1888) by Erik Henningsen, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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