Christopher Lasch, where are we when we need you? Today’s Wall Street Journal has a good column by William Galston that lays out in clear terms what we all feel in our bones: The great middle-class consensus that once dominated our society is dissolving. The middle class is eroding down into the lower income cohort, as well as up into the educated, successful upper-middle class.
By Galston’s reckoning the once dominant middle class provided political and social ballast. I think he’s right about that. Today, the middle has become weakened, and our society is now dominated by an increasingly isolated and often arrogant elite.
More than anyone writing at the end of the twentieth century Lasch saw and tried to analyze the changing class structure of America, especially the emergence of a new social consensus that is tilted toward the interests of the new elite. A great deal of his large-scale analysis seems less convincing to me now. For example, I’m less taken by the Freudian categories in The Culture of Narcissism .
But many of his social observations remain arresting and relevant: “What does it profit the residents of the South Bronx to enforce speech codes at elite universities?” Meritocracy has the effect of making elites more secure than ever in their privileges.” “Compassion has become the human face of contempt.” He despised the smug condescension of liberalism and its happy-clappy confidence that the social changes it endorses will be for the best.
Moreover, his deepest intuition was profound: Society is not a mechanism to deliver private goods such as wealth or self-esteem or lifestyle freedom. (This is what liberalism always assumes, seeking to reform the mechanism to more efficiently and equitably deliver private goods.) Instead, society is an end in itself. Solidarity is a human need that can’t be parceled out to individuals as private goods.
What he saw was the end of solidarity in working class America.
Although he never puts it quite this way, here’s what Lasch tried to bring to our attention: Before World War II a talented Irish-American kid might go to St. Francis College in Brooklyn, and then to Fordham Law School. He paid for his education by working as a longshoreman, a job secured for him by his uncle who had connections in the union. After getting his degree he worked for the union. Smart and ambitious, he rose to become a union boss. He made a fancy salary, wore a smart suit, drove an upscale car—but he was a man of deep existential loyalty to the working man’s world from which he came. He led a community whose sense of honor and shame he accepted as his own.
Today, that same young man aces the SAT, gets accepted to an elite college and goes on to Harvard Law School. Even if he ends up working in the labor law clinic and decides to become a labor activist, he’s existentially removed from the people he serves, loyal to the meritocracy that has promoted and formed him. He almost certainly lives in neighborhoods informed by the meritocratic ethos, sending his children to the kinds of schools that will help them get into elite colleges, etc.
Thus our current political culture, which is dominated by upper-middle-class concerns even as various political figures protest otherwise. On the Left we have a wide range of views about economic issues, but primary candidates can’t deviate from the dictates of Emily’s List, Planned Parenthood, and the Human Rights Campaign, all of which represent upper-middle-class preoccupations. On the Right we have a wide range of views about social issues, but candidates can’t deviate from tax-cutting dogma, another upper-middle-class issue.