The recent issue of Modern Age contains a commemorative essay by Susan McWilliams marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of Christopher Lasch’s The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics. McWilliams reminds readers that Lasch offers a positive analysis of populism that speaks to the current political malaise. As part of his critique of the cult of progress, Lasch attempted to ground politics in the intuitions of the petty bourgeoisie and the populist tradition that gave life to those intuitions. He saw in petty-bourgeois culture a moral realism that recognized the cost and limits of human existence, reinforcing a healthy skepticism of progress. The “small proprietors, artisans, tradesmen, and farmers” of the petty-bourgeois world were the least likely “to mistake the promised land of progress for the true and only heaven.”
Lasch’s constant references to “proprietors, artisans, farmers, tradesmen” provide a clue as to what he means by “petty bourgeoisie.” The phrase is an umbrella designation encapsulating the values of lower-middle-class culture: moral conservatism, egalitarianism, respect for workmanship and loyalty, and the moral struggle against resentment. Organized around family, church, and neighborhood, these values were not exclusively agrarian as opposed to urban, nor were they a form of Marxist proletarian ideology. In America, Lasch argued, one cannot separate working-class from lower-middle-class.
Although Lasch does not use this category, he seems to see the petty bourgeoisie as the vehicle of folk culture in American life. By the 1950s, a cultural hierarchy had emerged, centered on the threefold designation of “highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow.” These categories were introduced in the 1930s and 1940s and codified in Russell Lynes’s 1949 essay for Harper’s Magazine. In addition to the threefold hierarchy, Lynes divided middlebrow into upper and lower. Following his essay, Life magazine asked Lynes to put together a “guidance chart” based on everyday tastes. According to the chart, highbrows sought out ballet and upper middlebrows preferred the theater while lower middlebrows enjoyed musical films and lowbrows devoured Westerns. The musical forms of the Mississippi Delta and the Appalachian Trail (blues, jazz, bluegrass) were decidedly lowbrow, while classical music made up the world of highbrows and upper middlebrows. In other words, those who held onto folk culture, grounding it in connections to family, the land, and the church, make up Lasch’s world of the petty bourgeoisie.
The folk culture of the petty bourgeoisie resisted the emerging world of professionals and managers. As George Marsden has chronicled in Twilight of the American Enlightenment, the twentieth century became the “age of the expert” who wielded scientific knowledge with Promethean power, having extracted the secrets of nature and distilled them into digestible bits for middlebrow America. The expert filled out the professional-managerial class, which Lasch saw as ever-attempting to shape the petty bourgeoisie into its own image by moving between the authority of science and the authority of the autonomous individual. Indeed, if Matthew Hedstrom’s argument bears any weight, mainline Protestant culture was middlebrow, having succeeded in transforming middlebrow America through the use of religious book clubs in which its own experts and institutions wielded power. Hedstrom suggests that middlebrow culture embraced “autonomy and expertise” as a dialectic that shaped reading practices, which accounts for the impact of liberal religion despite its institutional decline.
The world of evangelicalism has predominantly been the world of the petty bourgeoisie. This is clearly seen in the holiness movement of late-nineteenth-century evangelicalism, with its critique of industrialization, its use of hymnody, its egalitarian advancement of women to strengthen the family, and its multicultural mix. For African-Americans, holiness went along with the preservation of slave religion, while white evangelicals saw it as giving voice to laity (including women), preserving autobiography as testimony, and facilitating social transformation through revival. When Pentecotalism took off, its emphasis on a democratization of the Spirit merely increased the pace at which this populism was emerging.
Underneath Lasch’s argument in favor of populism is the conviction that folk culture matters as a vehicle of virtue and social life. Lasch recognized that, by the late 1980s, the petty bourgeoisie was a theoretical construct that identified a mentality rather than a socioeconomic class. One could be a professional and still live by petty-bourgeois values. Two years after the publication of The True and Only Heaven, Bill Bennett released The Book of Virtues, which placed moral reasoning in the context of the story-telling central to folk cultures. These values implicitly connected embodied existence to the way land, country, religion, and family form interlocking structures of relations. This insistence on maintaining such an interlocking set of relations also lies behind Christopher Dawson’s elevation of medieval mystics, the erotic, and baroque as maintaining organic relations over against the bourgeois mentality. One can find it in Chesterton’s nod to lower middlebrow culture with his Father Brown mysteries or Tolkien’s privileging of Shire folk and their ways over against Sauron’s expansionist overthrow of Middle Earth.
It is precisely this culture that has been under assault as backward, traditionalist, and anti-intellectual, among other things. Populist movements are the result of this assault. Regardless of their ethnic origins, folk cultures tend toward a realistic acknowledgment that history does not always have a happy ending. And there are times when political figures try to leverage the tragic side of history in order to foment resentment and envy, producing racism, sexism, and xenophobia. Populism is always tempted by the politics of envy and resentment in the face of the efforts by elite experts to redefine society in their image through coercive legal measures. The populist focus on regionalism, family, church, and neighborhood can induce tribalism easily enough, especially against external threats.
Yet one of the strengths of religious populism is that it finds what Lasch calls spiritual discipline in the face of the tragic. The epitome of this trait is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s use of hope (not optimism) to overcome the despair in African-American communities within pre–Civil Rights America. Of course, such hope had a transcendent ground, being connected to the apocalyptic side of Christianity. One can also find this hope expressed in the hymns of evangelicalism as a whole. Grounded in the sovereign hand of providence, hope creates the space within which forgiveness becomes possible, and this possibility allows political life to move forward amid tragedy. Hope also facilitates continuous resistance against those who seek to uproot folk cultures and their relational structures.
Lasch’s hope was that the populism he had discovered in petty-bourgeois values could serve as a starting point for a political philosophy. He wanted to counter the new definition of progress as “an indefinite expansion of the demand for consumer goods” that “presupposes a constant revision of material expectations, a never-ending redefinition of luxuries as necessities, continual incorporation of new groups into the culture of consumption, and ultimately the creation of a global market that embraces populations formerly excluded from reasonable expectation of affluence.” In short, the cult of progress maintains its optimism on the basis of the limitless expansion of desire. Over against this, the populism of the petty bourgeoisie recognizes the importance of natural limits to human freedom. Such limits lead to more modest assessments of what politics can and cannot do. At the same time, populism fosters hope that trusts life in the face of tragedy, which requires, I might add, a transcendent ground. That kind of hope is what we need now more than ever.
Dale M. Coulter is associate professor of historical theology at Regent University.