In Defense of Elitism, by William A. Henry III, New York: Doubleday, 212 pages, $20.00
The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, by Christopher Lasch, New York: W.W. Norton, 276 pages, $22.00
The United States, a nation founded by a self-conscious elite, is the most anti-elitist of nations. This is one of the paradoxes that has made the nation thrive. Elitism, however defined, is of course coextensive with all political and social life. The classical understanding of the hierarchy of human excellence, as most notably illuminated in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, is what made political life and progress possible.
But the very reference to the classical origins of the idea of human excellence, with its obvious implication of a division between superior and inferior, brings to mind one of the variations on elitism that has long been a pejorative: aristocracy. The common modern meaning of aristocracy suggests the institutionalized elitism of heredity or wealth that tends over time to corrupt both politics and creativity. It is the great innovation of liberal democracy to replace aristocracy with meritocracy; recall Thomas Jefferson's famous correspondence with John Adams about why the United States could dispense with an artificial aristocracy (which Adams desired to have) in favor of a "natural aristocracy" of excellence and virtue.
The flaw of democracy, as Tocqueville (an elitist par excellence) foresaw 150 years ago, is that the idea of equal rights--the central premise of democracy--would dissolve over time into an extreme, levelling egalitarianism. "The ills produced by extreme equality," Tocqueville warned, "only become apparent little by little; they gradually insinuate themselves into the body social." Liberty requires effort and sacrifice, while "equality offers its pleasures free." Neither gentle reason nor ferocious remonstrance seems to dissuade someone who has fallen under the egalitarian spell. "It is no use telling them that by this blind surrender to an exclusive passion they are compromising their dearest interests," Tocqueville warned. "They are deaf."
This background is useful in evaluating these two recent offerings on the subject of elites and elitism, which might seem to represent examples of authors miraculously cured of egalitarian deafness. Both William Henry, a senior writer and drama critic for Time magazine, and Christopher Lasch, a sociologist, have fashionably "liberal" credentials. Henry's plaintive passage boasting of being a Jesse Helms-hating "registered Democrat" and a card-carrying member of the ACLU brings to mind Phil Ochs's parodic tune, "Love Me I'm a Liberal." Lasch's 1978 book, The Culture of Narcissism, was rumored to be Jimmy Carter's favorite book and the inspiration for his notorious "malaise" speech.
Both Henry and Lasch offer up attacks on egalitarianism that sound like something from the pen of the young William F. Buckley Jr. Henry's book, clearly the better of the two, assails "quixotic liberals," "liberal tolerance gone haywire," and agrees that "we have taken the legal notion that all men are created equal to its illogical extreme." He begins and ends his book by announcing that his central theme is that "the wrong side (egalitarianism) has been winning." Lasch is less explicit about egalitarianism, but nonetheless offers that the "cultural diversity" movement (whose motive force is egalitarianism) is "clearly a recipe for universal incompetence."
The best parts of both books could be taken as clear signs that at least among a few honest-minded figures aligned on the left there is growing recognition of the foolishness of egalitarianism, and perhaps a new appreciation for liberty. Henry's book especially offers up many aphoristic attacks on egalitarianism that could have come from a radio talk show host. In some places, Henry throws down the gauntlet with in-your-face prose that is clearly intended to provoke more than persuade. The most widely quoted sentence in the book comes in a passage attacking the egalitarian premises of cultural diversity, where he bluntly notes, "It is scarcely the same thing to put a man on the moon as to put a bone in your nose."
Henry argues that were we truly consistent, "Native Americans" would have to be called "Siberian Americans." He refers to the disabled-rights movement as "crippo liberation." He attacks the central rhetorical message of Democratic Party, Clinton-style politics, as the insinuation that "the gains of the rich are somehow ill-gotten" and behaving "as though all of one's salary belonged to the government in the first place, and it is only Uncle Sam's beneficence that determines how much one should keep." Most significantly, Henry concludes, "The missing element in every phase of American life, from education to culture to the thicket of identity politics, is what used to be called rugged individualism."
Lasch's book is more of a thematic muddle, just like most of his previous books, which political scientist Stephen Holmes once described as "glum mood pieces." But even allowing for the usual quotient of silly postulates the readers have come to expect from Lasch, there are still many arguments in his book to celebrate. Like Henry, Lasch deplores the aggrandizement of "self esteem," sanitized speech, and the "caring class" that feeds off these therapeutic nostrums. He laments the abolition of shame. He attacks Robert Reich, comparing his brand of interventionist, managerial economics with the mismanagement of the Vietnam War by Robert McNamara's "whiz kids." He criticizes at length the legacy of Horace Mann, blaming this usually revered figure for setting public education on direct course toward the blandness and mediocrity that afflicts it today. Public education, Lasch argues, "has never recovered from the mistakes and misconceptions built into it at the very outset."
The strongest common point of both books is their recognition that preserving racial grievances has become the vital necessity of egalitarianism and the multicultural movement, regardless of whatever real racism there is in society. Henry criticizes the "addictive attachment to past grievances," while Lasch argues that "the thinking classes'...eagerness to drag every conversation back to race is enough in itself to invite the suspicion that their investment in this issue exceeds anything that is justified by the actual state of race relations." Henry and Lasch recognize that the political utility of race baiting by the left, and the policies it justifies, are now causing rather than curing racial divisions.
But while there is much to appreciate in In Defense of Elitism and The Revolt of the Elites, both books are a bit like the cliché about Chinese food: filling but not really satisfying. In the case of Lasch, this criticism is easy to make out, because of his soft-collectivist communitarianism. For every worthy aphorism, there is a blooper that gives away the game.
Luxury is morally repellent, Lasch argues at one point, and incompatible with democracy. There is some of the old nonsense about the "third way" between open markets and the welfare state that died a much-deserved death in the 1980s. He also waxes romantic about populism, suggesting vaguely that populism could be a noble and uplifting basis on which to renew American political life. But he does not offer any reflections on the usual face of populism, which might be summarized in two words: Ross Perot. Populism is occasionally justly aimed--as in the case of the tax revolt--but more often, as the case of Perot shows, populism is simply the fancy dress name for demagoguery.
At the heart of Lasch's argument about the "revolt" of our elites is the idea that elitism in a democracy is only acceptable if the elites are conscious doers of good works. John Rawls receives only a single mention in the book, but the spirit of his famous argument is pervasive throughout the book: People may cultivate superior talents only if they can be proved to benefit the disadvantaged parts of society.
While it may be reasonable to speak of "reciprocal obligations" as a voluntary matter, an individual ethic that is praiseworthy on its own terms, you get the uneasy feeling reading the communitarian followers of Lasch that they would not hesitate, if they had the power, to try to institutionalize their vision of noblesse oblige.