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Democracy Unlimited BY TODD BASCH THE REVOLT OF THE ELITES AND THE BETRAYAL OF DEMOCRACY. By Christopher Lasch. 260 pp. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. $22. “The strenuous type of character will on the battle field of human history always outwear the easy-going type, and religion will drive irreligion to the wall.” William James CHRISTOPHER LASCH, AUTHOR of the 1978 bestseller, The Culture of Narcissism, died of cancer just over one year ago, two months after completing The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. His final bookhe wrote nine and edited one morewas put together under the great duress of an increasingly debilitating illness. He completed his task with fortitude and moral courage. How fitting. These characteristics are critical to democracy, and it was democracy that Lasch remained devoted to throughout his 35-year career as a passionate critic of American life. Lasch took democracy seriously, demanding that its caretakers constantly strive to live up to its ideals. Those ideals, he says in The Revolt of the Elites, are in trouble. The trouble comes, in part, from the myth that upward mobility is the measure of democracy. It is not. Lasch argues that the ideology of mobility and meritocracy is a relatively recent arrival on the democratic scene. The term “social mobility” appeared in the 1890s and did not come into common usage until the Depression of the 1930s, when the United States became more class-conscious and “money-mad.” Faith in social and economic mobility is the faith of the elite and part of an ideology of meritocracy that reflects their high status and peripatetic lifestyles. The elites “whose livelihoods rest not so much on the ownership of property as on the manipulation of information and professional expertise,” and “who control the international flow of money and information, preside over philanthropic foundations and institutions of higher learning, manage the instruments of cultural production and thus set the terms , of public debate”consider democracy an equal-opportunity employer Todd Basch, a former student of Christopher Lasch, is working on a doctoral dissertation in Austin. Christopher Lasch KEN HAWKENS that supports their privileged position on the basis of supposedly superior talent. The elites have risen, meritocratic thinking goes, by taking advantage of opportunity available to all, or, at least, almost all; so no fair complaints can be levelled against the powers that be. By holding out the possibility for the disadvantaged to rise from their station, the ruling elite provide themselves the patina of democracy. But regardless of its mythic associations with democracy, the ideology of mobility sustains class stratification and the concentration of power. Showing his characteristic inclination to aim leftist criticism at the left, Lasch singles out affirmative action. Despite all its associations with the democratic aspirations of liberals and the left, affirmative action is part of the meritocratic ideology that strengthens the top of society while weakening the bottom. Affirmative action plucks a few prospects from the lower ranks and invites them to join the upper’, shoring up the top of an increasingly two-class society while leaving those at the bottom to fend for themselveshardly a democratic process. The ongoing division of the United States, and of the entire global community for that matter, into two classes, at the expense of the middle classthe losers caught in the backwash of NAFTA and GATTis a fundamental threat to democracy. Showing the colors of his Midwestern, progressive background, and an interest in socialism that lasted until the ’70s, Lasch argues that huge disparities in wealth are “morally repugnant,” and insists that limits be imposed on income of the well offto lessen class disparities. Upward mobility enables the selective improvement of the less-well-off without considering the possibility of raising the general level of “intelligence and competence,” a genuinely democratic ideal that would extend the full benefits of democracy to all. AS THREATENING TO democracy as disparities in wealth are, a more profound threat derives from the loss of “public intelligence.” The public intelligence Lasch refers to is the wisdom and skills acquired by participating in a contentious sphere of genuine public life. The betrayal of the elites has left little public space in which to cultivate that intelligence. The functionaries of the global market have few local loyalties and little reason to concern themselves with American cities, whose neighborhoods are the best possible locations for education in democracy. The power players commute between the financial centers of Los Angeles and Tokyo, or Dallas and Mexico City, as if they were stops on the Internet, and with about as much concern. Old Money, the established elites of the 19th century, might have held the masses in low esteem, but they were loyal, at least, to their own families and cities of residence and therefore had a sense of reciprocity between themselves and those less-well-off. The new elites have no sense of obligation to those beneath them; the ethic of meritocracy actively discourages any such sense. The separation of the elite the “knowledge class”from everyone else, and the abandonment of urban America, hinders, or prevents, the masses from engaging in public debate. Yet democracy must “encourage argument” and not just “circulate information.” In our society there is a superabundance of information coming from ever-proliferating technologies, but political participation and knowledge of public affairs continue to decline. The information age, despite claims \(by Newt Gingrich for vistas, has only served to “widen the gap between the knowledge class and the rest of the population,” effectively reducing intelligence and competence. The double threat to democracydisparities in wealth and the impoverishment of public lifethat Lasch illustrates reflects his unconventional mix of political positions. He advocated social conservatism and economic radicalism, combining a critique of the welfare state with a socialist-rooted critique of wealth. Like many 16 APRIL 7, 1995