The truth about American politics is this: disguised by the theatrics of squabbling Democrats and Republicans, Washington governs according to limits prescribed by a fixed and narrow consensus. The two main parties collaborate in preserving that consensus. Doing so requires declaring out-of-bounds anything even remotely resembling a fundamental critique of how power gets exercised or wealth distributed. Populism poses a challenge to that consensus—hence, the hostility with which it is treated by those purporting to express respectable opinion.
Only knaves and fools will look to Washington to devise solutions to the problems afflicting American society today. Indeed, further deference to established centers of power, on issues domestic or foreign, will surely perpetuate and even exacerbate those problems.
So the times call for a searching reassessment of the American condition. Neither left nor right—especially in the adulterated form found in the actually existing Democratic and Republican parties—possesses the capacity to render such an assessment. To reconsider first principles requires an altogether different vantage point, firmly grounded in the American experience yet offering something other than the recitation of clichés and posturing in front of cameras.
Which is where Christopher Lasch comes in. More:
Begin with the issue of progress itself. Conservatives and liberals pretend to differ on how to define it and on how best to achieve it. Yet both camps subscribe to this common baseline: the progress they promote is quantitative. It entails amassing more: choice, abundance, access, autonomy, and clout.
So defined, progress incrementally enhances American life, making it more democratic and enabling Americans in ever greater numbers to exercise freedom. Lasch rejected this proposition. Progress, he believed, was converting America into a spiritual wasteland. “The question for serious historians,” he wrote in 1975, “is not whether progress exacts a price but whether the history of modern society can be considered progress in the first place.” His own answer to that question was a resounding “No.”
Where others saw progress, Lasch saw destruction. His own interpretation of the nation’s past, according to Miller, “was centered not on grand, heroic movement from authoritarian control to freedom, as most Americans supposed, but rather on the shift from one form of overweening social control to another.” A nefarious collaboration between market and state was transforming citizens into consumers, while intruding into the most intimate spheres of human existence. Rootlessness and chronic anxiety increasingly defined everyday American life, and individuals sought to fill the resulting void through compulsive efforts to satisfy unappeasable appetites. The marketplace proffered an array of solutions, usually chemical or technological, to “age-old discontents” such as “loneliness, sickness, weariness, [and] lack of sexual satisfaction.” Others pursued a different route of escape, attaching themselves, however tenuously or even vicariously, “to those who radiate celebrity, power, and charisma.”
Seeking relief, ordinary Americans instead purchased dependence. The “modern obsession with personal liberation” was, in Lasch’s view, “itself a symptom of pervasive spiritual disorder.”
began to articulate an altogether different vision of progress or freedom, one “rooted not in personal liberation but in the dignity of privacy, kinship ties, moral order, and civic duty.” He sought to restore “joy in work, stable connections, family life, a sense of place, and a sense of historical continuity.”