A Skeptic and a Democrat

A Skeptic and a Democrat

Hope in a Scattering Time:
A Life of Christopher Lasch

by Eric Miller
Eerdmans, 2010, 394 pp. $32

IN 1994, Christopher Lasch died at the age of sixty-one, an inestimable loss to all those interested in American politics and culture. The same year an even more calamitous loss occurred: the death—or at least a critical stage in the decline—of New Deal liberalism. The newly elected Republican Congress commenced, with ferocious energy and thoroughness, to dismantle or undermine the institutions that had produced, in the decades following the Second World War, the appearance of a permanent liberal ascendancy. From 1994 through 2008, the “wrecking crew” (Thomas Frank’s apt phrase) and the army of corporate lobbyists it invited into government at all levels accomplished a work of sustained demolition, with feeble and intermittent opposition (and sometimes enthusiastic assistance) from Democrats.

The waning of welfare-state liberalism has reduced the immediacy of Lasch’s critique, which was directed principally at the mid-twentieth-century liberal consensus. The liberal complacency against which Lasch continually warned has been replaced by liberal demoralization; the optimistic expectations of unlimited progress he deprecated have given way to anxieties about governmental stasis, economic collapse, and environmental catastrophe. No doubt most epochs seem like emergencies to their beleaguered contemporaries. But compared with the decades in which Lasch wrote, the ugliness of American politics in the early twenty-first century seems almost to justify a neglect of long-term perspectives and wide-ranging theories.

Almost but of course not quite. We may not need Lasch’s historical erudition or analytical subtlety to recognize the worst of the present dangers: the corruption of Congress by a flood of money from corporate and ultra-rich donors; the colossal squandering of resources on “defense” spending in all its varieties; the fanatical obstructionism of the Republican Party. But even if our current plutocracy is not succeeded by a restored New Deal liberalism, it will be succeeded by something. The degradation of American politics will eventually bottom out, and reconstruction will begin. Americans then will need to understand the weaknesses of the society that preceded the debacle, and of its prevailing self-justifications. To these weaknesses Lasch was an incomparable guide. Eric Miller’s fine intellectual biography will help keep Lasch’s thought available as a resource against that (one hopes not too distant) day.

About Lasch’s life, Miller is discreet. There is little about Lasch’s wife and children, though a great deal about his warm lifelong relationship with his parents. Robert and Zora Lasch were Midwestern populists and religious skeptics, he a journalist, she a philosopher turned social worker. Their steady encouragement was important to their son, and Miller quote...