The Language of Democracy

The Language of Democracy

In Plain Style, Christopher Lasch showed that we can render even the most iconoclastic demands in common speech.

Christopher Lasch in a seminar room in the 1980s (University of Rochester)

Most remember Christopher Lasch as a cultural critic. His most popular books—The Culture of Narcissism (1979), The True and Only Heaven (1991), and The Revolt of the Elites (1995)—gave voice to a peculiarly American form of counter-enlightenment. Well-meaning professionals, with their therapeutic culture, false meritocracy, and discount brand of progress, displeased him. It is unsurprising that he continues to inspire so many groaning conservatives and disaffected anti-capitalists in our moment of partisan realignment. Those who chafe at the moralism of the professional-managerial class will find much to admire in Lasch-the-disparager.

Yet it is Lasch-the-pedagogue, author of the slim and rather unsung writing guide Plain Style (2002), who might speak most usefully to American radicals today. Plain speech and writing grounded Lasch’s theory of citizenship, representing an ethic of personal conduct in the public sphere as well as a standard against which to hold evasive elites to account. (Plain Style’s editor, Stewart Weaver, contrasted this style with the official “euphemism, jargon, evasion, and downright lying” surrounding the Vietnam War.) Despite its uncompromising and didactic tone, Plain Style remains a democratic text—and a guide for the deliberative cultivation of our political language.

 

Lasch’s 1990s disquisitions on language pulse with uncanny prescience. Writing in Harper’s in 1994, he complained of “a world in which words and images bear ever less resemblance to the things they appear to describe.” The proliferation of peculiar vocabularies, especially among an elite whose remoteness from the majority manifested in its language, came at the expense of a functional middle-class culture. He believed that community depends on shared understanding. The repudiation of plain (and universally intelligible) talk doubled, Lasch wrote in The Revolt of the Elites, as a “contempt for the general public.”

Today the very idea of a general public seems distant. A stalemate between competing idioms persists in its place; one can hardly imagine a common political language universally intelligible to all.

How did we get here? Although Lasch never witnessed the dawn of Facebook and Twitter, he anticipated the inundation of sarcasm and slang that would define those platforms. The mass adoption of social media desensitized users to semantic peculiarity, eccentricity, and insincerity in political argument. Everyday political talk rejects the language of universality in favor of the idioms of affinity. To call a candidate or policy based or cringe, pilled or normie—terms without a fixed meaning even for those who invoke them—is to situate oneself in a particular group against an ill-defined mainstream. While the plain sermon intends to persuade, social media algorithms reward the in-joke.

Yet one cannot blame new media entirely for the demise of the demotic. Lasch himself would probably locate the extinction of common political language in the transformation of the American university beginning in the 1960s. Responding to egalitarian concerns from students, professors and university administrators embraced a radically pluralistic approach to curricula—a development Lasch summed up as “cultural pluralism and the new paternalism.”

Rather than confront the inherent role of the university as a class-sorting mechanism (as well as an engine of the military-industrial complex), Lasch argued, educators settled on a pedagogical model that valued the individual and immediate experiences of students over general civic and literary instruction. In lieu of learning a shared curriculum, students earned course credits through activities that barely pushed them out of their individual comfort zones. For Lasch, this turn rendered the university “a diffuse, shapeless, and permissive institution that has absorbed the major currents of cultural modernism and reduced them to a watery blend, a mind-emptying ideology of cultural revolution, personal fulfilment, and creative alienation.” Secondary education was not immune from these trends. In high schools, Lasch lamented, electives on radio programming, genre fiction, and other eclectic topics distracted students from coursework that covered “the classics of world literature.” The equation of “high culture” with “elitism,” he wrote, left teachers with the role of warding off boredom rather than confronting ignorance.

Anti-intellectualism in the name of emancipation bothered Lasch to no end. By pandering to students, educational professionals hastened the commodification of American pedagogy, and with it the disunification of a once universal civic language. “The whole problem of American education comes down to this: in American society, almost everyone identifies intellectual excellence with elitism,” he warned in The Culture of Narcissism. “This attitude not only guarantees the monopolization of educational advantages by the few; it lowers the quality of elite education itself and threatens to bring about a reign of universal ignorance.”

At the same time, many academics in the emerging New Left (and later scholars influenced by postmodernism, as Plain Style’s editor Weaver notes) turned against the demotic as a matter of principle. In 1968 Perry Anderson, a lucid writer in his own right, argued in the pages of the New Left Review that a philosophical attachment to ordinary speech patterns (then dominant in British academia) threatened to “consecrate the banalities of everyday language” and thereby produce an “undifferentiated affidavit for the conceptual status quo.” That criticism, though it echoed widely throughout the political spectrum, nonetheless followed a Marxist logic: plain speaking played a superstructural role, and only by subverting it could one expose the inequities that lurked beneath. Such an approach to language ramified well beyond the walls of academic philosophy. Common sense, and more importantly common talk, could never produce radical consciousness.

Radicals’ long march through the institutions of higher education coincided with the rapid expansion of the public role of the university, as well as the ascension of a new conservatism within it. The skepticism inherent in the New Left’s approach to language left its mark on the knowledge workers (and bureaucrats) of the future; their language grew further and further apart from the speech of those without post-secondary education.

As Todd Gitlin famously wrote of his generation’s impact in 2003, “the much-mocked ‘political correctness’ of the next academic generations was a consolation prize. We lost—we squandered—the politics but won the textbooks.” Even this victory proved impermanent; successive generations of students and academics hashed out, updated, defended, and enforced the textbooks in the rarified context of elite universities. They strayed far from the collective, deliberative negotiation of political language for which Lasch hoped.

The pluralism-from-above that emerged from this process dovetailed neatly with the existing class structure of American society. Organs of power easily assimilated the language of inclusion into their vast arsenal of vague pronouncements. Words that once served radical ends for groups on the margins of political life shored up plutocratic institutions in search of legitimation. This dynamic remains the tragedy of political speech today.

When the very terms of public discussion grow fraught, Lasch writes in Revolt of the Elites, “debate becomes a lost art,” and “information, even though it may be readily available, makes no impression.” Public moralism takes on the quality of the mantra or prayer, whose truth derives from repetition. Without a universal public vocabulary, political beliefs turn into deference to those who wear the linguistic trappings of political authority.

 

Plain Style represented Lasch’s corrective to these problems of political speech. To write plainly (and read texts with the expectation of plainness) was to make information meaningful and persuasion possible.

In 1985, out of a sense of frustration with the quality of undergraduate writing, Lasch drew up a style guide to hand out to students. Although he hoped eventually to bring the text to press, the manuscript that became Plain Style receded into the heap of his many other papers and effects—only to reappear in 2002, eight years after his death, through Weaver’s efforts.

The surviving text embodies both a manual of style and, in Weaver’s words, a “political treatise.” Invectives against “governmental agencies” appear next to notes on tense and punctuation. As the editor observes, plain style is in fact a kind of “syntactical populism” that could “arouse the political indignation of ordinary people” against elites who would deceive them. One need not linger too long on the introduction, however; throughout the guide, Lasch warns the author against lavishing the reader with prefatory remarks. Do not waste time preempting the force of your own arguments, getting ahead of your own story, and doing your own PR at the outset of an essay. “What the reader wants to know,” Lasch intones, “is not what you plan to say but where you stand.”

In light of Plain Style’s pedagogical origins, these bursts of political argument position the reader as an aspiring social critic (as many of Lasch’s graduate students hoped to become)—that is, as a writer soon to enter the echelons of the elite, where one’s voice rises above the chorus of ordinary chatter. One might fault Lasch for introducing a paradox here: did plainness merely enable the educated to downplay their erudition and masquerade as ordinary folk? If he did dabble in elitism, though, it was in an accessible elitism or counter-elitism, a way to arm oneself against the manipulative words of others. Plainness represented a sort of virtue in which every person could partake.

Yet Plain Style doubles as a manual of surveillance for the watchful citizen. Even those with no intent to enter public discussion could make use of its contents. To demand clarity from those who speak, after all, was to engage in the most ruthless form of critique. If politicians did not shoulder the burden of plainness before the reporter or debater, they could nonetheless still feel it at the ballot box.

For Lasch, plain style meant jettisoning the “ostentatious display of erudition” and indulgent irony that swept postmodern academia in the 1980s. Yet Lasch reserved his most caustic remarks for the desiccated bureaucrat rather than the demagogue or academic theorist. He found abbreviations and acronyms suspicious. Initials, he thought,

tend either to lend suspect purposes a spurious air of importance and dignity or, as in the now almost mandatory resort to acronyms in naming organizations, agencies, and weapons systems . . . to make remote bureaucratic agencies or deadly systems of destruction seem folksy, cute, and accessible.

When every three-letter agency today boasts a DEI statement—itself now a common three-letter acronym—one can sympathize with his frustrations. Corporate slogans, regardless of the intentions of those who repeat them, often obscure rather than define liability.

Lasch believed that the passive voice constituted the most pernicious feature of bureaucratese. Sentences without agents were “inert, lifeless, and evasive,” and hindered our ability to “assign responsibility for an action.” As Weaver observes, the passive voice is an instrument of political abdication. It disguises sloppy political writing that fails to name friends and enemies or identify the specific perpetrators of historical injustice. Lenin famously said that politics inheres in a question: who, whom? The passive voice (as well as our contemporary overreliance on structural explanations for social wrongs) hides the answer.

Lasch’s orthodoxy could prove as unpliable as the protocol of the bureaucrat. Weaver’s introduction discusses Lasch’s resistance to word processors and television; the text itself even contains a legend for handwritten typographical notes that would utterly befuddle a contemporary undergraduate. Many of his stylistic concerns are now obsolete.

Even so, Plain Style has as much to say about reading, speaking, and listening as it does composition. Lasch thought that an ethic of plainness ought to inform how we receive and respond to political information. We learn to write well, Lasch thought, by “reading good prose, paying close attention to our own words, revising relentlessly, and recalling the connections between written and spoken language.” Lasch’s stylistic prescriptions could serve to reconstruct trust between political actors. Frank and honest talk can prove as loving as combative. To greet others as faithful listeners: that was plain style at work. Even those who believe in the idea of asymmetric polarization (in which the partisan divide demarcates the boundary between reason and irrationality itself) should take note: plainness is a precondition for effective coordination not only across the aisle but among one’s own camp. Obscurity impedes solidarity. Social movements (especially radical ones that shoulder a heavier burden of explanation) will only benefit from engaging with the public in demotic terms.

Lasch’s paranoid literary ethic offers an apt warning in our new era of artificial intelligence as well. When your employer, university, or military starts delegating public relations to a bot, Plain Style’s demands on the reader will hardly look so exacting. Lasch’s criteria might help us distinguish the generic and the predictable from the writing of a human with democratic aspirations.

 

My first encounter with Plain Style occurred in 2015. I knew nothing of Lasch or writing; I desired only to drop my premedical studies and major in history. When I enrolled in a class on “U.S. Intellectual History, 1865 to the Present” with Casey Blake (himself a student of Lasch’s), I was surprised to find that the first assessment would consist of a quiz on Plain Style. I was fortunate to absorb Lasch’s rigor as an undergraduate, before the tropes of contemporary academic writing impressed themselves upon me (another graduate student of Lasch’s, Chris Lehmann, recently shared a similar sentiment in conversation with Matt Sitman and Sam Adler-Bell on Know Your Enemy). His book made me pause before the march of new words (identity-markers like Latinx or BIPOC, as well as curious verbs like internalize, normalize, and problematize)—not in the sense that I rejected their meanings, but instead with the conviction that a simpler turn of phrase might have more elegantly captured what the new words conveyed.

There is a difference between jargon and innovation: Orwell’s “doublethink” was once, after all, a term of art. Lasch did not advocate for holding ourselves hostage. He genuflected neither to an imagined ordinary reader like some politician chasing the mythical median voter, nor to authorities among the literary elite. “Lasch had no particular quarrel with the colloquial evolution of words,” Weaver writes. This statement in fact undersells the importance of semantic transformation to Lasch. The mutation of our language on our own terms provided evidence of political capacity.

Our language should change with the times. The lesson of Plain Style lies not in the realm of preserving old ways of speaking, but rather in relentlessly discussing the significance of the linguistic reforms on offer. Plainness invites openness and contestation, not the prohibition of ordinary words by an enlightened few. Combatting alienation cannot simply mean replacing one set of forbidden words with others. The issue inheres in not only the content of the norms, but also their formation. Plain Style, in this view, reflects a democratic rather than conservative ethos—a faith in our ability to work towards and through a common language. We must proceed under the assumption that we can render even the most iconoclastic of demands in plain speech.


Max Ridge is a PhD candidate at Princeton University’s Politics Department. His dissertation reconstructs the political thought of G.D.H. Cole. He interned for Dissent in 2017.