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Feast of Fools: How American democracy became the property of a commercial oligarchy

[A longer version of this essay appears in "Politics," the Fall 2012 issue of Lapham's Quarterly; this slightly shortened version is posted at TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of that magazine.]

All power corrupts but some must govern. -- John le Carré

The ritual performance of the legend of democracy in the autumn of 2012 promises the conspicuous consumption of $5.8 billion, enough money, thank God, to prove that our flag is still there. Forbidden the use of words apt to depress a Q Score or disturb a Gallup poll, the candidates stand as product placements meant to be seen instead of heard, their quality to be inferred from the cost of their manufacture. The sponsors of the event, generous to a fault but careful to remain anonymous, dress it up with the bursting in air of star-spangled photo ops, abundant assortments of multiflavored sound bites, and the candidates so well-contrived that they can be played for jokes, presented as game-show contestants, or posed as noble knights-at-arms setting forth on vision quests, enduring the trials by klieg light, until on election night they come to judgment before the throne of cameras by whom and for whom they were produced.

Best of all, at least from the point of view of the commercial oligarchy paying for both the politicians and the press coverage, the issue is never about the why of who owes what to whom, only about the how much and when, or if, the check is in the mail. No loose talk about what is meant by the word democracy or in what ways it refers to the cherished hope of liberty embodied in the history of a courageous people.

The campaigns don’t favor the voters with the gratitude and respect owed to their standing as valuable citizens participant in the making of such a thing as a common good. They stay on message with their parsing of democracy as the ancient Greek name for the American Express card, picturing the great, good American place as a Florida resort hotel wherein all present receive the privileges and comforts owed to their status as valued customers, invited to convert the practice of citizenship into the art of shopping, to select wisely from the campaign advertisements, texting A for Yes, B for No.

The sales pitch bends down to the electorate as if to a crowd of restless children, deems the body politic incapable of generous impulse, selfless motive, or creative thought, delivers the insult with a headwaiter’s condescending smile. How then expect the people to trust a government that invests no trust in them? Why the surprise that over the last 30 years the voting public has been giving ever-louder voice to its contempt for any and all politicians, no matter what their color, creed, prior arrest record, or sexual affiliation? The congressional disapproval rating (78% earlier this year) correlates with the estimates of low attendance among young voters (down 20% from 2008) at the November polls.

Democracy as an ATM

If democracy means anything at all (if it isn’t what the late Gore Vidal called “the national nonsense-word”), it is the holding of one’s fellow citizens in thoughtful regard, not because they are beautiful or rich or famous, but because they are one’s fellow citizens. Republican democracy is a shared work of the imagination among people of myriad talents, interests, voices, and generations that proceeds on the premise that the labor never ends, entails a ceaseless making and remaking of its laws and customs, i.e., a sentient organism as opposed to an ATM, the government an us, not a them.

Contrary to the contemporary view of politics as a rat’s nest of paltry swindling, Niccolò Machiavelli, the fifteenth-century courtier and political theorist, rates it as the most worthy of human endeavors when supported by a citizenry possessed of the will to act rather than the wish to be cared for. Without the “affection of peoples for self-government…cities have never increased either in dominion or wealth.”

Thomas Paine in the opening chapter of Common Sense finds “the strength of government and the happiness of the governed” in the freedom of the common people to “mutually and naturally support each other.” He envisions a bringing together of representatives from every quarter of society -- carpenters and shipwrights as well as lawyers and saloonkeepers -- and his thinking about the mongrel splendors of democracy echoes that of Plato in The Republic: “Like a coat embroidered with every kind of ornament, this city, embroidered with every kind of character, would seem to be the most beautiful.”

Published in January 1776, Paine’s pamphlet ran through printings of 500,000 copies in a few months and served as the founding document of the American Revolution, its line of reasoning implicit in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. The wealthy and well-educated gentlemen who gathered 11 years later in Philadelphia to frame the Constitution shared Paine’s distrust of monarchy but not his faith in the abilities of the common people, whom they were inclined to look upon as the clear and present danger seen by the delegate Gouverneur Morris as an ignorant rabble and a “riotous mob.”

From Aristotle the founders borrowed the theorem that all government, no matter what its name or form, incorporates the means by which the privileged few arrange the distribution of law and property for the less-fortunate many. Recognizing in themselves the sort of people to whom James Madison assigned “the most wisdom to discern, and the most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society,” they undertook to draft a constitution that employed an aristocratic means to achieve a democratic end.

Accepting of the fact that whereas a democratic society puts a premium on equality, a capitalist economy does not, the contrivance was designed to nurture both the private and the public good, accommodate the motions of the heart as well as the movement of the market, the institutions of government meant to support the liberties of the people, not the ambitions of the state. By combining the elements of an organism with those of a mechanism, the Constitution offered as warranty for the meeting of its objectives the character of the men charged with its conduct and deportment, i.e., the enlightened tinkering of what both Jefferson and Hamilton conceived as a class of patrician landlords presumably relieved of the necessity to cheat and steal and lie.

Good intentions, like mother’s milk, are a perishable commodity. As wealth accumulates, men decay, and sooner or later an aristocracy that once might have aspired to an ideal of wisdom and virtue goes rancid in the sun, becomes an oligarchy distinguished by a character that Aristotle likened to that of “the prosperous fool” -- its members so besotted by their faith in money that “they therefore imagine there is nothing that it cannot buy.”

Postponing the Feast of Fools

The making of America’s politics over the last 236 years can be said to consist of the attempt to ward off, or at least postpone, the feast of fools. Some historians note that what the framers of the Constitution hoped to establish in 1787 (“a republic,” according to Benjamin Franklin, “if you can keep it”) didn’t survive the War of 1812.  Others suggest that the republic was gutted by the spoils system introduced by Andrew Jackson in the 1830s.  None of the informed sources doubt that it perished during the prolonged heyday of the late-nineteenth-century Gilded Age.

Mark Twain coined the phrase to represent his further observation that a society consisting of the sum of its vanity and greed is not a society at all but a state of war. In the event that anybody missed Twain’s meaning, President Grover Cleveland in 1887 set forth the rules of engagement while explaining his veto of a bill offering financial aid to the poor: “The lesson should be constantly enforced that, though the people support the government, the government should not support the people.”

Twenty years later, Arthur T. Hadley, the president of Yale, provided an academic gloss: “The fundamental division of powers in the Constitution of the United States is between voters on the one hand and property owners on the other. The forces of democracy on the one side... and the forces of property on the other side.” 

In the years between the Civil War and the Great Depression, the forces of democracy pushed forward civil-service reform in the 1880s, the populist rising in the 1890s, the progressive movement in the 1910s, President Teddy Roosevelt’s preservation of the nation’s wilderness and his harassment of the Wall Street trusts -- but it was the stock-market collapse in 1929 that equipped the strength of the country’s democratic convictions with the power of the law. What Paine had meant by the community of common interest found voice and form in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, in the fighting of World War II by a citizen army willing and able to perform what Machiavelli would have recognized as acts of public conscience.

During the middle years of the twentieth century, America at times showed itself deserving of what Albert Camus named as a place “where the single word liberty makes hearts beat faster,” the emotion present and accounted for in the passage of the Social Security Act, in the mounting of the anti-Vietnam War and civil rights movements, in the promise of LBJ’s Great Society. But that was long ago and in another country, and instead of making hearts beat faster, the word liberty in America’s currently reactionary scheme of things slows the pulse and chills the blood.

Ronald Reagan’s new Morning in America brought with it in the early 1980s the second coming of a gilded age more swinish than the first, and as the country continues to divide ever more obviously into a nation of the rich and a nation of the poor, the fictions of unity and democratic intent lose their capacity to command belief. If by the time Bill Clinton had settled comfortably into the White House it was no longer possible to pretend that everybody was as equal as everybody else, it was clear that all things bright and beautiful were to be associated with the word private, terminal squalor and toxic waste with the word public.

The shaping of the will of Congress and the choosing of the American president has become a privilege reserved to the country’s equestrian classes, a.k.a. the 20% of the population that holds 93% of the wealth, the happy few who run the corporations and the banks, own and operate the news and entertainment media, compose the laws and govern the universities, control the philanthropic foundations, the policy institutes, the casinos, and the sports arenas. Their anxious and spendthrift company bears the mark of oligarchy ridden with the disease diagnosed by the ancient Greeks as pleonexia, the appetite for more of everything -- more McMansions, more defense contracts, more beachfront, more tax subsidy, more prosperous fools. Aristotle mentions a faction of especially reactionary oligarchs in ancient Athens who took a vow of selfishness not unlike the anti-tax pledge administered by Grover Norquist to Republican stalwarts in modern Washington: “I will be an enemy to the people and will devise all the harm against them which I can.”

A Government That Sets Itself Above the Law

The hostile intent has been conscientiously sustained over the last 30 years, no matter which party is in control of Congress or the White House, and no matter what the issue immediately at hand -- the environment or the debt, defense spending or campaign-finance reform. The concentrations of wealth and power express their fear and suspicion of the American people with a concerted effort to restrict their liberties, letting fall into disrepair nearly all of the infrastructure -- roads, water systems, schools, power plants, bridges, hospitals -- that provides the country with the foundation of its common enterprise.

The domestic legislative measures accord with the formulation of a national-security state backed by the guarantee of never-ending foreign war that arms the government with police powers more repressive than those available to the agents of the eighteenth-century British crown. The Justice Department reserves the right to tap anybody’s phone, open anybody’s mail, decide who is, and who is not, an un-American. The various government security agencies now publish 50,000 intelligence reports a year, monitoring the world’s Web traffic and sifting the footage from surveillance cameras as numerous as the stars in the Milky Way. President Barack Obama elaborates President George W. Bush’s notions of preemptive strike by claiming the further privilege to order the killing of any American citizen overseas who is believed to be a terrorist or a friend of terrorists, to act the part of jury, judge, and executioner whenever and however it suits his exalted fancy.

Troubled op-ed columnists sometimes refer to the embarrassing paradox implicit in the waging of secret and undeclared war under the banners of a free, open, and democratic society. They don’t proceed to the further observation that the nation’s foreign policy is cut from the same criminal cloth as its domestic economic policy. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the predatory business dealing that engendered the Wall Street collapse in 2008 both enjoyed the full faith and backing of a government that sets itself above the law.

The upper servants of the oligarchy, among them most of the members of Congress and the majority of the news media’s talking heads, receive their economic freedoms by way of compensation for the loss of their political liberties. The right to freely purchase in exchange for the right to freely speak. If they wish to hold a public office or command attention as upholders of the truth, they can’t afford to fool around with any new, possibly subversive ideas.

Paine had in mind a representative assembly that asked as many questions as possible from as many different sorts of people as possible. The ensuing debate was expected to be loud, forthright, and informative. James Fenimore Cooper seconded the motion in 1838, arguing that the strength of the American democracy rests on the capacity of its citizens to speak and think without cant. “By candor we are not to understand trifling and uncalled-for expositions of truth… but a sentiment that proves the conviction of the necessity of speaking truth, when speaking at all; a contempt for all designing evasions of our real opinions. In all the general concerns, the public has a right to be treated with candor. Without this manly and truly republican quality... the institutions are converted into a stupendous fraud.”

Oligarchy prefers trifling evasions to real opinions. The preference accounts for the current absence of honest or intelligible debate on Capitol Hill. The members of Congress embody the characteristics of only one turn of mind -- that of the obliging publicist. They leave it to staff assistants to write the legislation and the speeches, spend 50% of their time soliciting campaign funds. When standing in a hotel ballroom or when seated in a television studio, it is the duty of the tribunes of the people to insist that the drug traffic be stopped, the budget balanced, the schools improved, paradise regained. Off camera, they bootleg the distribution of the nation’s wealth to the gentry at whose feet they dance for coins.

A Media Enabling and Codependent

As with the Congress, so also with the major news media that serve at the pleasure of a commercial oligarchy that pays them, and pays them handsomely, for their pretense of speaking truth to power. On network television, the giving voice to what Cooper would have regarded as real opinions doesn’t set up a tasteful lead-in to the advertisements for Pantene Pro-V or the U.S. Marine Corps. The prominent figures in our contemporary Washington press corps regard themselves as government functionaries, enabling and codependent. Their point of view is that of the country’s landlords, their practice equivalent to what is known among Wall Street stock market touts as “securitizing the junk.”

The time allowed on Face the Nation or Meet the Press facilitates the transmission of sound-bite spin and the swallowing of welcome lies. Explain to us, my general, why the United States must continue the war in Afghanistan, and we will relay the message to the American people in words of two syllables. Instruct us, Mr. Chairman, in the reasons why the oil companies and the banks produce the paper that Congress doesn’t read but passes into law, and we will show the reasons to be sound. Do not be frightened by our pretending to be scornful or suspicious. Give us this day our daily bread, and we will hide your stupidity and greed in plain sight, in the rose bushes of inside-the-beltway gossip.

The cable-news networks meanwhile package dissent as tabloid entertainment, a commodity so clearly labeled as pasteurized ideology that it is rendered harmless and threatens nobody with the awful prospect of having to learn something they didn’t already know. Comedians on the order of Jon Stewart and Bill Maher respond with jokes offered as consolation prizes for the acceptance of things as they are and the loss of hope in things as they might become. As soporifics, not, God forbid, as incitements to revolution or the setting up of guillotines in Yankee Stadium and the Staples Center.

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney hold each other responsible for stirring up class warfare between the 1% and the 99%; each of them can be counted upon to mourn the passing of America’s once-upon-a-time egalitarian state of grace. They deliver the message to fund-raising dinners that charge up to $40,000 for the poached salmon, but the only thing worth noting in the ballroom or the hospitality tent is the absence among the invited bank accounts (prospective donor, showcase celebrity, attending journalist) of anybody intimately acquainted with -- seriously angry about, other than rhetorically interested in -- the fact of being poor.

When intended to draw blood instead of laughs, speaking truth to power doesn’t lead to a secure retirement on the beach at Martha’s Vineyard. Paine was the most famous political thinker of his day, his books in the late eighteenth century selling more copies than the Bible, but after the Americans had won their War of Independence, his notions of democracy were deemed unsuitable to the work of dividing up the spoils. The proprietors of their newfound estate claimed the privilege of apportioning its freedoms, and they remembered that Paine opposed the holding of slaves and the denial to women of the same sort of rights awarded to men. A man too much given to plain speaking, on too familiar terms with the lower orders of society, and therefore not to be trusted.

His opinions having become both suspect and irrelevant in Philadelphia, Paine sailed in 1787 for Europe, where he was soon charged with seditious treason in Britain (for publishing part two of The Rights of Man), imprisoned and sentenced to death in France (for his opposition to the execution of Louis XVI on the ground that it was an unprincipled act of murder). In 1794, Paine fell from grace as an American patriot as a consequence of his publishing The Age of Reason, the pamphlet in which he ridiculed the authority of an established church and remarked on “the unrelenting vindictiveness with which more than half the Bible is filled.” The American congregation found him guilty of the crime of blasphemy, and on his return to America in 1802, he was met at the dock in Baltimore with newspaper headlines damning him as a “loathsome reptile,” a “lying, drunken, brutal infidel.” When he died in poverty in 1809, he was buried, as unceremoniously as a dog in a ditch, in unhallowed ground on his farm in New Rochelle.

Paine’s misfortunes speak to the difference between politics as a passing around of handsome platitudes and politics as a sowing of the bitter seeds of social change. The speaking of truth to power when the doing so threatens to lend to words the force of deeds is as rare as it is brave. The signers of the Declaration of Independence accepted the prospect of being hanged in the event that America lost the war.

Our own contemporary political discourse lacks force and meaning because it is a commodity engineered, like baby formula and Broadway musicals, to dispose of any and all unwonted risk. The forces of property occupying both the government and the news media don’t rate politics as a serious enterprise, certainly not as one worth the trouble to suppress.

It is the wisdom of the age -- shared by Democrat and Republican, by forlorn idealist and anxious realist -- that money rules the world, transcends the boundaries of sovereign states, serves as the light unto the nations, and waters the tree of liberty. What need of statesmen, much less politicians, when it isn’t really necessary to know their names or remember what they say? The future is a product to be bought, not a fortune to be told.

Happily, at least for the moment, the society is rich enough to afford the staging of the fiction of democracy as a means of quieting the suspicions of a potentially riotous mob with the telling of a fairy tale. The rising cost of the production -- the pointless nominating conventions decorated with 15,000 journalists as backdrop for the 150,000 balloons -- reflects the ever-increasing rarity of the demonstrable fact. The country is being asked to vote in November for television commercials because only in the fanciful time zone of a television commercial can the American democracy still be said to exist.

Lewis H. Lapham is editor of Lapham’s Quarterly, and a TomDispatch regular. Formerly editor of Harper’s Magazine, he is the author of numerous books, including Money and Class in America, Theater of War, Gag Rule, and, most recently, Pretensions to Empire. The New York Times has likened him to H.L. Mencken; Vanity Fair has suggested a strong resemblance to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has compared him to Montaigne. This essay, shortened slightly for TomDispatch, introduces "Politics," the Fall 2012 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly.

Copyright 2012 Lewis Lapham

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