How did America get into this mess? The usual explanation in the mainstream media is that bad guys did it, just like in the movies. The designated evil doers vary, oddly enough, with the political affiliation of the writer.
- Bad guys from the Left, usually associated with the Democratic Party.
- Bad guys from the Right, usually associated with the Republican Party.
Like most movie plots these days, this script is written for children — our ruling elites (whether in Washington of Hollywood) accurately assessing their audience. But there are alternative ways to see the situation.
Today’s reading is an excerpt from Democracy at Bay, chapter one in The Wish for Kings, Lewis Lapham (1993). Links at the end of the post provide additional information about this theme.
The victories of the Second World War promoted the belief among the American ruling classes that they had been armed with the mandate of heaven. Twice during the first half of the 20th century, the European powers had all but annihilated themselves, and in 1945 what was left of Western civilization seemed to have passed into the American account. Japan was in ruins, and so was Germany; China was in the midst of civil war; France had disintegrated, both as a nation and as the embodiment of an idea; and the British were so exhausted with the effort of imperial ambition that they voted Churchill out of office within 2 months of the German surrender.
If in 1941 the American presence outside the Western hemisphere considted only of a few islands in the Pacific, by 1945 the US bestrode the narrow world like a colossus, presiding over an arc of territories and client states that extended from the Bismark Archipelago to the North Sea. Largely by invitation and default, the Americans had acquired the semblance of empire, and the new proconsuls, most of whom had expected to become Wall Street lawyers or bonds salesmen, found it easy enough to imagine that they were heirs not only of the Greed and Christian past but also of the earth and all its creation.
Within a decade the presumptions of entitlement had become as commonplace among the sons of immigrant peddlers as among the daughters of the haute bourgeoisie, among the intellectuals as among the merchant classes. The feeling of amplitude was sustained by the miracle of the reawakened consumer markets, and the habits of extravagance, once plausible only in the children of the rich, were embraced by people eager to believe that the nation’s military prowess was a proof of its virtue and grace.
In the name of making the world safe for democracy, the US revised its own democratic traditions and constitutional principles. By presidential fiat and Defense Department decree, the newly appointed guarantors fo the world’s peace suppressed the turbulent and newly un-American habits of free speech. The evil presence of the Soviet menace justified the proliferation of an always larger ruling class and the demand for always larger sums of money, and for 40 years the patriotic hymn in Washington was scored for trumpets and muffled drums — more weapons, more power, more secrecy, more marble, more wiretaps, more grandeur.
As the American government increasingly became a secret government, conducted behind closed doors in the presence of court favorites, a succession of American presidents took it into their heads to play at the great game of the cold war as if they were the progeny of Bismark or the Duke of Wellington. The loud and raucous task of democratic government gave way to the more decorous notion of attending stately summit conference, ordering covert operations, and moving flags on maps.
Troubled officials sometimes referred to what they called “the paradox” implicit in the waging of secret war under the covenants of a free, open, and democratic society. Their embarrassment didn’t prevent the gradual substitution of palace intrigue for candid debate and the preference, at least in official circles, for the virtue of loyalty as opposed to the spirit of liberty. The government learned to define freedom as freedom for the state, not for the citizen. The national interest became the parochial interest of the ruling class, not the multifarious interests of the individuals subsumed under the rubric of “the American people.”
The question was one of how a government by the judicious few could best control and improve the instincts of the foolish many.
Please share your comments by posting below. Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post. Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).
For information about this site see the About page, at the top of the right-side menu bar.
For more information from the FM site
To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar. Of esp interest are:
Other posts with excerpts from Lewis Lapham:
- “Elegy for a rubber stamp”, by Lewis Lapham, 26 August 2008
- Obama’s cabinet are the best and brightest (here we go, again), 20 February 2009
- Observations about America by Lewis Lapham, 8 March 2009
- A note on the green religion, one of the growth industries in America, 17 March 2009
- Are Americans still willing to bear the burden of self-government?, 27 March 2009
- The magic of the mainstream media changes even the plainest words into face powder, 24 April 2009
Posts on the FM site about American politics:
The USA *after* this financial crisis – part I, about politics, 13 October 2008
What happens to the Republican Party after the election?, 2 November 2008
America’s elites reluctantly impose a client-patron system, 5 November 2008
Immigration as a reverse election: our leaders get a new people, 6 November 2008
R.I.P., G.O.P. – a well-deserved end, 7 November 2008
America gets ready for new leadership (or is it back to the future?), 14 November 2008
Lilliput or America – who has a better way to choose its leaders?, 19 November 2008
Conservatives should look back before attempting to move forward, 5 December 2008
The Democrats believe we are stupid. Are they correct?, 19 December 2008
President Bush gets in a few last blows on America before he leaves, 13 January 2009