“Lights, Camera, Democracy” by Lewis Lapham

Lewis Latpham is among the most trenchant observers of American society (see his Wikipedia entry for a bio).  This is an excerpt from “Lights, Camera, Democracy”, a chapter in his book Waiting for the Barbarians (1997).

These are observations from a dinner party on East 64th Street.  It was originally published in August5 1996.

To most of the 40-odd people in the room … the result of the November election was a matter of little consequence. Both candidates were as sound as J. P. Morgan or Ronald Reagan in their belief that money was good for the rich and bad for the poor, and what else was it important to know. Most everybody in the room was in the business of managing the world’s traffic in expensive images – rendered as Hollywood movies and programs of political reform as well as stock-market symbols and Italian silk – and because the traffic was international, they found themselves more at ease with their economic peers in Boston, or Tokyo, or Berlin, than with their poorer fellow citizens encountered, preferably at a safe distance, in the streets of Miami or Chicago.

Note:  this is the usual state in the west, as true today as in 1770 or 1907.

… But the guests also wished to think of themselves as patriots in stead of exiles; worried about their own degrees of separation from what was once a familiar plot, they were reluctant to concede that the American political system grants parallel sovereignty to both a permanent and a provisional government, and that it is always a mistake to let them be seen as different entities.

The permanent government, a secular oligarchy of which the company at dinner was representative, comprises the Fortune 500 companies and their attendant lobbyists, the big media and entertainment syndicates, the civil and military services, the large research universities and law firms. It is this government that hires the country’s politicians and sets the terms and conditions under which the country’s citizens can exercise their right – God-given but increasingly expensive – to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

… The provisional government is the spiritual democracy that comes and goes on the trend of political season and oversees the production of pageants. It exemplifies the nation’s moral aspirations, protects the citizenry from unworthy or unholy desires, and devotes itself to the mending of the American soul.

The tribunes of the people mount the hustlings to give voice to the as many of the nation’s conflicting ideas as can be recruited under the banners of freedom and fitted into the time allowed, ideas so at odds with one another that the American creed rests on the rock of contradiction – a self-righteously Christian country that supports the world’s largest markets for pornography and cocaine; a nation of prophets and real estate developers that defines the wilderness as both spiritual retreat and cash advance, the pacifist outcries against the evils of the weapons industry offset by the patriotic demand for an invincible army; a land of rugged individualists quick to seek the safety of decision by committee.

Positing a rule of laws instead of men, the provisional government must live within the cage of high-minded principle, addressing its remarks to the imaginary figure known as the informed citizen …

The genius of elected politicians consists in their ability to sustain the pretense that the two governments are one and the same while simultaneously the very different expectations of their temporal and spiritual constituencies. The effort calls for a sense of occasion. When standing in the well of the Senate or when seated in a TV studio opposite Tom Brokaw, it is the duty of the politicians to denounce sin and read from the American book of virtues, to insist that the drug traffic be stopped, Saddam Hussein punished, and the federal budget be brought in to balance.

Offstage and between appearances of C-SPAN, it is the duty of politicians to arrange, in the manner of bootleggers during Prohibition, steady supplies of subsidy and debt. Speaking to a national TV audience on a Wednesday night in the spring of 1995, Dole presented himself as a member of the provisional government and waxed indignant about the immorality of Hollywood films that exhort honest and upstanding citizens to misplace their children and abandon their wives. A few days later, reconstituted as a member of the permanent government at a fund-raising dinner in Las Vegas that provided $477,450 to his presidential campaign, Dole assured the owners of the city’s gambling casinos that he would scotch any misguided attempt on Capital Hill to pass a law limiting their profits.

As with the different forms of polite language, so also with the different rules of proper conduct. Acts deemed praiseworthy when performed by agents of the permanent government (staling trade secrets, rigging balance sheets, selling junk bonds) appear blasphemous or obscene when attempted *under the rubrics of foreign espionage and inventive fiscal policy) by the servants of the provisional government.

… By confessing to the monstrosity of their sexual appetites, movie stars add luster to their celebrity; Senator Bob Packwood tells his diary about his bungling search for love in a harem of staff assistants and finds himself expelled from Congress.

The quadrennial presidential election is the most solemn of the festivals staged by the provisional government, and the prolonged series of ceremonies … belong to the same order of events as the songs and dances performed at a Zuni corn harvest. The delegates gather to invest the next President of the United States with the magical prowess of a kachina doll, embodying the country’s ancestral truths and meant to be exhibited in hotel ballrooms and baseball parks.

Bustling with images salvaged from the costume trunks of American history, the amplified voices of conscience ascend the pulpits of liberty to proclaim their faith in nobody knows exactly what, but something that has to do with a noble spirit, a just society, and America the Beautiful. As always, the language is abstract, the speakers being careful to avoid overtly specific reference to campaign finance reform or the depletion of the Social Security Trust Fund (questions best left to the sounder judgment of the permanent government) and directing their passion to the telling of parables – about character, thrift, integrity, family values, individual initiative, points of light.

The intention is to make a loud and joyful noise in a cloud of balloons or march triumphantly out of the convention hall with one of the high school bands.

… The company at dinner had noticed that something was amiss in the engine room of freedom. … {I}t was increasingly difficult to bind together what was once the American polity with a common narrative. It was getting harder and harder to pump up the parade balloons with the willing suspensions of disbelief, which was why the news media was sending 15,000 correspondents of various magnitudes to the summer nominating convention, why the networks already had granted free time to both candidates in October, why the campaigning season never ends.

If the American Commonwealth was nowhere to be found among the strip malls between Boston and San Diego (a wilderness in which the squares of safe suburban lawns begin to seem as isolated from one another as the fortified stockades on the old Western frontier) maybe it could be simulated on TV – not only with the convention broadcasts and the pious commentary of David Brinkley but also in the exemplary displays of egalitarian good fellowship presented by Seinfeld and Murphy Brown.

Reminded of the media’s ceaseless advertisements for a democratic reality, I understood that the evening’s lament was also part of the necessary ritual. The guests might as well have been shaking cornstalks and beating feathered drums. As statements of fact, none of the points of complaint about the November election made any sense.

Few of the people present had any use for politicians who weren’t paltry, for the perfectly good reason that non-paltry politicians disturbed the status quo. Nor did they wish to engage in serious discussion of any issues that might seriously inhibit the sovereignty of money.

The country was being asked to vote for TV commercials because only in the happy far-off land of TV commercials could the American democracy still be seen to exist. But understood as ritual chant, the remarks at dinner sustained the nostalgic remembrance of time past. …


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To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest are:

Posts about solutions, ways to reform America:

  1. Diagnosing the Eagle, Chapter III – reclaiming the Constitution, 3 January 2008
  2. Obama might be the shaman that America needs, 17 July 2008
  3. Obama describes the first step to America’s renewal, 8 August 2008
  4. Let’s look at America in the mirror, the first step to reform, 14 August 2008  
  5. Fixing America: shall we choose elections, revolt, or passivity?, 16 August 2008
  6. Fixing American: taking responsibility is the first step, 17 August 2008
  7. Fixing America: the choices are elections, revolt, or passivity, 18 August 2008
  8. What happens next? Advice for the new President, part one., 17 October 2008
  9. What to do? Advice for the new President, part two., 18 October 2008
  10. How to stage effective protests in the 21st century, 21 April 2009

11 thoughts on ““Lights, Camera, Democracy” by Lewis Lapham”

  1. FM: Considering your faith that the American system of government can (will?) be salvaged by the common citizen, you choose the darndest people to quote at length.

    While I disagree with you on the likelihood of the common citizen coming to the Republic’s rescue, I find Lapham’s observations to be morbid and depressing even if they are accurate.
    Fabius Maximus replies: No matter how bad the circumstances, the path forward requires clear sight. Also, my motto is “never ask for the blindfold.”

  2. Just one more guy noting that we are nearing the cusp of a singularity. No one knows what is destined for us on the other side, or how much power we have to control the ride.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree. However, I use this in a different sense than the techological singularity first described by Vernor Vinge in “Marooned in Realtime” (1986). That I consider as likely as the second coming, at least in the 21st century.

  3. I’m sure I wouldn’t find and read Lapham w/o you, so thanks — very interesting.
    One thought, on the demonization of Sarah Palin, is that she obviously was NOT of the permanent gov’t:
    secular oligarchy … Fortune 500 companies … lobbyists, the big media and entertainment syndicates, the civil and military services, the large research universities and law firms. It is this government that hires the country’s politicians

    But also the cynical expectation of politician double talk, with respect to Obama, who seemed to of that class and therefore safe. Now it seems his “spread the wealth” policy is more real, in action, than expected.

    The bailout was and is, clearly, to save the above rich / power classes from their own folly — socializing the risks they took while they were cashing in on the risky pay outs of their bets.
    Fabius Maximus replies: The permanent government consists, in Lapham’s view, of rich individuals and their hired help — which consists of the senior people in the organizations he lists. They hire politicos, like Sarah Palin and Mr. and Mrs. Obama.

  4. From the general jist of the above quoted, will follow with a quote from Guy Debord’s book The Society of Spectacle.

    Chapter 1: The Culmination of Separation, #23

    The root of the spectacle is that oldest of all social specializations, the specialization of power. The spectacle plays the specialized role of speaking in the name of all the other activities. It is hierarchical society’s ambassador to itself, delivering its official messages at a court where no one else is allowed to speak. The most modern aspect of the spectacle is thus also the most archaic.

    Geat post! Can’t wait to see your next post!

  5. From the general jist of the above quoted, will follow with a quote from Debord’s Society of Spectacle


    The root of the spectacle is that oldest of all social specializations, the specialization of power. The spectacle plays the specialized role of speaking in the name of all the other activities. It is hierarchical society’s ambassador to itself, delivering its official messages at a court where no one else is allowed to speak. The most modern aspect of the spectacle is thus also the most archaic.

  6. Such Power of Elegant Word
    Goes somewhat beyond being absurd
    For the Murderous soul
    Served in elegant bowl
    Is a stinking and still steaming Turd!

  7. While there has always been some crossover, for example Washington being country gentleman, general, and politician, or Franklin being scientist, philosopher, and diplomat… it seems to me that two major historical developments, both inadequately coped with by the ‘free market,’ are extremely pertinent:

    The rise of corporations in the late 19th Century, creating both legal and technological mechanisms for peacetime concentrations of wealth by self-selecting individuals previously possible only for soverigns by violence

    The rise of electronic media after WWII, which allowed those with wealth to engage in essentially incessant propaganda and self-promotion

    The result is what we have now, which is a culture of image and delusion, where celebrity is transferable, almost arbitrarily, across traditional boundaries that used to separate business, entertainment, sports, politics, and the academy.

    The obvious solutions, in which there is essentially no interest, would be to first of all reform access to the public airways, election spending, corporate size and ability to influence politics, and so forth, using the law. In addition, educating the populace, beginning at home and continuing in kindergarten and throughout the entire system, on logical fallacies, the mechanisms of influence and so forth, would make a major difference. Because these solutions would work, and are boring, they will not be implement, but instead elicit abolishing cynicism, while no alternatives will be offered, and the complaining will go on.
    Fabius Maximus replies: This is the obvious solution, as in Aesop’s fable “Who shall bell the cat?” Or the penultimate step in a receipe for elephant soup: “catch an elephant.”

    That is to say, IMO the critical steps in America’s reform are not draming of ultimate ends or even setting operations goals — but methodological (the operational art, combining tactics and strategy).

  8. Thanks, annamissed! Society of the Spectacle is a major modern philosophical text, mixing the insights of Orwell and Marshall McLuhan, and bringing Plato’s Allegory of the Cave up to date. Thomas de Zengotita’s book Mediated is an entertaining offshoot of it, illustrating how even when we think we’re being free and independent we’re being manipulated.

    Lapham’s description of the illusory government as the “provisional government” is apt and ironic — lightly mocking the common belief that true democracy is almost within our grasp, just waiting for a “strong leader” and stern-minded patriots to deliver it.

    Greg’s listing of what we could do to reign in the “real government” of corporate power is right on. We dont undertake these things, however, not because they’re “boring”, but because the real government doesn’t allow them to be seriously raised in public (by its control of media and elected politicians.)

  9. Our founders were in many respects what Lapham terms the “permanent government.” Get away from the high school civics classes and you’ll see that we, just like all other so-called democracies or republics, have long had such a permanent government. Both Roosevelts were certainly members. So was Reagan and both Bushes. And Clinton.

    There is nothing inherently wrong about a permanent government. It seems to be a necessary evil and it’s oftentimes worked to the nation’s advantage. What’s different now is that much of the permanent government no longer seems to care about the herd that comprises some 90 percent of their “fellow citizens.” In fact, most permanent government members nowadays seem to care about nothing but increasing their power and/or their personal wealth. This would include that increasingly quaint notion known as “the nation.”

    In view of growing evidence that the permanent government has abandoned concern about nation or fellow citizens, one wonders if in the future most members of the herd will be able to even aspire to middle class status. We’re becoming increasingly feudal and it often seems the goal is to reduce most of us to serfdom.

    IMO, it may already too late to recover. Unless, of course, we can somehow develop an intelligence serum and inject half of the American people. Most Americans actually cheer for the permanent government, something that’s roughly akin to the chicken cheering the fox. Lack of education and situational awareness are absolutely killing us.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree on all counts, until your last paragraph. Lapham describes the problem as the widening divorce between the permanent and provisional governments, which is similar to your description.

    I disagree absolutely and totally that it may be too late to recover. The system worked well, as these things go, during the 19th century — and can again.

  10. IMO
    As in war, no political fabric, permanent or provisional, survives exogenic events intact. They become OBE (overtaken by events).
    At worst, the fracturing of the Status Quo absorbs it’s sustaining energy to exhoustion. Chaotic algorythms ultimately fall to the LOW rest state , re-organize, and repeat. Who or what emerges unknown.

  11. FM: “Lapham describes the problem as the widening divorce between the permanent and provisional governments. . .

    I don’t think “widening divorce” expresses Lapham’ meaning. “Capture”, of the provisionsal by the permanent government, would be more accurate.

    Publius is right — we have always had a permanent government — the landed and merchant princes who wrote the Constitution. The provisional government was their agent in Washington, permanent only insofar as it fulfilled their needs. Up until the Civil War, the provisional government was at best a compromise — not equally attractive to all parties and highly suspect to some. You could say that the “Great American Experiment” was not really about whether ordinary folks could come here, make a living, and get along with each other, but whether different segments of the ruling class could reconcile their divergent interests.

    In the common view, “provisional” suggests dependent on the will of the people, revokable at our pleasure. But this meaning has become an illusion, since the electoral process is controlled by the large corporations and the major political parties. Hence, to us, “provisional” now means symbolic.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Having the advantage of reading the fully essay, I believe my summary is accurate. Fabius Maximus replies: Having the advantage of reading the fully essay, I believe my summary is accurate. The separation of the two “governments” is a structural feature, implicit in the founding. Their relationship is symbiotic. The permanent government has all the power; the provisional government the moral authority and people’s allegiance.

    The current divorce renders the provisional government impotent — and deprives the permanent government of its foundation on the people’s allegiance. Since America is not a tyranny, the entire edifice has become unstable.

    Like all metaphors, this is an abstraction — a cartoon version of a complex system. While useful to highlight certain dynamics — such as our ruling elites’ attitudes towards the State — it has a relationship to the real America as the “visible man” plastic model does towards a living human being.

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