Lewis Lapham holds a mirror so that America can see itself

Here are few of the many insights given in Lights, Camera, Democracy! by Lewis Lapham (2001), a book I strongly recommend every American read.  He paints portraits of us, and they’re seldom pretty.   I hope they’ll help shock us back to consciousness.

Observations in the preface about the Presidential election of 2000

What was wanted was a figurehead comfortingly impotent, and the requirement favored the qualities of Governor George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore — two easily recognizable brand names, neither of them likely to deviate from the prepared scripts, each of them capable of serving as the corporate spokesman for America the Beautiful. Before the election fell afoul of events in Florida on the morning of November 8, both candidates obligingly displayed their talents as character actors in the various personae of visiting clergyman, bedside companion, late-night talk-show clown. Always glad to pose for Kodak moments on an aircraft carrier or a kindergarten chair, resolute in their opposition to breast cancer, forthright in their commitment to dignity and leadership, uncompromising in their support for better days, bluer skies, and a secure retirement, the vice president and the governor cheerfully avoided most of the topics apt to excite controversy, and with regard to the standard operating procedures of the oil, banking, and telecommunications monopolies they were as silent as the ball washers at a country club golf tournament.

… Few of the people at MSNBC or CNN were old enough to remember ever having seen such a thing as democracy — the living organism, as opposed to the old painting and the marble statues — and judging by the startled expressions on their faces, they didn’t like the look of it. It hadn’t been circumcised, and probably it was criminal.

… but the important columnists and anchorpersons were never happy with the story. They kept talking about binding up the bitter wounds of “partisan acrimony” with the healing bandages of “closure,” worrying about the damage likely to be done to the Constitution if somebody tried to take it out of the museum. By nature autocratic—as would be expected of a thing that thinks—the corporate media assume that because they are omnipresent they are also omniscient. Accustomed to believing themselves the creators of the character of the American president (whether the role happens to be played by Michael Douglas on HBO, Richard Nixon on the History Channel, Bill Clinton on C-SPAN, or Harrison Ford on Cinemax) they don’t draw careful distinctions between democracy as a system of government and democracy as a form of entertainment.

Chapter 1 – Versailles on the Potomac

About our politicians

… officeholders of all ranks complain that they have not been given funds adequate to the monumental works of social engineering. They assume that the national revenue is more appropriately employed by the state, and the money retained by the populace they regard as a donative granted to an ungrateful rabble that scatters the court’s largess on idle pleasures and foolish toys.

Although admired and excessively praised as an abstraction, the American people, when encountered in person, offend the sensibilities of the court. The American people buy ugly pickup trucks and tract houses in the environs of Duluth; they go to Disneyland and discount stores; they talk to themselves on CB radios and gape at prime-time television. So crass a spectacle sickens the courtiers educated to the exquisite refinement of moral disputes about the meaning of justice or the rights of the unborn.

Given their institutional allegiances as well as the urgency of their own ambitions, they identify the national interest with the several interests of the state, not with the multifarious interests of the individuals subsumed under the rubric of “the American people.” People die from time to time, but they can be easily replaced. The state is immortal, and so, please God, are the courtiers who stand close to the knee of the prince.

… He had come to understand that the Congress didn’t wish to govern. Certainly it didn’t want to correct any of the country’s more difficult or intractable social disorders. Solutions belonged to the realm of substance, heavy and unpleasant. Somebody had to lose something, give something up, accept the bitterness of limitation, or sacrifice, or restraint. Solutions implied pain, and pain was unacceptable because pain translated into resentment, and resentment lost votes.

About politics at Court

… The art of Washington politics consists in the maintenance of the façade of government, and the aesthetic taste of the court shows itself in the promulgation of laws composed in a language so encrusted with the semiprecious stones of legal abstraction as to defy not only the erosion of time but also the understanding of the heathen. Washington is a city of words, but words understood as objects and tokens of power, words as ends in themselves (like marble fountains or fireworks displays), not as a means of expression or thought. The sovereign rule of appearances sets the terms of the conversation at court, and the uses of language bear resemblance to the arts of interior decoration. If rendered in silk or stone, Washington’s manufacture of words, its hundreds of millions of pages of notes — documents, briefs, abstracts, speeches, memorandums, studies, bills, circulars, reports, and treaties—would be seen to possess a grandeur surpassing that of the tapestries of Versailles or the mosaics of Byzantium.

What is wanted is not so much a policy, or even money, as the appearance of a policy — a word or an image sufficient to sustain the impression of virtuous authority, of a government that knows what it is about, of people who are in command of events or who at least have some sort of idea in their dignified and well-dressed heads. The court acquires its opinions for reasons of fashion or state, as if they were gilt swords or enameled snuffboxes, bought, at modish expense, from the artificers at the American Enterprise Institute or the Brookings Institution. Nobody cares what the words mean as long as they can serve as scenery appropriate to the performance of the ritual masques and dances presented to the public under the headlines of WATERGATE SCANDAL, or BUDGET CRISIS, or WAR IN THE GULF, or NEW WORLD ORDER. Different opinions come into vogue with different seasons or administrations, and the deft courtier can make a successful appearance at court whether his thought is clothed in a Democratic or Republican style.

At Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV, the courtiers were required to play cards and scratch on doors with the little fingers of their left hands. Their knowledge in these matters proved their intimate acquaintance with the unutterable mysteries of the universe. At Washington in the late twentieth century the courtiers accomplish a similar purpose by writing op-ed pieces for The Washington Post and knowing what to say to CBS News about Medicare or the rioting in Los Angeles.

Before a public that they wish to mislead, the courtiers stage what they hope will be applauded as a convincing charade. The trick is to sustain the illusions of progress and change while preserving the freeze-frame of the status quo. They embrace the platitudes of the moment, speak of “processes,” “structures,” and “empowerment,” impose on any and all political passions the calming principle of “management by objective,” postpone decision by referring the questions at hand to another committee, another authorization, another hearing, another signature, define the difficult or dangerous arguments that foreshadow the violence of the American future (i.e., the arguments about race, class, education, injustice, and the environment) as disruptions that must be smoothed over, not as questions that might be answered or responsibilities that must be met.

The 102nd Congress completed its term last October with an almost perfect record of inaction. Either by neglecting to bring a question to a vote or by passing legislation certain to be vetoed by President Bush, both the Senate and the House successfully avoided difficult decisions on crime, health care, family leave, voter registration, campaign finance, energy policy, and Chinese trade.

About democracy

… Since the revision of the campaign finance laws in the late 1970s, most of the candidates don’t even take the trouble to court the good opinion of the voters. They speak instead to the other people at court—to the PACs, to the lobbyists who can fix the money for campaigns costing as much as $350,000 (for the House of Representatives) and $4 million (for the Senate). The rising cost of political ambition ensures the rising rate of incumbency (47% of the present U.S. Congress was in office in 1980, as opposed to 4% of the Supreme Soviet).

The sponsors back the safe bets and receive the assurance of safe opinions. A democracy supposedly derives its strength and character from the diversity of its many voices, but the politicians in Washington speak with only one voice, which is the voice of the oligarchy that buys the airline tickets and the television images, and on Capitol Hill I never hear the voice of the scientist, the writer, the athlete, the teacher, the plumber, the police officer, the farmer, the merchant. I hear instead the voice of only one kind of functionary: a full-time politician, nearly always a lawyer, who spends at least 80% of his time raising campaign funds and construes his function as that of a freight-forwarding agent redistributing the national income into venues convenient to his owners and friends.

Together with the lobbyists in the city, the regulatory agents have multiplied at the prevailing rates of inflation. The latter company now comprises no fewer than one hundred thousand officials of various weights and measures—government administrators as well as corporate facilitators—who trade or bestow favors expressed as the price of corn, the permissible levels of air or water pollution, the rules of automobile safety, or the chemical structure of chewing tobacco.

… Even on rainy days they tell one another that their understanding surpasses the understanding of the common people, and they find it easy to believe that because they are who they are, they can do as they please. The stupidity implicit in that last proposition defines a governing class that cannot tell the difference between what is true and what it chooses to say is true. As wish becomes synonymous with action, and reason interchangeable with desire, the drivel of a demented deputy secretary of defense becomes “strategic weapons policy,” and the ravings of a bigoted senator become “a return to family values.”

… The formulation of public policy as drama in the theater of the self produces grotesque results throughout the whole enterprise of government, but the vanity of bureaucrats shows to its worst and most foolish effect in the arenas of foreign policy.

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 relevance to this topic:

Reference pages about other topics appear on the right side menu bar, including About the FM website page.

Posts about American politics:

  1. The USA *after* this financial crisis – part I, about politics, 13 October 2008
  2. What happens to the Republican Party after the election?, 2 November 2008
  3. Migration from the south into America: new people, new foods, new political systems, 4 November 2008
  4. America’s elites reluctantly impose a client-patron system, 5 November 2008
  5. Immigration as a reverse election: our leaders get a new people, 6 November 2008
  6. R.I.P., G.O.P. – a well-deserved end, 7 November 2008
  7. America gets ready for new leadership (or is it back to the future?), 14 November 2008
  8. Conservative reflections about America – starting to use their time in the wilderness to think, 15 November 2008
  9. Lilliput or America – who has a better way to choose its leaders?, 19 November 2008
  10. Conservatives should look back before attempting to move forward, 5 December 2008
  11. The Democrats believe we are stupid. Are they correct?, 19 December 2008
  12. President Bush gets in a few last blows on America before he leaves, 13 January 2009
  13. About campaigns for high office in America – we always expect a better result from the same process, 17 June 2009
  14. Please read this. For the sake of yourself, your children, and their children, 25 June 2009
  15. More about the tottering structure of the American political regime, 17 August 2009


Please share your comments by posting below. Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 word max), civil and relevant to this post. Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

7 thoughts on “Lewis Lapham holds a mirror so that America can see itself”

  1. It’s easy to criticize and take apart institutions and systems, but any solutions?

    I hope that the internet would enable a grassroots third party response, though. Anger at false promises and the realization that there’s been little real reforms will eventually become mass-aware.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Please look at the end of the post, where you will see a link going to a list of posts discussing solutions.

  2. Fabius, You have commented a number of times in the past about current-day America being a “post-Constitutional” Republic. If this assertion is true, what might version 2.0 look like? Perhaps this might be a thread for a future column on your part. It would make for interesting reading and comment.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Great question. I have no idea. The result will probably be highly path dependent, resulting from unpredictable flow of events. The only certainty is that the result will reflect our wisdom and discipline — it cannot be better than its authors.

  3. Damon Killian, speaking in The Running Man (1987 film):

    This is television, that’s all it is. It has nothing to do with people, its to do with ratings! For fifty years, we’ve told Them what to eat, what to drink, what to wear… for Christs sake, Ben, dont you understand? Americans love television. They wean Their kids on it. Listen. They love game shows, They love wrestling, They love sports and violence. So what do we do? We give em *what They want*! Were number one, Ben, that’s all that counts, believe me. Ive been in The business for thirty years.

  4. Excellent comment, Mikyo. I’d only add that the current situation is highly unlikely to change any time soon regardless of the consequences.

  5. I think the future lies in internet issue voting ; on changes needed to the status quo , directing an executive of experts . (The executives possibly to be elected by persons who had significant experience in that field , as workers or users ).
    The issues could be debated by any citizen . This would allow unearthing of potential problems , or novel solutions .
    Programs could limit post length , bad language and advertising , and lead into a tree format so sub issues could be fully explored .
    Background to issues could be presented , initially , as on Wikipedia ; then dissent and debate .
    Or , by a standard judge and jury system .

  6. “Fabius Maximus replies: Please look at the end of the post, where you will see a link going to a list of posts discussing solutions.”

    I’m sorry, but I’ve gone through them and I only see more problems being pointed out. Perhaps I haven’t been thorough enough, but can you prove me wrong? Or are the solutions being discussed in the comments area of those posts?
    Fabius Maximus replies: Perhaps you don’t recognize a solution when you see it? Solutions are a path we can follow, not like the answers to a crossword puzzle, or a gift of the Blue Fairy.

    (1) Diagnosis is the essential first step. We are the problem, by our reluctance to take personal responsibility for the Republic. Instead we ask the government to solve our ills — at the cost of our freedom and independence. (stated repeatedly, for example here).

    (2) Next is anger, contempt at what we have become. From that other things can flow, good or bad depending on our character. I have faith in us, and believe we will move step three. (source)

    (3) Next comes re-dedicating ourselves to self-government and freedom.

    Liberty is the only corrective for our vices, new and old. Only liberty can drag us away from the worship of money ad our preoccupation with our small private affairs. There are times when liberty alone can relacethe love of comfort with higher and more active enthusiasms, can provide ambition with loftier aims than the acquisition of wealth and can shed enough light to lead people both to see and judge their vices. (source)

    (4) The next steps are far easier. Vote. Get involved. Donate your time and money. Write. Talk to friends and strangers (e.g., walk precincts). Organize. These are the easy steps, just work. (I have said this dozens of times)

    (5) What can the government do to help? (for details see here and here)
    (a) Mitigate the suffering of Americans and other nations (through IMF aid) during the downturn.
    (b) Help the economy recover in 2010.
    (c) Prepare the foundation for a powerful recovery.
    (d) Manage the transition to a post-Empire world order.
    (e) Change the relationship between the government and the people
    (f) Change the relationship between America and the world

    (6) I’ve said little about tactics, as that aspect is so well developed. One post is How to stage effective protests in the 21st century

    As Master Yoda said:

    “Do, or do not. There is no ‘try.’

  7. Good points. But I haven’t been following your blog long, and you have to admit that the dozens (hundreds?) of posts on your site are a bit hard to digest all at once. Can you post a manifesto or such?

    You are also dealing with an America of declining attention spans afterall, and of speed.

    Thanks for stating those points though.

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