Another look in the mirror at America

Today’s reading explains the origins of American’s dysfunctional public policy, from Lewis Lapham’s Lights, Camera, Democracy! (2001), a book I strongly recommend every American read.  He paints portraits of us.  Insightful, although they’re seldom pretty.   Let’s hope they’ll help shock us back to consciousness.

Excerpt from Chapter One – Versailles on the Potomac

Every administration has no choice but to confront the world’s violence and disorder, but the doctrines of American grace oblige it to do so under the banners of righteousness and in the name of one or another of the fanciful pretexts —

  • “democracy,”
  • “civilization,”
  • “humanity,”
  • “the people”

that preserve the conscience of the American television audience. The electorate expects its presidential candidates to feign the clean-limbed idealism of college sophomores, to present themselves as honest and good-natured fellows who know nothing of murder, ambition, lust, selfishness, cowardice, or greed. The pose of innocence is as mandatory as the ability to eat banquet food, but it gets confused with the dream of power, and pretty soon, usually within a week of the inaugural address, a new president discovers that the American political system embraces both a permanent and a provisional government.

The permanent government —

  • the Congress,
  • the civil and military services,
  • the media,
  • the legion of Washington lawyers and expensive lobbyists

occupies the anonymous hierarchies that remain safely in place no matter what the political truths voted in and out of the White House on the trend of a season. It is this government — sly and patient and slow — that writes the briefing papers and the laws, presides over the administrative routine, remembers who bribed whom in the election of 1968 and why President Carter thought it prudent to talk privately to God about the B-1 bomber. Except in the rare moments of jointly opportune interest, the permanent government wages a ceaseless war of bureaucratic attrition against the provisional government that once every 4 or 8 years accompanies a newly elected president to Washington.

The amateur government consists of the cadre of ideologues, cronies, plutocrats, and academic theorists miraculously transformed into cabinet officials and White House privy councillors. Endowed with the virtues of freebooting adventurers, the parvenu statesmen possess the talents and energies necessary to the winning of elections. Although admirable, these are not the talents and energies useful to the conduct of international diplomacy.

The president and his confederates inherit a suite of empty rooms. The media like to pretend that the White House is an august and stately institution, the point at which all the lines of power converge, the still center of the still-American universe. The people who occupy the place discover that the White House bears a more credible resemblance to a bare stage or an abandoned cruise ship. The previous tenants have removed everything of value — the files, the correspondence, the telephone numbers, the memorabilia on the walls. The new repertory company begins at the beginning, setting up its own props and lights, arranging its own systems of communications and theory of command, hoping to sustain, at least long enough for everybody to profit from the effect, the illusion of coherent power.

All other American institutions of any consequence (the Chase Manhattan Bank, say, or the Pentagon) rely on the presence of senior officials who remember what happened twenty years ago when somebody else — equally ambitious, equally new — proposed something equally foolish. But the White House is barren of institutional memory. Maybe an old butler remembers that President Eisenhower liked sugar in his tea, but nobody remembers the travel arrangements for the last American expedition to Iran.

Within a week of its arrival in Washington the provisional government learns that the world is a far more dangerous place than anybody had thought possible as recently as two months ago, when the candidate was reciting the familiar claptrap about nuclear proliferation to an airport crowd somewhere south of Atlanta. Alarmed by the introductory briefings at the Defense Department, the amateur statesmen feel impelled to take bold stands, to make good on their campaign promises, to act. Almost immediately they find themselves checked by the inertia of the permanent government, by the maze of prior agreements, by the bureaucrats who bring up the niggling reasons why a thing can’t be done.

The sense of frustration incites the president’s men to “take it inside” or “move it across the street,” and so they make of the National Security Council or the White House basement the seat of “a loyal government” blessed with the will to dare and do. The decision inevitably entails the subversion of the law and excites the passion for secrecy. The technological possibilities presented by the available back channels, map overlays, and surveillance techniques tempt the would-be Metternichs to succumb to the dreams of omnipotence. Pretty soon they start speaking in code, and before long American infantrymen begin to turn up dead in the jungles of Vietnam or the streets of Beirut.

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To read other articles about these things, see the following:

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

Some recent posts about solutions:

  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. Fixing America: shall we choose elections, revolt, or passivity?, 16 August 2008
  5. Fixing American: taking responsibility is the first step, 17 August 2008
  6. Fixing America: the choices are elections, revolt, or passivity, 18 August 2008
  7. What happens next? Advice for the new President, part one., 17 October 2008
  8. What to do? Advice for the new President, part two., 18 October 2008
  9. Are the new “tea party” protests a grass roots rebellion or agitprop?, 1 March 2009
  10. How to stage effective protests in the 21st century, 21 April 2009
  11. The first step on the road to America’s reform, 29 May 2009
  12. Correction to my previous posts – not all citizen activism is good…, 16 October 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 “Another look in the mirror at America”

  1. Brilliant, and correct, I can see why you read this guy. A perfect description of how the political(provisional) crew usually sloshes into and out of the HMS. White House cruise ship every 4 to 8 years. Occasionally though, every 80 years or so, an ice berg rips a hole along the hull of the entire ship, and it’s disclosed in private meetings among selected officers(permanent and provisional included)that the ship of state’s putative un-sinkability was, let us say, for marketing reasons, somewhat exaggerated. No doubt, some will refuse to believe, even as the waters rise. Others will scheme for advantage and survival, even as the ship falters, but some will rise to the challenge. There will be heroic acts. One day, amazing stories of bravery and cowardice will be told. We are living in one of those times.

  2. Sometimes when writers describe the reality of a modern Western democracy very bleakly, as Lapham does here, I nod my head in agreement with what he’s saying. It is true that we have both permanent and provisional governments. It is true that the provisional/political wing is rather amateurish, temporary, theatrical. It is true that the “permanent”/long-term wing is sly, long-remembering, and entrenched. It’s true that the whole thing is undignified compared to a monarchy.

    I nod my head, but I also wonder how it could really be any different, considering the system that has been decided upon. The Congress, bureaucracy, and media change slowly because a nation-state needs some kind of relatively long-term stewards who know what’s going on. The president and cabinet change quickly because we’ve decided to elect the executive every four years.

    Lapham gives the example of Chase bank as a system which keeps institutional memory. That makes sense, but also implies a ‘board of investors’ who remain in place over a long term, cannot be removed by the ‘citizens’/customers, and choose the next executive from among themselves. This would perhaps translate to a political system like China’s. I wonder, is this the kind of system that Lapham would prefer?
    FM reply: There is a latter section in which he describes the problem more precisely as the gap between the two governments. When the provisional government concerns itself with ceremony and spectacles, while the permanent government focuses on theft and corruption, the system breaks down. Our inability to reform a grossly dysfunctional healthcare system makes me wonder how close we are to that point. For an excellent analysis, see “Understanding Obamacare“, Luke Mitchell, December 2009 (subscription only) — Excerpt:

    Democrats have crafted a plan full of ideas that almost certainly will help a lot of people who can’t afford insurance now. It also happens to be the case that some of those ideas will significantly benefit the corporations that at one time or another have paid Democrats a lot of money. … The Democratic deal for the drug companies is, if anything, even sweeter than the Democratic deal for the insurance companies.

    … the Republicans, no longer the favored party of corporate America, are left to represent nothing and no one but themselves. They are opposing reform not for ideological reasons but simply because no other play is available. They have lost the business vote, and even their call for “fiscal responsibility” is gestural at best. … Nothing remains but primordial emotion—the fear, rage, and jealousy that have always animated a significant minority of American voters—so Republican congressmen are left to take up concerns about “death panels” and “Soviet-style gulag health care” that will “absolutely kill seniors.” Republicans, having lost their status as the party of business, have become the party of incoherent rage.

  3. Lets summarize…

    The bureaucrats are running the show
    The new President is clueless
    The President is alarmed by the bureaucrats briefings
    But the bureaucrats stymie any action
    So they President decides to go around the law to do something resulting in a disaster

    Huh ?! How about…

    The bureaucrats are running the show and all have their own agendas and are factional
    The new President is clueless
    The President is alarmed by the bureaucrat’s briefings
    The various factions fight it out to convince the President that their approach works they need to make their proposals as alarming as possible to sell them.
    Some factions put up proposals that sound good but are illegal
    So they President decides to go around the law to do something resulting in a scandal

    And this isn’t unique to America every country has bureaucrats/congress etc that push their own wacky schemes. The big difference is that most western countries have elected cabinets not the bunch of cronies the President brings with him. So in their agendas and capabilities are vetted by the political process before they get into power.

    It’s very strange that in a country where everything from judges to police chiefs are elected that the cabinet is not. The record elsewhere is when you parachute people into power like that they often blow up. This sometimes happens even with elected cabinets because parties want to get “stars” into the game. The “stars” may well be high performers elsewhere but it rarely translates into good performance in the political sphere.

    A savvy President will try to hire experts in the various fields but it’s a fundamentally bad system, an election where their credentials are scrutinized in public with competitors pointing out the flaws is better.

  4. From Fm reply to #2 “There is a latter section in which he describes the problem more precisely as the gap between the two governments. When the provisional government concerns itself with ceremony and spectacles, while the permanent government focuses on theft and corruption, the system breaks down.”

    OK, that makes more sense. I see Lapham has more going on than is immed. obvious.

  5. Lapham’s dichotomy between provisional and permanent governments is neat but misleading. Certainly the provisional government know who their bosses are, and know the bargain they have made. Ceremony and spectacle co-exist with theft and corruption. There is no point where the “system breaks down” because one prevails over the other. The co-existence of the two IS the system.

    It’s fun to imagine the new President wandering around an empty White House wondering, “hey, what do we do now?” But of course, Paulson and Rubin and Geithner have already told him, “just give us a call when you’re moved in!”

  6. oblat,

    Given California’s experience with a plenary executive – during the state’s fiscal crisis Ahnold wanted to furlough state employees to prevent a bankruptcy and had to sue the State Controller to get it done – I think such a system would be even less responsive in a crisis.

  7. >I think such a system would be even less responsive in a crisis.

    Indeed it is slower in a crisis, dictatorships are even better in a crisis. But for the rest of the time concentrating power is worse. But I don’t think it’s the main problem in California anyways.

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