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 —
- “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.
For more information from the FM site
To read other articles about these things, see the following:
- About America – how can we reform it?
- About America’s national defense strategy and machinery
- Good news about America, a collection of articles!
Reference pages about other topics appear on the right side menu bar, including About the FM website page.
Some recent posts about solutions:
- Diagnosing the Eagle, Chapter III – reclaiming the Constitution, 3 January 2008
- Obama might be the shaman that America needs, 17 July 2008
- Obama describes the first step to America’s renewal, 8 August 2008
- Fixing America: shall we choose elections, revolt, or passivity?, 16 August 2008
- Fixing American: taking responsibility is the first step, 17 August 2008
- Fixing America: the choices are elections, revolt, or passivity, 18 August 2008
- What happens next? Advice for the new President, part one., 17 October 2008
- What to do? Advice for the new President, part two., 18 October 2008
- Are the new “tea party” protests a grass roots rebellion or agitprop?, 1 March 2009
- How to stage effective protests in the 21st century, 21 April 2009
- The first step on the road to America’s reform, 29 May 2009
- Correction to my previous posts – not all citizen activism is good…, 16 October 2009
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