Lewis Lapham explains why America needs a Third Republic

Summary:  Not all the attackers of the Constitution are enemies of the people, or even of the Republic.  After 200 years, some believe the Constitution has outlived its usefulness, its weaknesses outweigh its strengths.  The rotten boroughs of the Senate, the perhaps unlimited growth of the Executive power, the too-vague limits on judicial authority — perhaps these signal the necessity of radical reform.  Here Lewis H. Lapham and Daniel Lazare make their case.

Today we  have a brief excerpt from Lewis H. Lapham’s insightful book Waiting for the Barbarians (1997).  In this chapter he discusses The Frozen Republic:  How the Constitution is Paralyzing Democracy by Daniel Lazare (1996).  Click here to see articles by Daniel Lazare published in The Nation.  At the end are links to other posts on this topic.

Chapter IX – Sacred Scroll

Over the course of a presidential election year I expect the books published on political themes to read like the speeches at a Fourth of July picnic – heartwarming cant as plentiful as the beer and as empty as the balloons – but six weeks before the New Hampshire primaries, I discovered The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution is Paralyzing Democracy, by Daniel Lazare, to be the exception that proves the rule.

In the sanctuary of the American civil religion nothing except a private fortune in excess of $5 billion is more precious than the four pages of parchment brought forth by the corporate sponsors of liberty in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. Lazare, an accomplished iconoclast, manages within the space of a few hundred pages to assign them to the realm of magical objects in which a museum of natural history also might place the totem poles, the scraps of sacred moleskin, and the bones of a departed saint.

. . .I was glad to encounter a writer willing to suggest that only by reconfiguring our system of government (i.e., by rewriting the Constitution) can we address what by now have become the all too obvious consequences of our political weakness and stupidity. . . . The proposition seems to me to stand as proven in any morning’s newspaper.

Lazare arranges his polemic in historical sequence — the origins of the Constitution as a marvel of eighteenth-century political mechanics made to the design of seventeenth-century religious belief {through to} the blind worship of the sacred text that has accompanied the last 50 years of the country’s descent into bankruptcy and the wisdom of Rush Limbaugh. Three of Lazare’s points about the obsolete and undemocratic character of the Constitution strike me as useful glosses on a presidential election year likely to present the owner of Forbes magazine as the friend of the common man.

Virtuous Incapacity

. . .The government was never supposed to work, at least not in the way imagined by a municipal planning commission. The political shambles is deliberate, and the government’s incompetence is a testimony to its virtue. The gentlemen who wrote the Constitution were as suspicious of efficient government as they were wary of democracy, a “turbulence and a folly” that they associated with the unruly ignorance of an urban mob.

. . .  Believing themselves morally and intellectually superior to the democratic rabble, they defined the practice of government as the duty of the judicious few to control and improve the instincts of the foolish many, any they undertook to render the federal political power as important as a eunuch in the court of a Ming emperor.

. . .  {T}hey produced a government weak enough to preserve the institution of slavery and a Constitution rigid enough to resist the invasions of social change. The Preamble granted unlimited powers to “We the People”, but Article V (the clause that makes amendment virtually impossible by requiring a two-third vote in both houses of Congress and ratification by three fourths of the states) declared the Preamble null and void. . . .

Balanced Impotence

Political power divided into as many parts as the fragments of the True Cross couldn’t interfere with the economic power, and the marvelous state of suspended animation served everybody’s interest as long as everybody agreed that the private good was another name for the public good.

. . .  Power broken into a thousand pieces can be hidden and disowned. If no individual or institution possesses the authority to act without the consent of everybody else in the room, then nobody is ever at fault if anything goes wrong. Congress can blame the President, the President can blame the Congress or the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court can blame the Mexicans or the weather in Ohio.

Checked and balanced by powers of all denominations, the country’s public servants become, in theory, accountable to everybody; in practice they remain accountable to nobody,  . . .  free to strike attractive moral attitudes while at the same time selling their votes to the highest corporate bidder . . .

The God in the Machine

Lazare traces the fervor of our present constitutional devotions to the complacence that settled on the American mind following WWII . . . The winning of the war prompted Americans to think that their military and industrial supremacy was proof of their moral and political virtue . . .

The United States in the meantime fell behind every other country in the industrialized world in most of the categories that measure the well-being of a civilized society: the most brutal police force and the most crowded prisons, the harshest system of criminal justice, repressive drug laws, a lazy and sycophantic press. Over the span of the same 50 years our political campaigns have come to resemble nothing so much as games of trivial pursuit, charades reduced to works of performance art in which the candidates smear one another with insults instead of chocolate.

. . . Theocratic societies tend to have a weak grasp of reality, and toward the end of his book, remarking on the fulminations of the Country party presently holding the majority in Congress, Lazare says “All those Republican House freshmen in early 199 sporting copies of the Federalist Papers were not all that different from Iranian mullahs waving copies of the Koran.”

A historian rather than a political scientist or a first-year congressman, Lazare doesn’t offer a set of instructions for redrafting the Constitution, but he carries his point about our idolatrous worship of the document, depriving us of the courage to imagine a future that doesn’t look like one of the Disney Company’s replicas of the nonexistent American past.

The framers of the Constitution lived in a world innocent of electricity, jet aircraft, telephones, computers, nuclear weapons, and MTV; if their political mechanism had already become outworn by the middle of the nineteenth century (that is, incapable of resolving the question of slavery), then how can we expect it to address the questions likely to be presented by the twenty-first century?

. . .  But we can’t engage in the conversation unless we rid ourselves of our documentary superstitions, and until we begin to talk about revising the structure of American government, our political debate amounts to little more than a twittering of opinion polls about which candidate has the most money, the fewest felony convictions, and the best hairdresser.

About Lewis H. Lapham

Lewis H. Lapham was the editor of Harper’s Magazine from 1976 – 1981 and 1983 – 2006.  In 2007 he started Lapham’s Quarterly (a magazine of history and ideas; see their website here), for which he is the Editor. He has written many books on politics and current affairs.

About Daniel Lazare

Daniel Lazare is the author of, most recently, The Velvet Coup: The Constitution, the Supreme Court, and the Decline of American Democracy (Verso). He is currently at work on a book about the politics of Christianity, Judaism and Islam for Pantheon.  {Source:  The Nation}

An alternative view of our situation

America no longer functions well, but our self-esteem remains untouched.  Therefore the problems must lie elsewhere than ourselves.  The most popular candidates for blame are our rulers (unworthy of our greatness) and our institutions (including the Constitution).  If we change them — throw the bums out! or a new Constitution — then all will be well.

IMO this is delusional thinking.  It’s harmful, as correct diagnosis must preceed effective treatment.  So long as we are sheep, then we will be so governed — no matter what the formal political structure.  Only after we resolve to again become free men and women, after we regain control of the State, will formal political reform become possible.

For more information about this:

For more information from the FM site

For more detailed analysis see these FM reference pages:

Here are some posts about the future of the American polity:

  1. Forecast: Death of the American Constitution, 4 July 2006
  2. Congress shows us how our new government works, 14 April 2008
  3. A soft despotism for America?, 22 July 2008
  4. What comes after the Constitution? Can we see the outlines of the “Mark 3″ version?, 10 November 2008
  5. A look at America’s future – grim unless we get smart and pull together, 12 March 2009
  6. “The Coming of the Fourth American Republic”, 24 April 2009
  7. More about the tottering structure of the American political regime, 17 August 2009
  8. A third American regime will arise from the ashes of the present one, 30 March 2010
  9. For America to prosper it must first burn, 22 November 2010
  10. Origins of what may become the 3rd American Republic (a plutocracy), 8 April 2011
  11. A look at the future of America, unlike the expectations of conservatives and liberals, 10 August 2011

17 thoughts on “Lewis Lapham explains why America needs a Third Republic

  1. Great article. The problems you talk about probably exist, but they are not the problems we are facing now. Our problem in this country seems to be the same problem kids playing a board game have when they don’t understand the rules as written of the game they are playing and there is no adult supervision.

    Just look at the debates. The candidates come unprepared. Not one of them could pass a high school government class. Maybe two of them could pass an American history class. Campaigns and government have become a game of I Doubt It played by well financed wishful thinkers.

    At no point in recent memory has the Constitution had a chance to work or not work. People run around screeching it’s in the Constitution it’s in the Constitution the same way McCain was running around the last campaign squawking the surge worked the surge worked. Saying it does not make it so and when challenged the the document waving bully backs off anyway.

    We need to raise the bar for office participation in government from stupid rich kid who does as he is told by his patron instead of lower the bar for the Constitution.

    1. Before I reply — your comment takes us into large-scale analysis, the sort of thing we can only guess at.

      I disagree totally with the context you give these events. The problem we face is NOT that like a kids playing a game but don’t understand the rules. It’s the opposite. Our ruling elites — a nascent plutocracy — understand the rule quite well. They’re playing the game quite well. In fact they’re winning decisively.

      What difference does the candidates ignorance make? IMO they’ll do what they’re told with the innocence of well-trained seals. Just like candidate hope-change Obama, who in office has run what is in effect Bush Jr’s third term.

      “We need to raise the bar for office participation”

      That formulation goes to the heart of the problem, but misses the point. Our problems result from our passivity, our acceptance of lies and public policies built on lies. We’re the weak link in the system. When we accept that and resolove to change, then we’re back on track to reforming America. The question you implicitly pose is how to do that.

      My solution — almost certainly inadequate — is to re-introduce us to our real situation. A natural and appropriate response is anger, a good step if harnessed to rational ends.

    2. That’s a good question. Perhaps, but it’s difficult to determine. I didn’t sense much anger at the one I visited, and I see few signs of anger in the news reports. Certainly not in most of the pictures. It’s more festival-like, one reason many don’t take it seriously.

      People in the Tea Party Movement displayed anger. It does not seem to have done them any good, as they’ve become little but shock troops for the GOP. Even to the extent that they support highly pro-bank Republicans, far from the TP’s origin in opposition to bank bailouts.

      Anger provides drive — fuel for a poltical movement. Anger is like sound. It can become music or noise.

    3. They understand the rules of the game in terms of protecting their benefactors, and maintaining their political power, but most are ignorant of the very subjects they need to know about in order to be effective leaders. Obama (and Bush before him) seems to have no clue about grand strategy, military theory, economics, philosophy, or any other critical subject that would allow them to have their own vision and not be a mere puppet for special interests.

      You are completely correct though in noting the failure of us as a people, but it is not just in terms of us allowing our leaders to be ignorant, it is also in terms of us also choosing ignorance as a way of life. We are a generation that has the entire cumulative knowledge of mankind at our fingertips 24 hours a day. This is a power that in ancient times would have been attributed to a god, and yet we choose to ignore that knowledge and instead loose ourselves in facebook.

      Even among political blogs, this is one of the few that actually point to that a more measured and deep philosophical understanding of the issues. Until more of us are as excited about reading a new post on Fabius Maximus as we are about checking our wall on facebook, I fear that the most anger can do is allow the masses to be once again fooled by charlatans or God forbid, would-be tyrants.

    4. “They understand the rules of the game in terms of protecting their benefactors, and maintaining their political power, but most are ignorant of the very subjects they need to know about in order to be effective leaders.”

      This is a great question! Have their policies been NET effective — or dysfunctional? Such as our wars. They’ve been expensive — in money and blood (both ours and the locals) — and produced (at best) no benefits for America.

      On the other hand, perpetual war has worked well for them. Foreign enemies distract the people, and provide political support for an ever more powerful State.

  2. I would be weary of attempts to fashion a new constitution in today’s political climate and given the startling levels of ignorance among both our political leadership and the population in general. Maybe the founders were somewhat elitist and anti-democratic, but they were also profoundly aware of the limitations of human nature and the propensity for even the most well intentioned to be led astray by the use of power.

    We should not be beholden to the constitution as a sacred text, for it is more important to understand the spirit and intention of the document and the perspective of the founders themselves. Ultimately the American experiment can be summed up as a quest to check power and balance so as to produce the greatest amount of liberty, with the understanding that it is liberty, not top down control which allows human beings to reach their full potential.

    Of course liberty can not be protected when small groups of people have the power to steer policy for decades. I do not think the solution to that is abandoning the constitution and starting fresh, we just don’t have the same perspective the founders did to be able to do it effectively. Although as this website points out quite frequently, in many ways it is already dead as our leaders tend to ignore parts of it at their discretion for the sake of political expediency.

    1. I agree totally, and thank you for this comment (I’ll add a note about this). This touches upon a long-standing theme at the FM website.

      America no longer functions well, but our self-esteem remains untouched. Therefore the problems must lie elsewhere than ourselves. The most popular candidates for blame are our rulers (unworthy of our greatness) and our institutions (including the Constitution). If we change them — throw the bums out! or a new Constitution — then all will be well.

      IMO this is delusional thinking. It’s harmful, as correct diagnosis must preceed effective treatment. So long as we are sheep, then we will be so governed — no matter what the formal political structure. Only after we resolve to again become free men and women, after we regain control of the State, will formal political reform become possible.

      For more information about this:

  3. With the advent of the internet, direct democracy – as opposed to “representatives” (who represent the highest bidder) is now possible. How could a republic be constructed so that the influence of wealth was elided from the body politic?

    1. I don’t understand how internet voting is relevant to our problems. How will that make Americans more willing to involve themselves in working the political machinery? Gathering accurate knowledge, good analysis — clear thinking — and the hard work of organizing and communicating. Doing the messy trade-offs to build governing alliances.

  4. The rhetoric of “sheeple” is not consistent with recent evolutionary theory (gene-culture coevolution). Human beings have evolved to be magnificent imitation (learning) machines that are one of the most socially bonded “tribal” species on the planet. The problem is in paradigms and *collective* structures of consciousness. Individual “personal responsibility” is necessary, but not sufficient.

    Integral Leadership as Supporting Epistemic Sophistication in Knowledge-Building Communities, Tom Murray, Integral Leadership Review, October 2006

    Lazare is an energetic and refreshing leftist who says NOTHING about personal responsibility (as FM wishes people would do), he only identifies the “structural evils” of the current system in the USA.

    Lapam, like everyone else, is as much a part of the problem as the solution. Lapam is brave for questioning unexamined assumptions (and remembering previous eras of counterculture movements and intellectual trends that demanded social justice), but operates from the same underlying paradigm (rational self-interest) that created the problems. This will not inspire a paradigm shift that will lead to an energized reform movement.

    Lazare and Lapham simply want the USA to imitate the “more modern” Europe. That is fairly ironic given that Europe has been busy worshipping at the shrine of the (now) loathed american form of state-capitalism (neoliberalism) now for several decades!

    re: a more perfect union – a harmful purity myth?

    Leonard Liggio describes the “forgotten scholarship” about the roots of democracy in the 500 years before Columbus: “THE HISPANIC TRADITION OF LIBERTY: THE ROAD NOT TAKEN IN LATIN AMERICA“, Professor Leonard P. Liggio, Atlas Economic Research Foundation.

    The USA was the only society in which the oldest PRE-IMPERIAL forms of democracy were preserved. Please note that Habermas discusses the manner which “shared value commitments” (lifeworld) have been “colonized” by money and power (systems).

    11 March 1996 video interview of Lazare:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_AwOZmnDO0

    Lazare’s solution: “Bust the Senate” as a first step in formulating a more radical form of democracy, is given starting at minute 17 into the video. Summary: at minute 25, Lazare explains how “cleansing and purification, return to roots” is the underlying premise of both liberal and conservative reforms, and why that is incapable of dealing with the basic problem: “Inequities in the Senate”. 8300 local government entities represent a Hobseyan “war of all against all”. The US constitution enshrines a prerational form of culture that is distrustful of rationalism’s ability to unearth solutions, and that thus places the “people” under the power constitution, not the people OVER the constitution. Lazare states that thus, the constitution can’t be changed from the “outside”, UNLESS the Preamble’s definition of “we the people” is more important the restrictions in article 5 (mechanisms for amending). This means that the document’s contradictions have to be recognized.

    At minute 40, Lazare (a self-admitted leftist) criticizes the establishment political left for depending too heavily on the judiciary to force liberal reforms, a judiciary which historically has been “ultra orthodox”, except for a relatively brief period of liberalism after the “New Deal”.

    *** At minute 44, Lazare summarizes his reform program: national parliamentary assembly, proportional representation that reflects the *unbounded* power of the people. Lazare claims that people will be more responsible if they have more direct power. The rise of Fascism would be prevented by “mobilizing mass action” on the left. The current system “divides the people against themselves”.

    Outmoded 18th century ideas, practices and institutions must be abandoned. Evidence of a “new” public discussion about societal “decline”: Meet the Press with David Gregory, 12/26/2011 —

    “NBC Special Correspondent Tom Brokaw, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, president of the National Urban League, Marc Morial and Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker discuss the impact of economic events and the lingering housing crisis in 2011”

    1. “The US constitution enshrines a prerational form of culture that is distrustful of rationalism’s ability to unearth solutions, and that thus places the “people” under the power constitution, not the people OVER the constitution.”

      This is because rationalism is not strong enough to overcome the basic weaknesses in human beings, as the very evolutionary theory you mentioned seems to suggest. We are never perfectly rational ( a lot of good information in behavioral economics on this), and there are times when people do get whipped up into a dangerous mob, as is evidenced by this years London riots or worse yet the Vancouver riots, a display of unjustified barbarism triggered by a national sports event. This was in Canada mind you, a country normally known for its very friendly and non-violent population. The constitution is above the people because it is supposed to represent the idea that even the people can not choose to negate certain principles of their essential humanity, no matter how persuaded they might be by a clever leader or movement.

      Its interesting that you reference outmoded 18th century ideas yet fail to see that a belief in mass movements and rationalism as a means to societal transformation were ideas born out of the 19th century, ideas proved horrendously wrong in the 20th century.

      FM recognizes the need for good leadership and collective action, but I think he correctly points out that we must make the first move within ourselves and not wait to be swept up in a mass movement that may or may not arrive, or worse yet, one could be quite dangerous.

    2. “but I think he correctly points out that we must make the first move within ourselves and not wait to be swept up in a mass movement that may or may not arrive, or worse yet, one could be quite dangerous.”

      Nicely said. Better than I’ve said!

  5. Marcus Ranum asks a question about the role of wealth in a direct democracy. But that’s not the big problem with direct democracy. Read your history, and you’ll discover that for thousands of tyears, the wisest observers (viz., Herodotus, Plato, Aristotle) dislike direct democracy because of its wild instability.

    Perhaps the single best example of the crazy instability of direct democracy involves Athens’ invasion of Syracuse in 415 BC. This was a crazy military expedition, promising little advantage if it succeeded but disaster if it failed. Undertaken by a wildly popular charismatic leader, Alkibiades, he was recalled and disgraced in the middle of the military campaign as a result of bizarre diisfigurement of religious statues in Athens which was (probably incorrectly) attributed to his supporters. The military expedition then fell under the command of a general so superstitious that he refused to attack at the proper time due to astrological beliefs. The predictable result? A military disaster that led to the destruction of the Athenian state and its rule by Thirty Tyrants imposed by a foreign power, the Spartans.

    Direct democracy is certainly one of the worst forms of governance. As witness the bizarre policies put in place in California courtesy of their proposition system, a classic example of direct democracy. When simple majority vote by the people enacts any law you want, it’s easy for rabblerousers or hatemongers to stir up the mob and get extremely bad laws passed. Examples include the proposition nullifying the Civil Rights Acts in 1965 (later declared unconstitutional by the California Supreme Court), Proposition 8, Propositoin 13 (property tax limitation), the proposition which forced California to make up for shortfalls in local spending by dipping into the state till and supplying the difference to all the local school districts, and so on.

    When you look at the end result of direct democracy in California, you see a set of policies that make the state ungovernable. Laws enacted by direct democracy require California to spend fixed amounts of money, while preventing the state from raising enough money (courtesy of the Prop 13 property tax limits) to fund those requirements. It’s a system guaranteed to fail.

    Direct democracy proves much too vulnerable to the techniques of propaganda, emotional appeal, and mass persuasion. Read the classic 1896 text The Crowd by Gustave leBon or the 1847 classic Extraoardinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles McKay to see the irrationality and stupidity and folly of large groups of people. Or, if you prefer, simply look back at the bizarre overreaction to 9/11 by the American people. We’re still living in the aftermath of that math insanity.

    Whatever we decide to do to fix America’s broken system of governance, safe to say that a retreat from representative democracy to direct democracy does not offer a viable solution.

  6. See below for the “secret” of why the Plutocrats got power, and will continue to hold it, until a paradigm shift happens. And the shift will have to in be *enacted* in all of the quadrants of human consciousness: inner and outer (spiritual and rational), individual and collective. “A Commentary for Readers of The Nature Of Order, Book 2“, Christopher Alexander, posted at Nature of Order, undated. Excerpt:

    But a real paradigm change – a way of thinking which really and truly changes our ideas about war, equality, money, jobs, leisure, family… all that may be easy to say, but is nevertheless very hard to DO. It is frightening to do, because to do it, we really have to change the things we are comfortable with. We may, yes indeed, be conscious of the fact that we are screwed up, and we may wish for better things for ourselves and for our children – but we remain enmeshed in a system which makes us secure (relatively), happy (relatively), morally OK (perhaps), and protected from starvation and disease (if we belong to the privileged 10% of the world’s population who are economically OK in the world today).

    But, we ourselves are enmeshed, deeply enmeshed, in the production of ugliness, zoning, banking, transportation, corporate America, making warplanes, destroying beautiful land by permitting and encouraging construction of freeways for our cars, and by permitting and encouraging the ravages of commercial development and strip malls. No matter how much we look down on it, and criticize it as bad, evil, and harmful – still we ourselves live off the product of this kind of America we hate. It is therefore easier to keep walking as a cripple with a pair of crutches, than it is to throw the crutches away, and take the huge effort of actually learning to walk again.

    We are part of that which we criticize and part of that which we hate. Yet we are sustained by that of which we are a part.

    So talking about a paradigm shift is nice stuff for armchair reading, but very much harder to DO.

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