A keen, harsh, funny look at American politics

Journalist Lewis Lapham writes some of the most perceptive political analysis in our time. The articles are funny but the message is serious. As seen in these excerpts from Money and Class in America: Notes and Observations on Our Civil Religion (1988). Thirty years later and it is still just as relevant.

Money and Class in America: Notes and Observations on Our Civil Religion
Available at Amazon.


Lapham writes for America’s Outer Party. They are its professionals, managers, and small business owners. They potentially have the core political power in America, since they connect our aristocracy – the bourgeoisie (the 1%) and the Inner Party (senior executives and the upper echelon in every field) – with the proles. The former own America. The latter are politically apathetic unless aroused, then they wield decisive power).

Lapham mocks the Outer Party while entertaining them. He is a Court Jester for the Baby Boomers, saying forbidden truths cloaked in humor. But the message is serious. Lapham talks about American’s decreasing willingness to bear the burden of self-government, a long-standing theme of this site. While we play, the 1% loots the nation as it sails onto the rocks.

Useful political insights are those that help us see ourselves. Only then reform will become possible in America. Lewis does this well, but was too early.

The Precarious Eden.
From the March 1981 issue of Harper’s.

“Under a republican form of government the citizenry supposedly accepts the responsibility for managing its own affairs, but over the last quarter of a century the heirs to the American fortune have lost interest in the tiresome business of self-government. Rather than vote or read the Constitution, the heirs prefer to go to Acapulco or Aspen to practice macrobiotic breathing. They have better things to do with their lives than to be bothered with the details of preserving their freedom.

“They spend their time making themselves beautiful, holding themselves in perpetual readiness for the incarnations promised by the dealers in cosmetics and religion. The country still flatters itself that it enjoys the self-government of a sovereign people, but for at least a generation the conduct of its business has been left in the hands of the servants, both public and domestic.

“Much the same sort of languid fantasy seized the last generation of Southern aristocrats in the years preceding the Civil War. Within the sanctuaries of their plantations they could play with the toys of courtly romance. …

“In 1987 the United States as a whole bears an unsettling resemblance to the antebellum South. We import luxurious manufactures and imperfectly redress our trade balance with the export of agriculture and raw materials. The well-to-do gentry affect an aristocratic disdain for commerce and trade, and their gossip about politics betrays the infantile contradictions of people who want…

  • lower taxes and better public services,
  • less child molesting and more pornography,
  • no military draft and stronger armies,
  • less crime and more profit.

“The business magazines that publish worried articles about the decline of American productivity – the editorialist bemoaning the trade imbalances or the extent of consumer debt – also publish, often in an adjoining column, four-color advertisements for gold-headed golf clubs and matched pairs of Rolls-Royce cars.

“By abdicating their authority and responsibility, the sovereign people also relinquish their courage. Like rich old women in Palm Beach or a committee of dithering lawyers, the American electorate listens to the wisdom of its public servants as if to voices of minor oracles. Politicians and Cabinet ministers appear in the role of the omniscient butler who finds phrases of art with which to conceal the embarrassments of the young master’s profligacy and reduced circumstances. …”

About Social Hygiene.
From the July 2003 issue of Harper’s.

“Transferred into the political arena, the doctrines of social sanitation oblige all candidates for public office to feign the clean-limbed idealism of college sophomores. Even the meanest of politicians has no choice but to present himself as one who would remove the stains from capitalism’s bloody clothes and wash the sheets of American conscience. The post of innocence is as mandatory as the ability to eat banquet food and endure the scourging of the press.

“No candidate can say with Talleyrand, that he is in it for the money, or that it is the business of politicians to add to the wealth of their handlers. The system in place is always assumed to be corrupt, and the electorate expects its once and future Presidents to tell wholesome lies – to present themselves as honest and good-natured fellows who know little or nothing of murder, ambition, lust, selfishness, cowardice, or greed. The more daring members of the troupe might go so far as to admit having read about such awful things in the newspapers. but the incidents in question invariably have to do with a foreign country or with somebody belonging to the other political party.

“Generations of reformers – whether liberal or neoliberal, conservative or neoconservative – come forward with plans to remove the politics from what they prefer to describe as ‘the political process.’ They campaign on the preposterous notion that if only all the smoke-filled rooms in the Washington could be aired and fumigated, then all the deals could be done on public televisions by civic-minded officials shuffling their papers with white gloves. …”


A note from one of our past rulers

Some things don’t change, as seen in this letter from Nicholas Biddle to James S. Barbour, 16 April 1833 (source). Barbour served as Secretary of War and Governor of Virginia (Wikipedia).  Biddle was President of the Second Bank of the United States, which President Jackson destroyed.

“I feel myself a much more profound Jurist than all the lawyers and all the statesmen of Virginia put together, for in half an hour, I can remove all the constitutional scruples in the District of Columbia. Half a dozen Presidencies – a dozen Cashierships – fifty Clerkships – a hundred Directorships – to worthy friends who have no character and no money. Why, there is more matter for deep reflection in such a sentence than in any twenty of Tacitus or Montesquieu. It would outweigh the best argument of your Madisons and Randolphs and Watkins Leigh’s.”


For More Information

We can fix America! See the suggestions in Reforming America: steps to a new politics.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about the writings of Lewis Lapham, about political reform, and especially these…

  1. Can we organize the political reform of America? Our past shows how.
  2. The 1% are changing America. It’s our move.
  3. A picture of America, showing a path to political reform.
  4. Much of what we love about America was true only for a moment.
  5. Watch “High Noon” to see why we don’t reform America’s politics.
  6. Andrew Bacevich looks at America’s political rot and describes solutions.

Other great books by Lewis Lapham

The Wish for Kings: Democracy at Bay (1993).

Lights, Camera, Democracy! (2001).

The Wish for Kings. Democracy at Bay
Available at Amazon.
Lights, Camera, Democracy!
Available at Amazon.

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