Age of Folly: America Abandons Its Democracy 1990

Democracy in America?

The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure it is right.

—Judge Learned Hand

lapham_lewis_100x133Over the course of the last eighteen months, no American politician worth his weight in patriotic sentiment has missed a chance to congratulate one of the lesser nations of the earth on its imitation of the American democracy. Invariably, the tone of the compliment is condescending. The politician presents himself as the smiling host who welcomes into the clean and well-lighted rooms of “the American way of life” the ragged and less fortunate guests, who—sadly and through no fault of their own—had wandered for so many years in darkness.

The orators haven’t lacked edifying proofs and instances. First the Chinese students in Tiananmen Square, holding aloft a replica of the Statue of Liberty against the armies of repression. Next the German crowds dancing on the ruin of the Berlin Wall; then the apprentice democrats triumphant in Budapest and Warsaw and Prague; then President Mikhail Gorbachev in Washington, amiably recanting the Communist heresy to his new friend in the White House. And always the Americans, saying, in effect, “You see, we were right all along; we were right, and you were wrong, and if you know what’s good for you, you will go forth and prosper in a bright new world under the light of an American moon.”

At the end of last summer Ronald Reagan was in Berlin, conducting a seminar for the East Germans on the theory and practice of democracy; John Sununu, the White House chief of staff, was in Moscow showing the hierarchs in the Kremlin how to organize the paperwork of a democratic government; a synod of American journalists had gone off to Budapest to teach their Hungarian colleagues how to draft a First Amendment; in Washington the chief correspondent of the New York Times was celebrating the crisis in the Persian Gulf as great and glorious proof that the United States had regained its status as the world’s first and foremost superpower, that all the dreary talk about American bankruptcy and decline was just so much sniveling, trendy rot.

I listen to the speeches and read the bulletins in the newspapers, and I marvel at my own capacity for the willing suspensions of disbelief. I find myself humming along with the self-congratulatory cant on Nightline and Face the Nation or beating four-quarter time with the jingoists’ chorus in Newsweek, and I forget for the moment that we’re talking about a country (the United States of America, a.k.a, “the light of hope and reason in a dark and discordant world”) in which the spirit of democracy is fast becoming as defunct as the late Buffalo Bill. About a country in which most of the population doesn’t take the trouble to vote and would gladly sell its constitutional birthright for a Florida condominium or another twenty days on the corporate expense account. About a country in which the president wages war after consultation with four or five privy councillors and doesn’t inform either the Congress or the electorate (a.k.a. “the freest, happiest, and most enlightened people on earth”) until the armada has sailed.

Although I know that Jefferson once said that it is never permissible “to despair of the commonwealth,” I find myself wondering whether the American experiment with democracy may not have run its course. Not because of the malevolence or cunning of a foreign power (the Russians, the Japanese, the Colombian drug lords, Saddam Hussein) but because a majority of Americans apparently have come to think of democracy as a matter of consensus and parades, as if it were somehow easy, quiet, orderly, and safe. I keep running across people who speak fondly about what they imagine to be the comforts of autocracy, who long for the assurances of the proverbial man on the white horse likely to do something hard and puritanical about the moral relativism that has made a mess of the cities, the schools, and prime-time television.

If the American system of government at present seems so patently at odds with its constitutional hopes and purposes, it is not because the practice of democracy no longer serves the interests of the presiding oligarchy (which it never did), but because the promise of democracy no longer inspires or exalts the citizenry lucky enough to have been born under its star. It isn’t so much that liberty stands at bay but, rather, that it has fallen into disuse, regarded as insufficient by both its enemies and its nominal friends. What is the use of free expression to people so frightened of the future that they prefer the comforts of the authoritative lie? Why insist on the guarantee of so many superfluous civil liberties when everybody already has enough trouble with the interest rates and foreign cars, with too much crime on the streets, too many Mexicans crossing the border, and never enough money to pay the bills? Why bother with the tiresome chore of self-government when the decisions of state can be assigned to the functionaries in Washington, who, if they can be trusted with nothing else, at least have the wit to pretend that they are infallible? President Bush struck the expected pose of omniscience in the course of the 1988 election campaign when he refused to answer a rude question about an American naval blunder in the Persian Gulf (the shooting down of an Iranian airliner) on the ground that he would “never apologize for the United States of America. I don’t care what the facts are.”

As recently as 1980 I knew a good many people who took a passionate interest in politics, who felt keenly what one of them described as “the ancient republican hostility” to the rule of the self-serving few. They knew the names of their elected representatives, and they were as well-informed on the topics of the day as any government spokesman paid to edit the news. By the end of the decade most of them had abandoned their political enthusiasm as if it were a youthful folly they no longer could afford—like hang gliding or writing neosymbolist verse.

Much of the reason for the shift in attitude I attribute to the exemplary cynicism of the Reagan Administration. Here was a government obsequious in its devotion to the purposes of a selfish oligarchy, a regime that cared nothing for the law and prospered for eight years by virtue of its willingness to cheat and steal and lie. And yet, despite its gross and frequent abuses of power, the country made no complaint. The Democratic Party (the nominal party of opposition) uttered not the slightest squeak of an objection. Except for a few journals of small circulation, neither did the media.

During the early years of the administration, even people who recognized the shoddiness of Reagan’s motives thought that the country could stand a little encouragement—some gaudy tinsel and loud advertising, a lot of parades, and a steady supply of easy profits. The country had heard enough of Jimmy Carter’s sermons, and it was sick of listening to prophecies of the American future that could be so easily confused with a coroner’s report. In return for the illusion that the United States was still first in the world’s rankings, the country indulged Reagan in his claptrap economic and geopolitical theories. For a few years it didn’t seem to matter that the Laffer curve and the Strategic Defense Initiative had been imported from the land of Oz. What difference did it make as long as the Japanese were willing to lend money and Rambo was victorious in the movies?

But it turned out that the lies did make a difference—the lies and the Reagan relentless grasping of illegal and autocratic privilege. Congress offered itself for sale to the highest bidder, and the political action committees bought so many politicians of both denominations that it was no longer possible to tell the difference between a Republican and a Democrat: Both sides of the aisle owed their allegiance to the same sponsors. Nor was it possible to distinguish between the executive and the legislative functions of government. Any doubts on this score were dissolved in the midden of the Iran–Contra deals. President Reagan and his aides-de-camp on the National Security Council sold weapons to a terrorist regime in Iran in order to finance a terrorist revolt in Nicaragua. The scheme obliged them to make a mockery of the Constitution, dishonor their oaths of office, declare themselves above the law. They did so without a qualm, and the subsequent congressional investigation absolved them of their crimes and confirmed them in their contempt for the law and the American people. The principal conspirators were allowed to depart with no more than a reprimand.

It was this series of events—so obviously and complacently corrupt throughout the whole course of the narrative—that proved even more damaging to the American polity than the ruin of the economy. Justified by a timid Congress and excused by a compliant media, the Reagan Administration reduced the Constitution to a sheaf of commercial paper no more or less worthless than a promissory note signed by Donald Trump.

The defeat might be easier to bear if the politicians would quit mouthing the word “democracy.” If they were to say instead, “Yes, we are a great nation because we obey the rule of the expedient lie” or, “Yes, believe in our power because we have gerrymandered our politics to serve the interests of wealth,” I might find it easier to wave the flag and swell the unison of complacent applause.

But not “democracy.” Maybe “plutocracy,” or “oligarchy,” or even “state capitalism,” but not, please God, “a free nation under law” or, as a professor of government put it in an address to a crowd of newly naturalized citizens of Monticello, the “moral and political reasoning [that] is the republic’s unique and priceless heritage.”

What “moral and political reasoning”? Between which voices of conscience, and where would the heritage be exhibited to public view? On network television? In the U.S. Senate? In a high school auditorium in Detroit?

Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait presented a fairly prominent occasion for a display of America’s moral and political reasoning, but it was a spectacle that nobody wanted to see or hear. The national choir of newspaper columnists banged their cymbals and drums, shouting for the head of the monster of Baghdad. Loudly and without a single exception, the 535 members of Congress declared themselves loyal to the great American truth that had descended into the Arabian desert with the 82nd Airborne Division. The television networks introduced a parade of generals, all of them explicating the texts of glorious war. The few individuals who publicly questioned the wisdom of the president’s policy instantly found themselves classified as subversives, spoilsports, ingrates, and sore thumbs.

The judgment is one with which I am familiar, probably because my own remarks on the state of American politics often have been attacked by more or less the same gang of angry nouns. With respect to the argument in progress, I can imagine the rejoinder pronounced by a self-satisfied gentleman in his middle forties, a reader of Time magazine and a friend of the American Enterprise Institute. He wears a three-piece suit and speaks slowly and patiently, as if to a foreigner or a prospective suicide. Having done well by the system, he begins by reminding me that I, too, have done well by the system and should show a decent respect for the blessings of property. His voice is as smug as his faith in the American political revelation (“not perfect, of course, but the best system on offer in an imperfect world”). His argument resolves into categorical statements, usually four, presented as facets of a flawless truth.

1. The American government is formed by the rule of the ballot box. What other country trusts its destiny to so many free elections?

The statement is true to the extent that it describes a ritual, not a function, of government. Early last spring the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press conducted a survey of the political attitudes prevailing among a random sampling of citizens between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine. To nobody’s surprise the survey discovered a generation that “knows less, cares less, votes less and is less critical of its leaders and institutions than young people in the past.” The available statistics support the impression of widespread political apathy. In this month’s congressional election it is expected that as many as 120 million Americans (two thirds of the eligible electorate) will not bother to vote.

The numbers suggest that maybe the people who don’t vote have good and sufficient reasons for their abstentions. Vote for what and for whom? For a program of false promises and empty platitudes? For ambitious office-seekers distinguished chiefly by their talents for raising money? For a few rich men (i.e., the sixty or seventy senators possessing assets well in excess of $1 million) who can afford to buy a public office as if it were a beach house or a rubber duck?

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 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 percent of the present United States Congress were in office in 1980, as opposed to 4 percent of the Supreme Soviet). The sponsors back the safe bets and receive the assurance of safe opinions. (As of last June 30, the incumbent senators up for reelection this month had collected $83.1 million for their campaigns, as opposed to $25.9 million raised on behalf of the insurgents.)

A democracy supposedly derives its strength and character from the diversity of its many voices, but the politicians in the Capitol speak with only one voice, which is the voice of the oligarchy that buys the airline tickets and the television images. Among the company of legislators in Washington or Albany or Sacramento I look in vain for a representation of my own interests or opinions, and 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 percent 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 sponsors and friends.

Maybe it still can be said that the United States is a representative government in the theatrical sense of the word, but if I want to observe the workings of democracy I would be better advised to follow the debate in the Czech Parliament or the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies. The newly enfranchised politicians in Eastern Europe write their own speeches and delight in the passion of words that allows them to seize and shape the course of a new history and a new world. Unlike American voters, voters in the Soviet Union (repeat, the Soviet Union, Russia, the U.S.S.R., the “Evil Empire,” the Communist prison, etc., etc.) enjoy the right to express the full range of their opinions at the polls. Instead of marking the ballot for a favored candidate, the Soviet voter crosses off the names of the politicians whom he has reason to distrust or despise. He can vote against all the candidates, even an incumbent standing unopposed. Because a Soviet politician must receive an absolute majority, the election isn’t valid unless more than half of the electorate votes, which means that in Moscow or Leningrad the citizens can vote for “none of the above,” and by doing so they can do what the voters in New York or Los Angeles cannot do—throw the thieves into the street.

2.Democratic government is self-government, and in America the state is owned and operated by the citizens.

I admire the sentiment, and I am willing to believe that in the good old days before most of what was worth knowing about the mechanics of government disappeared under the seals of classified information, it was still conceivable that the business of the state could be conducted by amateurs. In the early years of the twentieth century, it was still possible for anybody passing by the White House to walk through the front door and expect a few words with the president. It’s true that the promise of democracy is synonymous with the idea of the citizen. The enterprise requires the collaboration of everybody present, and it fails (or evolves into something else) unless enough people perceive their government as subject rather than object, as animate organism rather than automatic vending machine.

Such an antique or anthropomorphic understanding of politics no longer satisfies the wish to believe in kings or queens or fairy tales. Ask almost anybody in any street about the nature of American government, and he or she will describe it as something that belongs to somebody else, as a them, not an us. Only advanced students of political science remember how a caucus works, or what is written in the Constitution, or who paves the roads. The active presence of the citizen gives way to the passive absence of the consumer, and citizenship devolves into a function of economics. Every two or four or six years the politicians ask the voters whether they recognize themselves as better or worse off than they were the last time anybody asked. The question is only and always about money, never about the spirit of the laws or the cherished ideals that embody the history of the people. The commercial definition of democracy prompts the politicians to conceive of and advertise the republic as if it were a resort hotel. They promise the voters the rights and comforts owed to them by virtue of their status as America’s guests. The subsidiary arguments amount to little more than complaints about the number, quality, and cost of the available services. The government (a.k.a. the hotel management) preserves its measure of trust in the exact degree that it satisfies the whims of its patrons and meets the public expectation of convenience and style at a fair price. A debased electorate asks of the state what the rich ask of their servants—i.e., “comfort us,” “tell us what to do.” The wish to be cared for replaces the will to act.

3.The American democracy guarantees the freedom of its people and the honesty of its government with a system of checks and balances; the division or separation of powers prevents the government from indulging the pleasures of despotism; the two-party system ensures the enactment of just laws vigorously debated and openly arrived at.

It was precisely this principle that the Iran–Contra deals (the trading of weapons for hostages as well as the subsequent reprieves and exonerations) proved null and void. President Reagan usurped the prerogatives of Congress, and Congress made no objection. President Bush exercised the same option with respect to the expedition in the Persian Gulf, and again Congress made no objection, not even when it was discovered that Saudi Arabia had offered to hire the CIA to arrange the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. For the last forty years it has been the practice of the American government to wage a war at the will and discretion of the foreign-policy apparat in Washington—without reference to the wishes or opinions of the broad mass of the American people.

Dean Acheson, secretary of state in the Truman Administration, understood as long ago as 1947 that if the government wished to do as it pleased, then it would be necessary to come up with a phrase, slogan, or article of faith that could serve as a pretext for arbitrary decisions. He hit upon the word “nonpartisan.” Knowing that the American people might balk at the adventure of the Cold War if they thought that the subject was open to discussion, he explained to his confederates in the State Department that a militant American foreign policy had to be presented as a “nonpartisan issue,” that any and all domestic political quarreling about the country’s purposes “stopped at the water’s edge.”

“If we can make them believe that,” Acheson said, “we’re off to the races.”

Among the promoters of the national security state, the theory of “nonpartisanship” was accorded the weight of biblical revelation, and for the next two generations it proved invaluable to a succession of presidents bent on waging declared and undeclared wars in Korea, Vietnam, Guatemala, Grenada, Panama, Cambodia, Lebanon, Nicaragua, and the Persian Gulf. President John F. Kennedy elaborated the theory into a doctrine not unlike the divine right of kings. At a press conference in May 1962, Kennedy said, with sublime arrogance,

Most of us are conditioned for many years to have a political viewpoint—Republican or Democratic, liberal, conservative, or moderate. The fact of the matter is that most of the problems … that we now face are technical problems, are administrative problems. They are very sophisticated judgments, which do not lend themselves to the great sort of passionate movements [that] have stirred this country so often in the past. [They] deal with questions which are now beyond the comprehension of most men.

To President Bush the word “nonpartisan” is the alpha and omega of government by administrative decree: a word for all seasons; a word that avoids the embarrassment of forthright political argument; a word with which to send the troops to Saudi Arabia, postpone decisions on the budget, diffuse the blame for the savings and loan swindle. The White House staff takes pride in the techniques of what its operatives refer to as “conflict avoidance.” Speaking to a writer for the New Republic in August, one of Bush’s senior press agents said, “We don’t do [political] fighting in this administration. We do bipartisan compromising.”

But in a democracy everything is partisan. Democratic politics is about nothing else except being partisan. The American dialectic assumes argument not only as the normal but as the necessary condition of its continued existence. The structure of the idea resembles a suspension bridge rather than a pyramid or a mosque. Its strength depends on the balance struck between countervailing forces, and the idea collapses unless the stresses oppose one another with equal weight, unless enough people have enough courage to sustain the argument between rich and poor, the government and the governed, city and suburb, presidency and Congress, capital and labor, matter and mind. It is precisely these arguments (i.e., the very stuff and marrow of democracy) that the word “nonpartisan” seeks to annul. With reference to domestic political arguments, the word “consensus” serves the same purpose as the word “nonpartisan” does in the realm of foreign affairs: It is another sleight of hand that makes possible the perpetual avoidance of any question that might excite the democratic passions of a free people bent on governing themselves. The trick is to say as little as possible in a language so bland that the speaker no longer can be accused of harboring an unpleasant opinion. Adhere firmly to the safe cause and the popular sentiment. Talk about the flag or drugs or crime (never about race or class or justice) and follow the yellow brick road to the wonderful land of “consensus.” In place of honest argument among consenting adults, the politicians substitute a lullaby for frightened children: the pretense that conflict doesn’t really exist, that we have achieved the blessed state in which (because we are all American and therefore content) we no longer need politics. The mere mention of the word “politics” brings with it the odor of something low and rotten and mean.

Confronted with genuinely stubborn and irreconcilable differences (about revising the schedule of Social Security payments, say, or closing down a specific number of the nation’s military bases), the politicians assign the difficulty to the law courts, or to a special prosecutor, or to a presidential commission. In line with its habitual cowardice, Congress this past September dispatched a few of its most pettifogging members to Andrews Air Force Base, where, behind closed doors, it was hoped they might construct the facade of an agreement on the budget.

For the better part of 200 years it was the particular genius of the American democracy to compromise its differences within the context of an open debate. For the most part (i.e., with the tragic exception of the Civil War), the society managed to assimilate and smooth out the edges of its antagonisms and by so doing to hold in check the violence bent on its destruction. The success of the enterprise derived from the rancor of the nation’s loudmouthed politics—on the willingness of its citizens and their elected representatives to defend their interests, argue their case, and say what they meant. But if the politicians keep silent, and if the citizenry no longer cares to engage in what it regards as the distasteful business of debate, then the American dialectic cannot attain a synthesis or resolution. The democratic initiative passes to the demagogues in the streets, and the society falls prey to the ravening minorities in league with the extremists of all denominations who claim alliance with the higher consciousness and the absolute truth. The eloquence of Daniel Webster or Henry Clay degenerates into the muttering of Al Sharpton or David Duke.

The deliberate imprecision of the Constitution (sufficiently vague and spacious to allow the hope of a deal) gives way to rigid enumerations of privileges and rights. A democracy in sound working order presupposes a ground of tolerance, in Judge Learned Hand’s phrase, “the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.” I might think that the other fellow is wrong, but I do not think that he is therefore wicked. A democracy in decay acquires the pale and deadly cast of theocracy. Not only is the other fellow wrong (about abortion, obscenity, or the flag); he is also, by definition, an agent of the Antichrist.

4.The Constitution presents the American people with as great a gift of civil liberties as ever has been granted by any government in the history of the world.

But liberty, like the habit of telling the truth, withers and decays unless it’s put to use, and for the last ten years it seems as if the majority of Americans would rather not suffer the embarrassment of making a scene (in a public place) about so small a trifle as a civil right. With scarcely a murmur of objection, they fill out the official forms, answer the questions, submit to the compulsory urine or blood tests, and furnish information to the government, the insurance companies, and the police.

The Bush Administration cries up a war on drugs, and the public responds with a zeal for coercion that would have gladdened the hearts of the Puritan judges presiding over the Salem witch trials. Of the respondents questioned by an ABC/Washington Post poll in September 1989, 55 percent supported mandatory drug testing for all Americans, 52 percent were willing to have their homes searched, and 83 percent favored reporting suspected drug users to the police, even if the suspects happened to be members of their own family. Politicians of both parties meet with sustained applause when they demand longer jail sentences and harsher laws as well as the right to invade almost everybody’s privacy; to search, without a warrant, almost anybody’s automobile or boat; to bend the rules of evidence, hire police spies, and attach (again without a warrant) the wires of electronic surveillance. Within the last five years the Supreme Court has granted increasingly autocratic powers to the police—permission (without probable cause) to stop, detain, and question a traveler passing through the nation’s airports in whom the police can see a resemblance to a drug dealer; permission (again without probable cause) to search barns, stop motorists, inspect bank records, and tap phones.

The same Times Mirror survey that discovered a general indifference toward all things political also discovered that most of the respondents didn’t care whether a fair percentage of the nation’s politicians proved to be scoundrels and liars. Such was the nature of their task, and it was thought unfair to place on the political authorities the additional and excessive burden of too many harsh or pointed questions. “Let them,” said one of the poor dupes of a respondent, “authoritate.”

Democracy, of course, is never easy to define. The meaning of the word changes with the vagaries of time, place, and circumstance. The American democracy in 1990 is not what it was in 1890; democracy in France is not what it is in England or Norway or the United States. What remains more or less constant is a temperament or spirit of mind rather than a code of laws, a set of immutable virtues or a table of bureaucratic organization. The temperament is skeptical and contentious, and if democracy means anything at all (if it isn’t what Gore Vidal called “the great American nonsense word” or what H. L. Mencken regarded as a synonym for the collective fear and prejudice of an ignorant mob), it means the freedom of thought and the perpetual expansion of the discovery that the world is not oneself. Freedom of thought brings the society the unwelcome news that it is in trouble. But because all societies, like all individuals, are always in trouble, the news doesn’t cause them to perish. They die instead from the fear of thought—from the paralysis that accompanies the wish to make time stand still and punish the insolence of an Arab who makes a nuclear bomb or sells gasoline for more than twenty-five dollars a barrel.

Democracy allies itself with change and proceeds on the assumption that nobody knows enough, that nothing is final, that the old order (whether of men or institutions) will be carried offstage every twenty years. The multiplicity of its voices and forms assumes a ceaseless making and remaking of laws and customs as well as equations and matinee idols. Democratic government is a purpose held in common, and if it can be understood as a field of temporary coalitions among people of different interests, skills, and generations, then everybody has need of everybody else. To the extent that democracy gives its citizens a chance to chase their own dreams, it gives itself the chance not only of discovering its multiple glories and triumphs but also of surviving its multiple follies and crimes.

Lewis H. Lapham