I am wont, in these days of political turmoil, to find myself lying awake in the empty hours of the night. At such times I often read and reread the columns of Lewis Lapham. This is not only because of his consummate skill as a writer of short essays, but also because his writing from the 1980s, through the early noughties, functions like a sort of core sample of American culture. In it can be read as a history of the fall of American democracy which was, it must be conceded, already well advanced in the heady days of high Reaganism.
I was struck by a piece that Lapham wrote during the political season of 1996 in which he described the ambient unease blighting an upmarket dinner party (East 64th St., New York City, shrimp, and sorbet served to media types sitting cheek by jowl with investment bankers, stock jobbers, and other epigones of finance capitalism) at the choice of Clinton or Dole for president. The general feeling seemed to be that American political culture had somehow fallen away from a golden age in which serious people discussed serious issues in serious tones.
How odd that seems now that some 24% of the electorate has saddled the country with a bilious, spray-tanned buffoon for whom the nattering of the tweet-o-sphere seems the high water mark of intellectual achievement. And who among the attendees of that dinner party would not now give an eye tooth (and much more perhaps) to be able to replace the president-elect with so august a figure as either Clinton or Dole? I suspect that most Americans would be satisfied with the outcome of a coin flip between the two if it meant being spared the wholesale destruction of so many of the nation’s most cherished and salutary institutions.
At the time, Lapham wrote of a “permanent and a provisional government” to which the American political system granted “parallel sovereignty.” The former was the “secular oligarchy,” as Lapham described the 20% of Americans who, at the time, held 90% of the national wealth (if anything the process of concentration has narrowed the segment further).
Obedient to the rule of men, not laws, the upper servants of the permanent government, among them most of the members of Congress and the majority of the news media’s talking heads, enjoy their economic freedoms by way of compensation for the lost of their political liberties, the right to freely purchase in exchange for the right to freely speak.
The provisional government, by contrast, was “the spiritual democracy that comes and goes on the trend of a political season.” It was (and here the use of past tense is intentional) that force which “exemplifies the nation’s moral aspirations, protects the citizenry from unworthy and unholy desires, and devotes itself to the mending of the American soul.” By such means were the institutions of American government and the public sphere maintained. It is, perhaps, the saddest testament to the end of that era that the former became (appointed themselves) the gravediggers of the latter.
American political culture is no longer restrained or protected from its unholiest desires. They are now the coin of the political realm. Whereas in former times, American public opinion might fret and wring its collective hands over the partial failings of this or that figure in the political firmament, today the dominant voice in American public life is that of the drunken frat boy spouting racist invective on a public street corner.
It’s not that the least worthy impulses of the citizenry have somehow slipped the bonds of decency. Rather, they have been converted to the lingua franca of American politics by the denizens of Lapham’s permanent government who have, through a combination of decades-long activism and Citizens United, managed to procure both free purchase and free speech by redefining them as the same thing.
Perhaps the most startling feature of the current conjuncture is the determination of all those most directly involved in the political process to draw the wrong conclusions from recent events. The president-elect tells anyone who will listen that America has given him a mandate to reconfigure the country in any way that the coterie of billionaires with whom he has surrounded himself and stocked his cabinet should see fit.
The fact that Trump was soundly beaten in the popular vote by his main challenger is blithely dismissed with the assertion (absurdly characterized as an opinion and backed with no evidence whatever) that she was the beneficiary of millions of illegal votes. The fact that more than three-quarters of the eligible electorate either voted for someone else or were too nonplussed by the available choices to vote for anyone seems not to have disturbed his darkest imaginings.
The Republican Party, abettors of even Trump’s worst excesses, has also collectively decided to learn nothing from the whole experience. After failing in two bites at the apple against Barack Obama, the GOP might have been expected to engage in a bit of soul searching. How else might it be expected to break out of the shackles of the declining demographic significance of white males and their wives and girlfriends? But, although the rise of Trumpism caused repeated bouts of hand-wringing among the party grandees, Republicans were at least spared the necessity of peering into the mirror and seeing the party of stupid looking back at them.
From this experience, they seem to have drawn the conclusion that there is, in fact, no need to do anything to attract the sentiments of non-whites or women (the latter group having lavished large numbers of votes on a man whose respect for the sanctity of their persons was questionable at best). Rather, the combination of radical jingoism, Jim Crow voter suppression, and gerrymandered electoral districts will be enough to assure their electoral fortunes, a least for the foreseeable future.
For a party that has signally lacked a positive policy for the best part of two decades, the prospect of control of all three branches of government would have been worth striking a deal with Lucifer himself. Fortunately (for their immortal souls if not for the nation at large) in the person of Trump and his white nationalist collaborators they were able to build a working partnership with an off brand alternative of sufficient malevolence. But the question remains as to whether travel down this particular path does not end in some grimmer condition, either with the collapse of the party or (assuming the demographic issues can’t be satisfactorily resolved) with a military coup.
At the center of the political spectrum, currently inhabited by the Democratic Party and Republicans who have not embarked on a one-way journey to the lunatic fringe, the scene is one of confusion and recrimination. Some point to the failings of Hillary Clinton as a candidate, the content of this criticism being her failure to go to this or that place, or take this or that public line, as opposed to the enduring misogyny of large swathes of the American electorate.
But for most the overall strategy seems correct: Americans should want a competent technician, particularly in these days when both the economy and world politics seem balanced on the edge of a knife. And thus the Democrats are prepared to make the same bargain that Blair’s New Labour did two decades ago. Rather than make any systemic waves, they simply tell their core supporters to vote for them because the alternative is definitely worse.
In a lot of respects, it’s not like they’re wrong. The politics of the Republican Party have always been predicated on the maintenance of a white supremacist racial order. But perhaps it might also be worth remembering that it was only a few decades ago that this was true of the Democrats as well. In any case, this can only be a substitute for remedial action directed at the actual problems that people have for so long. Their traditional support base is unlikely to move in any significant numbers to the other party, but there are other ways of registering displeasure such as simply not voting.
Perhaps, taken all together, this is the most frightening thing about the situation in which we currently find ourselves. It is not merely that the institutions restraining the grimmest excesses of the American psyche have broken down catastrophically. It seems also to be the case that those whose task it ought to be to defend or to reconstruct them simply have no idea what to.
This is the danger of the new. As dysfunctional as American politics have been since the Reagan era, there was still a sort of commitment to muddling through, and to not doing obviously stupid things by adopting the nostrums and practices that have come down through the wisdom of our political forebears. These seem now to have been knocked into a cocked hat, and there is simply no way of knowing what may emerge to take their place.
Photograph courtesy of John Kittelsrud. Published under a Creative Commons license.