Feast of Fools

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This post originally appeared on TomDispatch.

[A longer
version of this essay appears in “Politics,” the Fall 2012 issue of
Lapham’s Quarterly;
this slightly shortened version is posted at TomDispatch.com with the kind
permission of that magazine.

All power
corrupts but some must govern.
— John le Carré

The ritual
performance of the legend of democracy in the autumn of 2012 promises the
conspicuous consumption of $5.8 billion, enough money, thank God, to prove that
our flag is still there. Forbidden the use of words apt to depress a Q Score or
disturb a Gallup
poll, the candidates stand as product placements meant to be seen instead of
heard, their quality to be inferred from the cost of their manufacture. The
sponsors of the event, generous to a fault but careful to remain anonymous,
dress it up with the bursting in air of star-spangled photo ops, abundant
assortments of multiflavored sound bites, and the candidates so well-contrived
that they can be played for jokes, presented as game-show contestants, or posed
as noble knights-at-arms setting forth on vision quests, enduring the trials by
klieg light, until on election night they come to judgment before the throne of
cameras by whom and for whom they were produced.

Best of all, at least from the point of view of the commercial oligarchy
paying for both the politicians and the press coverage, the issue is never
about the why of who owes what to whom, only about the how much and when, or
if, the check is in the mail. No loose talk about what is meant by the word democracy
or in what ways it refers to the cherished hope of liberty embodied in the
history of a courageous people.

The campaigns
don’t favor the voters with the gratitude and respect owed to their standing as
valuable citizens participant in the making of such a thing as a common good.
They stay on message with their parsing of democracy as the ancient Greek name
for the American Express card, picturing the great, good American place as a
Florida resort hotel wherein all present receive the privileges and comforts
owed to their status as valued customers, invited to convert the practice of
citizenship into the art of shopping, to select wisely from the campaign
advertisements, texting A for Yes, B for No.

The sales pitch
bends down to the electorate as if to a crowd of restless children, deems the
body politic incapable of generous impulse, selfless motive, or creative
thought, delivers the insult with a headwaiter’s condescending smile. How then
expect the people to trust a government that invests no trust in them? Why the
surprise that over the last 30 years the voting public has been giving
ever-louder voice to its contempt for any and all politicians, no matter what
their color, creed, prior arrest record, or sexual affiliation? The congressional
disapproval rating (78% earlier this year) correlates with the estimates of low
attendance among young voters (down 20% from 2008) at the November polls.

as an ATM

If democracy
means anything at all (if it isn’t what the late Gore Vidal called “the
national nonsense-word”), it is the holding of one’s fellow citizens in
thoughtful regard, not because they are beautiful or rich or famous, but
because they are one’s fellow citizens. Republican democracy is a shared work
of the imagination among people of myriad talents, interests, voices, and
generations that proceeds on the premise that the labor never ends, entails a
ceaseless making and remaking of its laws and customs, i.e., a sentient
organism as opposed to an ATM, the government an us, not a them.

Contrary to the
contemporary view of politics as a rat’s nest of paltry swindling, Niccolò
Machiavelli, the fifteenth-century courtier and political theorist, rates it as
the most worthy of human endeavors when supported by a citizenry possessed of
the will to act rather than the wish to be cared for. Without the “affection of
peoples for self-government…cities have never increased either in dominion or

Thomas Paine in
the opening chapter of Common Sense finds “the strength of government
and the happiness of the governed” in the freedom of the common people to
“mutually and naturally support each other.” He envisions a bringing together
of representatives from every quarter of society — carpenters and shipwrights
as well as lawyers and saloonkeepers — and his thinking about the mongrel
splendors of democracy echoes that of Plato in The Republic: “Like a
coat embroidered with every kind of ornament, this city, embroidered with every
kind of character, would seem to be the most beautiful.”

Published in
January 1776, Paine’s pamphlet ran through printings of 500,000 copies in a few
months and served as the founding document of the American Revolution, its line
of reasoning implicit in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. The
wealthy and well-educated gentlemen who gathered 11 years later in Philadelphia to frame the
Constitution shared Paine’s distrust of monarchy but not his faith in the
abilities of the common people, whom they were inclined to look upon as the
clear and present danger seen by the delegate Gouverneur Morris as an ignorant
rabble and a “riotous mob.”

From Aristotle
the founders borrowed the theorem that all government, no matter what its name
or form, incorporates the means by which the privileged few arrange the
distribution of law and property for the less-fortunate many. Recognizing in
themselves the sort of people to whom James Madison assigned “the most wisdom
to discern, and the most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society,”
they undertook to draft a constitution that employed an aristocratic means to
achieve a democratic end.

Accepting of
the fact that whereas a democratic society puts a premium on equality, a
capitalist economy does not, the contrivance was designed to nurture both the
private and the public good, accommodate the motions of the heart as well as
the movement of the market, the institutions of government meant to support the
liberties of the people, not the ambitions of the state. By combining the
elements of an organism with those of a mechanism, the Constitution offered as
warranty for the meeting of its objectives the character of the men charged
with its conduct and deportment, i.e., the enlightened tinkering of what both Jefferson
and Hamilton conceived as a class of patrician landlords presumably relieved of
the necessity to cheat and steal and lie.

intentions, like mother’s milk, are a perishable commodity. As wealth
accumulates, men decay, and sooner or later an aristocracy that once might have
aspired to an ideal of wisdom and virtue goes rancid in the sun, becomes an
oligarchy distinguished by a character that Aristotle likened to that of “the
prosperous fool” — its members so besotted by their faith in money that “they
therefore imagine there is nothing that it cannot buy.”

the Feast of Fools

The making of America’s
politics over the last 236 years can be said to consist of the attempt to ward
off, or at least postpone, the feast of fools. Some historians note that what
the framers of the Constitution hoped to establish in 1787 (“a republic,”
according to Benjamin Franklin, “if you can keep it”) didn’t survive the War of
1812. Others suggest that the republic was gutted by the spoils system
introduced by Andrew Jackson in the 1830s. None of the informed sources doubt
that it perished during the prolonged heyday of the late-nineteenth-century
Gilded Age.

Mark Twain
coined the phrase to represent his further observation that a society
consisting of the sum of its vanity and greed is not a society at all but a
state of war. In the event that anybody missed Twain’s meaning, President
Grover Cleveland in 1887 set forth the rules of engagement while explaining his
veto of a bill offering financial aid to the poor: “The lesson should be
constantly enforced that, though the people support the government, the
government should not support the people.”

Twenty years later, Arthur T. Hadley, the president of
Yale, provided an academic gloss: “The fundamental division of powers in the
Constitution of the United
States is between voters on the one hand and
property owners on the other. The forces of democracy on the one side… and
the forces of property on the other side.”

In the years
between the Civil War and the Great Depression, the forces of democracy pushed
forward civil-service reform in the 1880s, the populist rising in the 1890s,
the progressive movement in the 1910s, President Teddy Roosevelt’s preservation
of the nation’s wilderness and his harassment of the Wall Street trusts — but
it was the stock-market collapse in 1929 that equipped the strength of the
country’s democratic convictions with the power of the law. What Paine had
meant by the community of common interest found voice and form in Franklin
Roosevelt’s New Deal, in the fighting of World War II by a citizen army willing
and able to perform what Machiavelli would have recognized as acts of public

During the
middle years of the twentieth century, America at times showed itself deserving
of what Albert Camus named as a place “where the single word liberty
makes hearts beat faster,” the emotion present and accounted for in the passage
of the Social Security Act, in the mounting of the anti-Vietnam War and civil
rights movements, in the promise of LBJ’s Great Society. But that was long ago
and in another country, and instead of making hearts beat faster, the word liberty
in America’s
currently reactionary scheme of things slows the pulse and chills the blood.

Ronald Reagan’s
new Morning in America brought with it in the early 1980s the second coming of
a gilded age more swinish than the first, and as the country continues to
divide ever more obviously into a nation of the rich and a nation of the poor,
the fictions of unity and democratic intent lose their capacity to command
belief. If by the time Bill Clinton
had settled comfortably into the White House it was no longer possible to
pretend that everybody was as equal as everybody else, it was clear that all
things bright and beautiful were to be associated with the word private,
terminal squalor and toxic waste with the word public.

The shaping of
the will of Congress and the choosing of the American president has become a
privilege reserved to the country’s equestrian classes, a.k.a. the 20% of the
population that holds 93% of the wealth, the happy few who run the corporations
and the banks, own and operate the news and entertainment media, compose the
laws and govern the universities, control the philanthropic foundations, the
policy institutes, the casinos, and the sports arenas. Their anxious and
spendthrift company bears the mark of oligarchy ridden with the disease
diagnosed by the ancient Greeks as pleonexia, the appetite for more of
everything — more McMansions, more defense contracts, more beachfront, more
tax subsidy, more prosperous fools. Aristotle mentions a faction of especially
reactionary oligarchs in ancient Athens who took
a vow of selfishness not unlike the anti-tax pledge administered by Grover
Norquist to Republican stalwarts in modern Washington: “I will be an enemy to the
people and will devise all the harm against them which I can.”

Government That Sets Itself Above the Law

The hostile
intent has been conscientiously sustained over the last 30 years, no matter
which party is in control of Congress or the White House, and no matter what
the issue immediately at hand — the environment or the debt, defense spending
or campaign-finance reform. The concentrations of wealth and power express
their fear and suspicion of the American people with a concerted effort to
restrict their liberties, letting fall into disrepair nearly all of the
infrastructure — roads, water systems, schools, power plants, bridges,
hospitals — that provides the country with the foundation of its common

The domestic
legislative measures accord with the formulation of a national-security state
backed by the guarantee of never-ending foreign war that arms the government
with police powers more repressive than those available to the agents of the
eighteenth-century British crown. The Justice Department reserves the right to
tap anybody’s phone, open anybody’s mail, decide who is, and who is not, an
un-American. The various government security agencies now publish 50,000
intelligence reports a year, monitoring the world’s Web traffic and sifting the
footage from surveillance cameras as numerous as the stars in the Milky Way.
President Barack Obama elaborates President George W. Bush’s notions of
preemptive strike by claiming the further privilege to order the killing of any
American citizen overseas who is believed to be a terrorist or a friend of
terrorists, to act the part of jury, judge, and executioner whenever and
however it suits his exalted fancy.

Troubled op-ed
columnists sometimes refer to the embarrassing paradox implicit in the waging
of secret and undeclared war under the banners of a free, open, and democratic
society. They don’t proceed to the further observation that the nation’s
foreign policy is cut from the same criminal cloth as its domestic economic
policy. The invasion of Iraq
in 2003 and the predatory business dealing that engendered the Wall Street
collapse in 2008 both enjoyed the full faith and backing of a government that
sets itself above the law.

The upper
servants of the oligarchy, among them most of the members of Congress and the
majority of the news media’s talking heads, receive their economic freedoms by
way of compensation for the loss of their political liberties. The right to
freely purchase in exchange for the right to freely speak. If they wish to hold
a public office or command attention as upholders of the truth, they can’t
afford to fool around with any new, possibly subversive ideas.

Paine had in
mind a representative assembly that asked as many questions as possible from as
many different sorts of people as possible. The ensuing debate was expected to
be loud, forthright, and informative. James Fenimore Cooper seconded the motion
in 1838, arguing that the strength of the American democracy rests on the
capacity of its citizens to speak and think without cant. “By candor we are not
to understand trifling and uncalled-for expositions of truth… but a sentiment
that proves the conviction of the necessity of speaking truth, when speaking at
all; a contempt for all designing evasions of our real opinions. In all the
general concerns, the public has a right to be treated with candor. Without
this manly and truly republican quality… the institutions are converted into
a stupendous fraud.”

prefers trifling evasions to real opinions. The preference accounts for the
current absence of honest or intelligible debate on Capitol Hill. The members
of Congress embody the characteristics of only one turn of mind — that of the
obliging publicist. They leave it to staff assistants to write the legislation
and the speeches, spend 50% of their time soliciting campaign funds. When
standing in a hotel ballroom or when seated in a television studio, it is the
duty of the tribunes of the people to insist that the drug traffic be stopped,
the budget balanced, the schools improved, paradise regained. Off camera, they
bootleg the distribution of the nation’s wealth to the gentry at whose feet
they dance for coins.

A Media
Enabling and Codependent

As with the
Congress, so also with the major news media that serve at the pleasure of a
commercial oligarchy that pays them, and pays them handsomely, for their
pretense of speaking truth to power. On network television, the giving voice to
what Cooper would have regarded as real opinions doesn’t set up a tasteful
lead-in to the advertisements for Pantene Pro-V or the U.S. Marine Corps. The
prominent figures in our contemporary Washington
press corps regard themselves as government functionaries, enabling and
codependent. Their point of view is that of the country’s landlords, their
practice equivalent to what is known among Wall Street stock market touts as
“securitizing the junk.”

The time
allowed on Face the Nation or Meet the Press facilitates the
transmission of sound-bite spin and the swallowing of welcome lies. Explain to
us, my general, why the United States
must continue the war in Afghanistan,
and we will relay the message to the American people in words of two syllables.
Instruct us, Mr. Chairman, in the reasons why the oil companies and the banks
produce the paper that Congress doesn’t read but passes into law, and we will
show the reasons to be sound. Do not be frightened by our pretending to be
scornful or suspicious. Give us this day our daily bread, and we will hide your
stupidity and greed in plain sight, in the rose bushes of inside-the-beltway

The cable-news networks
meanwhile package dissent as tabloid entertainment, a commodity so clearly
labeled as pasteurized ideology that it is rendered harmless and threatens
nobody with the awful prospect of having to learn something they didn’t already
know. Comedians on the order of Jon Stewart and Bill Maher respond with jokes
offered as consolation prizes for the acceptance of things as they are and the
loss of hope in things as they might become. As soporifics, not, God forbid, as
incitements to revolution or the setting up of guillotines in Yankee Stadium
and the Staples Center.

Barack Obama
and Mitt Romney hold each other responsible for stirring up class warfare
between the 1% and the 99%; each of them can be counted upon to mourn the
passing of America’s
once-upon-a-time egalitarian state of grace. They deliver the message to
fund-raising dinners that charge up to $40,000 for the poached salmon, but the
only thing worth noting in the ballroom or the hospitality tent is the absence
among the invited bank accounts (prospective donor, showcase celebrity,
attending journalist) of anybody intimately acquainted with–seriously angry
about, other than rhetorically interested in–the fact of being poor.

When intended
to draw blood instead of laughs, speaking truth to power doesn’t lead to a
secure retirement on the beach at Martha’s Vineyard.
Paine was the most famous political thinker of his day, his books in the late
eighteenth century selling more copies than the Bible, but after the Americans
had won their War of Independence, his notions of democracy were deemed
unsuitable to the work of dividing up the spoils. The proprietors of their
newfound estate claimed the privilege of apportioning its freedoms, and they
remembered that Paine opposed the holding of slaves and the denial to women of
the same sort of rights awarded to men. A man too much given to plain speaking,
on too familiar terms with the lower orders of society, and therefore not to be

His opinions
having become both suspect and irrelevant in Philadelphia, Paine sailed in 1787
for Europe, where he was soon charged with seditious treason in Britain (for
publishing part two of The Rights of Man), imprisoned and sentenced to
death in France (for his opposition to the execution of Louis XVI on the ground
that it was an unprincipled act of murder). In 1794, Paine fell from grace as
an American patriot as a consequence of his publishing The Age of Reason,
the pamphlet in which he ridiculed the authority of an established church and
remarked on “the unrelenting vindictiveness with which more than half the Bible
is filled.” The American congregation found him guilty of the crime of
blasphemy, and on his return to America
in 1802, he was met at the dock in Baltimore
with newspaper headlines damning him as a “loathsome reptile,” a “lying,
drunken, brutal infidel.”When he died in poverty in 1809, he
was buried, as unceremoniously as a dog in a ditch, in unhallowed ground on his
farm in New Rochelle.

misfortunes speak to the difference between politics as a passing around of
handsome platitudes and politics as a sowing of the bitter seeds of social
change. The speaking of truth to power when the doing so threatens to lend to
words the force of deeds is as rare as it is brave. The signers of the
Declaration of Independence accepted the prospect of being hanged in the event
that America
lost the war.

Our own
contemporary political discourse lacks force and meaning because it is a
commodity engineered, like baby formula and Broadway musicals, to dispose of
any and all unwonted risk. The forces of property occupying both the government
and the news media don’t rate politics as a serious enterprise, certainly not
as one worth the trouble to suppress.

It is the
wisdom of the age — shared by Democrat and Republican, by forlorn idealist and
anxious realist — that money rules the world, transcends the boundaries of
sovereign states, serves as the light unto the nations, and waters the tree of
liberty. What need of statesmen, much less politicians, when it isn’t really
necessary to know their names or remember what they say? The future is a
product to be bought, not a fortune to be told.

Happily, at
least for the moment, the society is rich enough to afford the staging of the
fiction of democracy as a means of quieting the suspicions of a potentially
riotous mob with the telling of a fairy tale. The rising cost of the production
— the pointless nominating conventions decorated with 15,000 journalists as backdrop
for the 150,000 balloons — reflects the ever-increasing rarity of the
demonstrable fact. The country is being asked to vote in November for
television commercials because only in the fanciful time zone of a television
commercial can the American democracy still be said to exist.

Lewis H.
Lapham is editor of
, and a TomDispatch regular. Formerly editor of Harper’s
Magazine, he is the author of numerous books, including Money and
Class in America,
Theater of War, Gag Rule, and, most recently, Pretensions to Empire. The New York Times has
likened him to H.L. Mencken;
Vanity Fair has suggested a strong
resemblance to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has compared him to Montaigne. This
essay, shortened slightly for TomDispatch, introduces “Politics,” the
Fall 2012 issue of
Lapham’s Quarterly.

Copyright 2012
Lewis Lapham

Image by the Josh Copeland,
licensed under Creative

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