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Feast of Fools

How American democracy became the property of a commercial oligarchy.

| Thu Sep. 20, 2012 4:12 PM PDT
Thomas Paine.

A longer version of this essay appears in "Politics," the Fall 2012 issue of Lapham's Quarterly; this slightly shortened version was first posted at the TomDispatch website.

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.

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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.

Democracy 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 wealth."

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.

Good 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."

Postponing 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 conscience.

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.

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