Lapham always made beautiful sense to me. He articulated my unease about the dark undercurrents of neocon rhetoric during the false calm of the 80’s and 90’s. America was straying from its ideals, and while most observers accepted these diversions, Lapham called them out, over and over, in roseate prose – complete with thorns.
He was writing with passion and purpose. It was never completely clear what end he sought, but my impression was that he wanted to retrace some false steps in the long American experiment and then resume on a more principled footing.
There was no good reason to expect this lion of political letters to deliver the summation of his writings during a Toronto stopover, but I listened nonetheless for a depiction, a vignette, even an evocative phrase, revealing the change he wanted in the world. Scholars can undoubtedly tell me exactly what Lapham wants America to be, but I wanted to hear it in the soothing voice of the man himself, sitting on the stage, reading from his notes, too unsteady to stand at the microphone.
I didn’t get it. I’m not saying that it wasn’t there or even that it should have been. Nor am I dissatisfied with what I heard. Yet I feel that he raised and stopped short of answering the provocative question that should have been his point from the start.
He opened with the thesis that Donald Trump is neither a cause nor an effect of anything. Trump is merely the latest manifestation of a political culture that lost its way almost 40 years ago. Its divergence from the true course of American democracy occurred with the election of Ronald Reagan and every president since. Critical institutions, like the press and academia, have been complicit in this slip sideways.
It’s fine to be outraged about Trump’s behaviour, but America turned away from its envisaged future long before his ascension, and Lapham offered no reason to believe that the way back will be found anytime soon. On paper, his speech would have been read as an angry lament, but Lapham delivered it like a bedtime story, an avuncular fable about some implausibly confounded world, meant to scare children into reforming their behaviour.
He kept tempting us to wonder if the situation could really be so bad, and then showing us how it is actually worse, and worsening every day. Trump is just a measure of how low the political culture has fallen so far, benefiting a tiny minority while exhorting the rest to patriotic sacrifice and nativist resentment.
He offered a quote from Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish appointment to the US Supreme Court, nominated by Woodrow Wilson in 1916. Vehemently opposed for political heterodoxy by the conservative establishment, he unflinchingly stated America’s stark dilemma. Lapham chose to echo and amplify the following quote:
“We must make our choice. We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”
Over a span that included the Great Depression, two world wars, unprecedented technological advancement and economic growth, America chose to pursue, however imperfectly, democracy. According to Lapham, the signal of change came with a consensus of the elite to engineer a restructuring of the economy that started with a black and white movie star’s election in 1980. It continued, substantially unabated, through the Bush Sr., Clinton, Bush Jr., and Obama years, accentuating the division between rich and poor, and now the country looks irreparably divided. The 2017 ascension of a television celebrity to the presidency is unsurprising given the 1980 election of Reagan at the start of this period.
Lapham characterized the current state as a small group of greedy and frightened elites, nervously manipulating the levers of government, economy, media, and education to distract a large and growing group of angry, ill-informed people from the fact that they bear the debt left from the gradual wealth grab by the new oligarchs. Trump’s tax cut is nothing more than the continuation of a stealthy wealth transfer, remarkable only for its brazenness.
By this point, he had his audience horrified by the depth of cultural decline and the dreadfulness of the outcome. He was timidly asked about hope, but he had none to offer. He remarked that he always counselled others to hope but couldn’t say why.
Here is where the provocative question needed to be asked and answered. How can American be induced to reverse the choice of oligarchy over democracy, just as Brandeis said that it must. It is, after all, a choice, and just as it was changed once, it can be changed back again, if enough small “d” democrats and small “r” republicans will it. But how can the trick be accomplished if the mechanics of democracy are so far gone?
I would have been interested to hear Lapham’s view of Thomas Pickety’s account of disruptions to the recurrent pattern of wealth concentration in western economies. In Capital in the 21st Century, Pickety illustrates statistically the effects of revolution and war on the distribution of accumulated capital and points out that progressive taxation can more peaceably achieve the same end.
Would Lapham despair, or would he dare hope that America can recover itself without violent upheaval? After such compelling arguments about institutional decay, he might doubt the possibility of a reversal from inside the constitutional framework.
Brandeis is right that the concentration of wealth produces an oligarchy, and Pickety is right that the concentration of wealth can be mitigated through tax redistribution. The provocative question is whether or not this can be accomplished democratically when the oligarchs have such a grip on the apparatus of politics and governance. Without hope, Lapham seemed to suggest that a rapacious Trump presidency might have become the new normal.
If democracy is too weak, and Pickety’s economic trick cannot be performed under the rules of the constitution, Brandeis is still right. The choice of oligarchy ultimately leads to the demise of democracy, and neither of the two alternative means of reform do much to restore what was lost. Revolution rarely results in anything other than new forms of tyranny and wealth concentration. Wars are now fought with borrowed money and without the great, unifying, and levelling national hardship demanded by conflicts in the past.
If I’m right, revolution and war won’t provide the economic and political correction needed to tip the balance back from oligarchy to democracy. Democracy, however weakened it appears to be, is America’s best hope. People of influence must stake themselves to principle, and, like Lapham, speak unwaveringly over the din of untruths and disinformation, until they are spent and discarded, or until the vision and values of a renewed democracy take hold.
Maybe it was easier for Brandeis to have faith in the power to make this choice a century ago. By 2018, Lapham’s faith may be exhausted after sounding the alarm for so long.
Yet faith, or at least hope, is implicit in any discussion of the future. For there to be a future, it's assumed there will be life, and to imagine only negative outcomes, admits the possibility of change but not improvement. Despair is not a healthy state of mind.
Humankind is not helpless. Its problems are of its own making, as will be its solutions. Despair is paralyzing. Hopelessness only makes it easier to divert attention and energy from reforms that are both possible and needed for Americans to find their way again.
I choose to believe that my hero, Lapham, believes this but couldn’t bring himself to utter such a naïve sounding prescription for such a cynical abuse. Yet that is what democracy was invented to do: to make oligarchs tremble, to serve the many, not the few. It sounds idealistic because it is, but that’s its strength, not its weakness. It was always a choice, always waiting to be chosen and chosen again, as often as its needed.