Hotel America

by Lewis Lapham

Verso, 1996


Although I know that Jefferson once said that it is never permissible "to despair of the commonwealth," I think it is possible that the American experiment with democracy may 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 primetime television.

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 for 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 USSR, the "Evil Empire, the Communist prison) 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.

Within the world's military headquarters I'm sure that innumerable officers have drawn contingency plans for all kinds of wars-wars against revolutions, proxy wars, diplomatic wars, wars in Yugoslavia and Korea, wars for oil and bauxite and grain, wars fought with conventional weapons, amphibious wars, air wars, ground wars, nuclear wars. But how large will these wars become and how many people might have to be killed before the bugles sound the retreat?

Nobody likes to discuss this question in public ... because it has become difficult to find either a sufficiently high-minded principle or an inescapable material interest on behalf of which 250 . million people might think it glorious to sacrifice their children.

Between 1978 and 1987 American families belonging to the poorest 20 percent of the population became 8 percent poorer; during the same period of time American families within the richest 20 percent of the population became 13 percent richer. The disparity between rich and poor was most glaringly apparent at the extreme points of measurement. The income received by the upper 1 percent of American families improved by 49.8 percent in the years between 1977 and 1988; simultaneously, and by no means accidentally, the income received by families in the lowliest 1 percent of the population declined by 14.8 percent. Somewhere toward the middle of the decade of the 1980s, for the first time in the nation's history, the income that the American people earned from capital (that is, from rents, dividends and interest) equaled the sum earned as wages.

The people who profited so handsomely from the miracle of the junkbond markets and the wonders of deregulation meant to keep what they had, and the election of President Bush ratified the division of the spoils. The company of the blessed ... may not represent an impressive percentage of the population (probably no more than 5 percent), but when counted as an absolute number (ten or twelve million timid and self-interested individuals) they comprise a formidable political faction. By and large they are the people who manage the government, operate the media and the banks, control the universities and the advertising images, print the money and write the laws.

No class of businessmen in the history of the known world had been so cosseted by the servants of government than the class of American businessmen that enjoyed the grace and favor of the Reagan administration.

For ten years I have listened to self-styled entrepreneurs (men of vision, men of genius, and so on) bang their fists on grillroom tables and complain of the thousand and one ways in which government regulations strangled their initiative and bound the arm of honest labor. I'm sure that much of what they said was true, but never once did I hear any of them acknowledge their abject dependence on the gifts of government subsidy-the mortgage deductions on residential real estate, myriad investment credits and tax exemptions, preferential interest rates, Social Security payments, subsidies to entire industries (defense, real estate, agriculture, highway construction), tariffs, the bankruptcy laws, the licenses granted to television stations, the banking laws, the concessions given to the savings and loan associations. Of all the federal money distributed as transfer payments to individual Americans during the decade of the 1980s only a relatively small percentage found its way into the hands of the poor. The bulk of the donative sustained the pretensions of the mostly affluent and well-to-do. Without the help of the government, the self-reliant American middle class was as helpless as a child without its nurse.

Defense Planning Guidance

While the U S. cannot become the world's "policeman," by assuming responsibility for righting every wrong, we will retain the pre-eminent responsibility for addressing selectively those wrongs which threaten not only our interests, but those of our allies or friends, or which could seriously unsettle international relations. Various types of U.S. interests may be involved in such instances: access to vital raw materials, primarily Persian Gulf oil; proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles, threats to U.S. citizens from terrorism or regional or local conflict, and threats to U.S. society from narcotics trafficking.

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