All power corrupts but some must govern.
—John le Carré
The members of the assembly that is this issue of Lapham’s Quarterly speak to the practice of politics as both an art and a science, define the always bitter argument as the how and why of who owes what to whom. The terms of the bargain change with time and shift with circumstance, as do the meanings invested in the words for right and wrong, and to the extent that the Voices in Time lend historical perspective to this year’s American presidential election, they do so indirectly, not by addressing topics specific to the Obama and Romney campaigns, but by representing the force of mind and spirit absent from our own contemporary political discourse, which for the most part is the gift for saying nothing.
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 head waiter’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 thirty 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 percent earlier this year) correlates with the estimates of low attendance among young voters (down 20 percent from 2008) at the November polls.
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.