I was recently trying to condense the cache of papers I’ve saved through the years and came across an entire issue of Harper’s Magazine from November 1990.
I remembered why I saved that issue. I was young and visiting Paris on my own, during La Crise du golfe. I had brought books to read, and I bought the International Herald Tribune daily for news about the situation in the Gulf. But Harper’s was lighter to carry around, and besides that, it had become a sense of home—a manifestation of the America I wanted to believe was true, especially then. I had the magazine with me when I ate alone in restaurants and cafés.
I think the reason I kept that issue was less its value as travel memento than the impact of an essay by Lewis Lapham, the publisher at the time. Lapham could be an annoyance in his vitriolic monthly columns. Yes, yes, you’d say. But what are we going to do about it? I’d start a column but often had to stop when his too-clever-by-half putdowns got in the way of his message.
This essay, however—“Democracy in America?”—made an impression because it was so dour and yet so on the mark. Lapham wondered if the American experiment with democracy had run its course—primarily because of the way Americans lived (complacent and willfully ignorant about civic life), how they viewed government (no expectation of or even desire for honesty in their leaders), and how they failed to vote in shocking numbers (two-thirds of the eligible electorate during the midterms).
I can remember reading the essay on a gray, overcast day in the City of Light and wondering where on earth I could move to when America was no longer a democracy. All these countries you love to visit—they want your tourist dollars but not you. You really feel that when you’re traveling alone. I can also remember my extreme naïveté when Bush I started the air campaign of Desert Storm in January 1991. I was trying to think of a way that not a single U.S. troop would die.
How could anyone be so fatuous? I wasn’t a fool; I had grown up with the Soviet menace, the prospect of nuclear war (“We begin bombing in five minutes”). But the eighties managed to coalesce as a time of complacency, of comfort innovation. Despite the major tech inventions that gave us the world we have today, it was the softer things—disposable contact lenses, the availability of Prozac, waterbeds in one of four households, high-end coffee, E.T. and every John Hughes movie—that made modern American life as reassuringly familiar as your mom’s laundry detergent.
On rereading that essay 28 years later, I was struck by how Lapham was making this grim assessment well before everything got really bad. Before the decade of tabloid TV, Roger Ailes, and Fox News. Before a Democratic president gutted the public welfare system and repealed Glass-Steagall. Before 9/11 and before Bush II thrust America into a war based on lies that any 12-year-old could see through if she so chose. Before the Great Recession and before the ultimate and epic fail of 63 million Americans electing Donald Trump.
Compared to now, those months leading up to and including the Gulf War were halcyon days. Nations working together to form a coalition of the willing—fancy that! And yet everything Lapham wrote about our country seemed true. Alone in Paris, I felt like an outsider, but I looked back at my compatriots and wondered who these people were who couldn’t be bothered to maintain a democracy.
Lapham was often derided by both right and left for using his ownership of Harper’s as a personal bully pulpit. But in 1990 he did something no politician would dare until Trump—bitched about regular Americans: “The active presence of the citizen gives way to the passive absence of the consumer, and citizenship devolves into a function of economics.”
In 1990, communism was gone from Eastern Europe; the New World Order should have been America’s oyster. But according to Lapham, we were living the toxic fallout from the Reagan administration—“a government obsequious in its devotion to the purposes of selfish oligarchy, a regime that cared nothing for the law and prospered for eight years by virtue of its willingness to cheat and steal and lie.”
Lapham’s cri de coeur reminded us that Americans well beyond the base of Reagan fanatics were OK with this: “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 prime-time television.”
In the eighties, people didn’t throw around the term populist as much as they did in 2016 because Reagan was such a dyed-in-the-wool Republican. But the torch bearers of the Reagan Revolution certainly fit today’s definition of a cult. “What,” asked Lapham, “is the use of free expression to people so frightened of the future that they prefer the comforts of the authoritative lie?”
Because of the power of our democracy, I forgot my intense disillusionment in November 1990. I must have told myself there’d be a fix. But rereading Lapham’s essay reminded me that this mass market for “the comforts of the authoritative lie” was securely in place even before Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America and Fox News. It reminded me that my fear of our constitutional foundation collapsing within a matter of years if not months had happened a long time before.
As with the girl in the coma during the golden age of soaps, it’s taken a while to pull the plug on the postwar conception of America democracy. The plug is not fully out of the wall, but we know the people who’d happily yank it in a heartbeat—90% of the Republican Party.
Perhaps the greatest irony from rereading Lapham’s essay was this gem: “The Reagan administration reduced the Constitution to a sheaf of commercial paper no more or less worthless than a promissory note signed by Donald Trump.” In 2018, even hyperbole has been ruthlessly devalued. §