Lewis Lapham is not impressed by the anti-Trump demonstrations that have erupted since the inauguration.
Democracy, says the former editor of Harper’s Magazine, has been under “systematic assault by a kind of plutocracy, a government for the rich by the rich,” for 30 years. Donald Trump, he says, is a symptom of of anti-democratic trends long brewing, not the cause of them.
“It all began with [Ronald] Reagan, who was determined to roll back the New Deal as much as possible,” Lapham says by phone from his office in New York. “You see the privatization of public land. You see the idea that money is the answer to every maiden’s prayer. You see the gulf opening between the rich and the poor. You see the beginning of the dream of American empire.”
Lapham saw it by 1990, when his first essay on emerging anti-democratic currents was published in Harper’s. “The electorate was already beginning to turn off,” he says. “People were already becoming hostile to politicians of every stripe.
His recent book, Age of Folly: America Abandons Its Democracy, collects the essays Lapham has written as he watched democracy wane over the intervening years. On Wednesday, Lapham brings his analysis of the assault on democracy, and the history behind it, to that most venerable bastion of moneyed interests, old and new, when he speaks at the exclusive Sailfish Club in Palm Beach on Wednesday. (In democratic fashion, the event is open to the public — at $125 a pop.)
The book, Lapham says, is divided into two parts, the first of which is the “record of folly” from 1990 to 2016, as democracy declined in Republican administrations and failed to advance under Democratic presidents. The second part is what he calls the antidote.
“The antidote to this kind of folly is historical consciousness,” Lapham says. “We must remember what kind of country we are. It’s a fight we can’t lose.”
In that vein, Lapham will be “making a pitch” in favor of Lapham’s Quarterly, the historical journal he launched after 30 years as editor of Harper’s, where he left a lasting influence on American journalism.
Emblematic of Lapham and the Quarterly is its motto, which reaches deep into the past to quote the Roman lawyer and philosopher Cicero: “Not to know what happened before one was born is always to be a child.”
Lapham has no trepidation about delivering his message in a historically insular and extremely conservative little rich town, where, legend has it, some diners burst into applause when the assassination of John F. Kennedy was announced at restaurants and clubs. “That’s a story I’ve heard told of many other places,” Lapaham says.
“I’m not opposed to money, but money needs to take the trouble to educate itself lest it be blindsided.”
Besides, not all rich people are stupid — although some are. As an example of the latter, Lapham offers Betsy DeVos, the new secretary of education, who, he says, “has no idea what a public school is.” She doesn’t have to know. Her husband, a founder of Amway, is worth $5.1 billion.
‘The rich don’t give a s— about government because they don’t use its services,” Lapham says. “But if you are going to keep the country together, you need to have some idea of what the public good is.”
Despite stern words for the rich, Lapham is less likely to be a sacrificial lamb in Palm Beach than an honored guest. The event’s sponsor, the Coudert Institute, was founded by Dale Coudert in 2001 to advance diversity in politics, culture, and intellectual inquiry.
A Palm Beach socialite who did not marry her money but earned it for herself, Coudert was a pioneering real estate broker and banker in 1960s Manhattan.
The premise of Age of Folly is nothing new, Lapham explains in a conversation that ranges backward to Plato and Aristotle, forward to Trump, and which includes a thumbnail, chronological tour of democracy in American. Aristotle, for example, “discusses in specific terms” the cycle of decay from democracy to plutocracy to tyranny that we may be witnessing now.
In the almost 250 years since independence, American democracy has waxed and waned, depending on social and economic currents. It comes in “bursts,” Lapham says. The Founders had no conception of democracy as we think of it now. “None of them thought all men were created equal, except maybe in the eyes of God. The notion of a class system is implicit from the beginning.”
The notion of equal opportunity emerged only in the Jacksonian era, then again with Lincoln, and his magisterial concept of government “of the people, for the people, by the people.” But it receded during the Gilded Age, when robber barons and financiers waged arose. “Mark Twain,” Lapham says, “writing at the time, remarked that a society that is the sum of its vanity and greed is not a society for a state of war.”
Workers were murdered in the labor conflicts that followed, and “ragamuffins were literally run down by the carriages of the rich in New York City,” circa 1900, Lapham says. Yet democracy surged again with Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressive Era. Laws were changed, monopolies busted, the minimum wage invented, and child labor ended.
Under Woodrow Wilson, democracy diminished once more, as the president “conned” an unwilling populace into a war that benefited only the banks and the moneyed interests.
“Democracy revives as a result of the Depression, Roosevelt, the New Deal, and the Second World War,” Lapham says. “Then it returns in the social reforms of the Johnson administration. Then comes Reagan. Things have moved to the right ever since, with ever more freedom for property and less freedom for individuals, the privatization of the public good, and the transformation of our politics into a media circus.”
While the post-Reagan erosion of democracy accelerated in Republican administrations, especially that of George W. Bush, it has not recovered during the Bill Clinton or Barack Obama presidencies. Bush, Lapham says, lost the “war on terror” the day he declared it by imposing a political strategy of fear upon the American people, while Clinton and Obama proved unwilling to shake off the patronage of a moneyed elite.
He’s especially harsh on Obama. “Lyndon Johnson at least wanted power because he knew what he wanted to do with it,” Lapham says. “He had goals he saw as the common good. I don’t think Obama wanted to accomplish anything but handsome phrases.”
Lapham perceived the dangers of a Trump presidency as early as Nov. 16, 2015, when he labeled the Republican candidate “an aspiring tyrant” in Lapham’s Quarterly. Trump’s unlikely victory he terms “a hostile takeover of one set of the plutocracy by another.”
As for the anti-Trump protests, of a size and intensity not seen since the Vietnam War, Lapham finds them inconsequential. “If it’s just an expression of attitude, nothing much will come of it,” he says. “We can all strike poses about how we ought to do something for the blacks, the feminists, the immigrants. But unless you put that together into some larger idea, it won’t come to anything.”
Still, Lapham holds out a measure of optimism, based — no surprise — on his understanding of history.
“We have managed two or three times over our history to renew democracy, to give it new strength and footing,” Lapham says. “We have a real chance to do that now by asking ourselves who we are, what the state is for, what is government, who and what is an American. How do you make the idea of the common good work under the current pressures?”
Lapham chuckles. “I have no idea what will happen. It could all degenerate into anarchy. But we have a chance, if people look at Trump as something that’s ending. We have the ashes. We need to find the phoenix.”
The Coudert Luncheon with Lewis Lapham starts at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Sailfish Club, 1338 N. Lake Way, Palm Beach. Non-member admission is $125. Visit www.coudertinstitute.org or call: 561-659-6161.