Carter and the New Constitution


One sign that our society is undergoing a transformation of its identity is the way that programs and policies produce the opposite of their original intentions. Democracy is gradually undercut by programs designed to strengthen it. Social legislation is introduced with the avowed aim of improving the health and well-being of citizens; it brings instead a system of dependence and powerlessness which enables the bureaucracy to discipline and control the poor. The same effects could not be accomplished if the rulers of our society had decided to institute dictatorial control. The same phenomenon, of democratic intentions recoiling to produce antidemocratic results, has occurred in education. It is now making itself felt in the Carter presidency: the democratic relationship between presidential power and the popular will is best suppressed by a president who describes himself as a “populist” and who, without intending it, becomes a public caricature of plain, democratic virtues.

Thus Jimmy Carter had to boast that he would never lie in order to confirm the idea that the populist mentality—which was a media code word for democracy—is ignorant of political realities. Carter, as a presidential candidate, had to promise that he would develop “clearly defined goals” for “energy,…health care, land use, economic development, waste disposal, and housing”1 so that, as President Carter, he could declare that “government cannot eliminate poverty, or provide a bountiful economy, or reduce inflation, or save our cities, or cure illiteracy, or provide energy….”2 Candidate Carter had to attack his rivals for having “no clear vision” and to boast that “special interests, selfish bureaucrats, and hidebound elected officials…simply cannot prevail against the truth of an aroused and determined public”3 so that as president he could deflate the hopes he had mobilized.

Perhaps the most instructive example of how pseudodemocratic ideas and practices are preparing the social consciousness for change is provided by the press and television. The media present a democratic image: the vehicle for making culture accessible to all without appearing to impose any elitist standards. Television is particularly beguiling. It conveys the impression of offering something of value at no cost to the viewer and with no visible gain to the purveyor. Thus no transaction is immediately evident; there is no symmetrical exchange of things, no reciprocal satisfactions, no self-interest, no power transferred. Instead of the suspicions that normally accompany most exchanges, caveat emptor, the viewer feels grateful for what seems to be a free lunch served to him by an attractive and accommodating presence. The media appear, in short, to be everything but what they are. They are, first and foremost, an industry which rests on an enormous investment of resources and skills; and as in all modern enterprises, decisions are taken on a highly self-conscious basis with a studied regard for their implications and effects. Second, the media are dispensing a commodity (news, entertainment) which is produced not so much to be consumed or used but to have an effect on what people do and believe. Third, the media are closely connected with the public opinion and survey industry so that a closed circuit effect is created: the pollsters nee market analysts feed back to the media the results of the latter’s manipulations so that future programming can be improved, i.e., later polls will confirm the success of the program.

These considerations are a necessary preliminary to recognizing the new political—perhaps even constitutional—role which the media have established for themselves. They have instituted a new political process which can be called “the judging of the President”—a complement to the other two roles which some have attributed to the media, the making and the breaking of presidents. It was put into operation during the past year, beginning with the president’s inauguration and ending with a climactic end-of-the-year evaluation of his performance which could be read in virtually every major newspaper and weekly magazine of the quality of Time and Newsweek, and viewed on the major television networks. The implications of this new process have been obscured, partly because nothing seems more natural than to ask how well the president has “performed” during the year, and partly because of the seductive, almost Rousseauist impression which television, in particular, gives of encouraging the viewer to a “sense” of democratic participation in a great national inquest upon the president’s record.

These “natural” illusions are dispelled as soon as we begin to inquire about the criteria of performance; about the antipolitical implications inherent in the concerted drive to stage an annual judgment by the pseudo nation when the “natural” political time period for it, as set down in the Constitution, is four years; and about the lessons that were being taught to the president and the democracy of readers and viewers—the “theatrocracy” as Plato might have called it.

The most common criticisms we heard last December and January were that the president had been hampered by his inexperience; that he had attempted “too much” by promoting several pieces of complex reformist legislation (e.g., on energy, tax reform, civil service reforms, etc.); that most of his proposals were badly drafted and most of his subordinates bumbling and ignorant. The president, it was said, had first antagonized the powers in Congress and the bureaucracy by his campaign criticisms and then he had compounded his troubles by his ignorance about the way the great game of push-shove-compromise-coalesce-negotiate-threaten-bribe is really played. It was then explained that the first principle of political realism is to recognize that Washington politics is a complex network of relationships between powerful congressional committees and their chairmen, bureaucratic chieftains, and resourceful representatives of powerful economic interests. This meant that the president would have to modify drastically his legislative program, that is, he would have to deflate the expectations he had aroused by his campaign.

The unstated objective represented by this principle was to reveal how little power a president really had and hence the importance of scaling down the hopes of his followers, that is, of abandoning the illusion that significant change could be effected by a mobilized electorate. The teaching was about the rational basis for political passivity or the futility of democratic action. It cut at any notion that common action by a people was possible, and by discrediting the hopes around which the electorate had gathered to elect a candidate, it dissolved the bonds created by the campaign, and the people returned to the powerlessness of individual and local isolation. And sure enough the combination of media pressure and presidential ineptitude produced the inevitable and desired effect. A poll conducted, naturally, by the media discovered that the public had become “dramatically more pessimistic” in their expectations about the president’s ability to check inflation, balance the budget, or reduce unemployment.4

No doubt, from that same vantage point the people might also reflect on the contrast between their own disorganized powerlessness and the power and corporate solidarity which the media insinuated was present elsewhere, in those forms which the media increasingly referred to as the “business community,” or the “intelligence community,” the “banking community,” even the “municipal bond community.” It was, it seemed, a world of thriving communities, except for the political community.

The clue to the transformations being promoted by the media was in the insistent charge that Carter was a deeply dyed “radical” who harbored “neopopulist ambitions.”5 Since Carter had never knowingly harbored an anticapitalist sentiment and his solicitude for the poor has yet to go much beyond a determination to help them preserve their ethnic purity, the charge of radicalism didn’t make much sense unless one noticed that, invariably, it was accompanied by another accusation, that the president was an “outsider.”

Historically, the outsider is the alien stranger, the one whose ways are foreign to those who are inside the walls of the city. For Jimmy Carter the city was Washington and the walls were, of course, the political world that has come to be located there. To gain entrance the would-be president must accept the two basic maxims which prevail inside: first, the task of those elected to govern is to lower the expectations of the masses who voted for them; and, second, once your supporters have been disillusioned, you can begin to win the confidence of those who voted against you.

That the president took these precepts to heart was confirmed by the note of determined negativism, the renunciation of power and opportunity, which he struck in his second State of the Union Message. “There is,” he averred, “no single overwhelming crisis,” no “domestic turmoil,”’ no “major international crisis,” only “persistent problems.” This last phrase was as revealing as his disclaimers: persistent problems are administered rather than confronted. The message was neatly summed up by a New York Times commentator who welcomed the transformation of Jimmy Carter from “the populist dreamer” to “the middle-of-the-road manager.”6

For whom the president manages was made clear at the time of this year’s Budget Message: when Secretary Blumenthal told the business community, “this program reflects your advice”; when the former populist remarked that the success of his budget message would be decided next day by the stock market; and when Secretary Blumenthal coined the motto for the latest of a long line of Democratic administrations, “red ink makes this President see red.”7 The media, surveying its accomplishment, could refer approvingly to “the new realism of the audacious outsider who had once promised to turn the bloated government inside out.”8 The final, allegorical conclusion came when the president, using the imagery of the walls, pleaded with the Democratic National Committee to ensure that “a wall is not built between me and the country.” To which one committeeman responded, “The outsider has finally come home.”9


Jimmy Carter has the perfect credentials for the task of smoothing the transformation from one collective identity to another. He is both a “manager” and a populist of sorts. A genuine populist, someone like Fred Harris, could never perform the objective functions dictated by “historical inevitability” of liquidating democracy. Jimmy Carter can because he holds to a version of populism and managerialism in which each of these seemingly opposed conceptions works, instead, to complement the other. His populism has nothing much to do with a commitment to democratic politics, much less with a democratic conception of power. It is a Protestant belief that morality and religious faith are accessible to every person and that their content is, accordingly, simple, practical, and directly experienced.

The strengths of this outlook are manifest; its limitations are that it cannot visualize how a person, much less a society, could be victimized by its virtues. To Jimmy Carter simple faith and morality and the values of organization are forms of goodness that are virtually continuous one with the other. Recall in this connection what he said when he first began his quest for the presidency. There were, he declared, “two basic and generic questions” facing America on the eve of its bicentennial:

Can our government be honest, decent, open, fair and compassionate? Can our government be competent?10

It was not simply that these “basic” questions exposed a sensibility deeply estranged from the feel of American history, one that felt no jarring effect in mentioning “competence” in virtually the same breath with “compassion.” The difference between the two questions has to do with the contrast between the abstract quality of one virtue—competence—and the place-bound character of the others. Honesty, decency, and compassion seem the natural expression of a moral practice which grows out of a determinate place in the world, a real ground where a clearing has been made for existence, where identity can be cultivated and nurtured over time, and a fund of common experiences gathered over generations. Standing upon that ground of Plains before his election Jimmy Carter could describe himself in an idiom redolent of the unity of self and place: he presented himself as “a Southerner and an American…a farmer…a father and husband, a Christian…a businessman…a naval officer.”11 These identities—regional, patriotic, familial, religious, and vocational—fit easily with the moral standards to which candidate Carter wanted the government to be held accountable. But there was another set of identities to which he laid claim, identities that were ungrounded, unidentified with place, and highly congenial with candidate Carter’s second broad question about “competence.” He presented himself as “an engineer…a planner…a nuclear physicist.” 12

These modes of competence are not value-free; rather it is precisely because they imply “values” related to skills which can be practiced anywhere that they, and their accompanying conception of self, are at war with the identities, moral, historical, mnemonic, that spring from place. They are skills and values that operate best when dealing with what has become dissociated from specific situations that give political dilemmas their peculiar shape. Accordingly, when candidate Carter advanced his political solutions they reflected the fixation of a technocrat and the bleak faith that what is “political” is synonymous with “government” and government is about “administration.”

The result was that the man from Plains, with an inheritance of folk ways three centuries old, offered a political vision as antiseptic as anything imagined by the Harvard Business School: “The mechanism of our government should be understandable, efficient, and economical…[then follows a series of implementing measures]: top priority to a drastic and thorough revision of the federal bureaucracy…tight businesslike management and planning techniques…abolish and consolidate…evolve clearly defined goals…an effective system of zero-based budgeting…tough performance auditing…efficient delivery services….”13 This dissociated vision of the political, where government is abstracted from all grounding in people, place, and history, is symbolically expressed in Jimmy Carter’s universal panacea of “zero-based budgeting”—a political order grounded in nothing.

The natural question about the divisions within Jimmy Carter is, are they not united in some way so that their tension is not only masked but sublimated and fused into a form of energy? The question is interesting because the answer, like Jimmy Carter himself, reveals something about the beliefs that are helping to make our collective transformation less noticeable.

The unifying element is Jimmy Carter’s particular version of Protestantism in which purification is inseparable from redemption. Being born again is being cleansed, purified, “arranged in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints” (Rev. 19:8). Jimmy Carter’s appeal to honesty, decency, openness, fairness, and compassion was an appeal to “clean” virtues. Consider what is absent from his list: the basic political virtues of justice and equality. These are the “dirty” virtues, the despair of any society that tries to realize them. At best there are approximations, always there are anomalies and imperfections. The crucial point about the clean virtues is how profoundly congenial they are to the “values” and modes of thinking represented by administrative and organizational thinking: rationality, efficiency, straight lines of authority, choosing among priorities which have been rendered homogeneous so that they can be treated as commensurable, and depersonalized job descriptions.

The commandments of managerialism are the analogue to purifying rites: clean it up, get it straight, cost-account, organize, rationalize, one column for costs, another for benefits. Administration is the baptismal rite for a political world that has to be cleansed of disorder and mutiny. It can be cleansed because the sinners are the powerless, those who are called dependent but who, in actuality, are powerless. They depend on no one, and they have no place. This understanding was expressed recently when the Secretary of HEW proposed a new conception for helping the poor: “We should place our primary emphasis on people in distress rather than places in distress….”14 Not surprisingly the new policy was described as “targeting” the poor.

The application of purification rites to government means for Carter more than administrative reform of the “bureaucratic maze.” It means a cleaned-up system, where politics will be open for all to see; and where, accordingly, people and government will be brought together. The nature of that bond was implicit in his description of it as “a partnership between those who lead and those who elect.”15 Deciphered the formula reads: Popular election garbs the “righteous” in “fine linen,” the elite are reborn as the elect[ed].


What is it that we, as a people, are being transformed into? Consider the idea of flight as a kind of master metaphor that best captures our rulers’ passions and our own collective fears. In exploring that idea, we can begin with its tangible presence, in the supersonic transports, where power attains unsurpassed grace and strains almost visibly at the artificial limits imposed by obsolete notions of time, national place, and economy. It is a power like Concorde, truly and defiantly multinational, subtly antinational. Even the most advanced jet is a portent that points beyond itself, to the ultimate flight beyond the limits of the earth itself, aboard a self-contained system with no organic ties to its surroundings, a step beyond, as it were, even the multinational corporation.

In less spectacular and more important ways, flight and fleeing are a part of our daily lives. We flee from small towns to cities and from cities to suburbs; from families, marriage, friends, institutions: from every object whose durability requires patient care, and from those relationships which are indefinite of time but determinate in space, like friendship and civic affections. In desperation we reverse our flight and retreat. Having lost touch with others, each vows to get in touch with himself.

Mostly flight is about leaving things or persons behind, either by deserting them permanently or leaving them in the care of others. We leave the central city to the poor, deposit the elderly in nursing homes, and entrust the dying to the thanatologists: no deposit, no return. We prepare our children for the age of flight by sending them to the equivalent of pre-flight schools. We allow the experts to instruct us in the proper language of flight: for abandonment read “social mobility” or “outward bound.” We remind ourselves that, as Americans, we have always been of a fugitive kind, fleeing the Old World for the New, the Eastern seaboard for the interior and farthest shore. To be an American is not merely to flee, but to flee optimistically. Where but in America could an enthusiastic band of euthanasiasts rally to hold a conference on the cheery theme, “Toward a Good Death: Developments over a Decade: A Look Ahead”?

The abandonment of the earth is a theme that pervades space-movies such as Star Wars and Close Encounters. It is implicit in the propaganda of scientists who urge enormous investments in space explorations; in the research that is currently being conducted about the feasibility of space colonies, including one by social scientists into “the social, legal, impacts of large-scale commercial activities in space.”16 The value of such projects, regardless of their immediate practicality, was suggested by a comment of a highly respected scientist:

The important thing is whether people look to space as a big part of our future. If you believe we are stuck on the surface of the earth forever, you take a gloomy view…. Space offers an essentially unlimited future. People, especially young people,…like this kind of flexibility we didn’t have before the space age.17

The projection of a fantasy works both ways. It reveals as much about the fate of those who have been ignored as it does about those whose fantasies are being played out. Unlike those “young people” for whom “space offers an essentially unlimited future,” the young people from those desolated urban areas, which stand as mute reminders of how savage the power of an economy can be, have to be prepared for a different fate, that of being left behind. This is, of course, where they are now, the victims of “structural” unemployment, which is the bureaucratic way of acknowledging that the system is apt to produce surpluses, the most embarrassing being a superfluity of people. Meanwhile the cycle of poverty will recycle these same people for generations, leaving them outside, programmed to circle endlessly in the orbit of the system, never entering, much less re-entering.

Star Wars, it will be recalled, was an all-white movie, or, more accurately, a movie wholly devoid of ordinary people, although the characters often talked with the voices of the boys next door. Only royalty, wizards, technicians, gendarmes, robots, fly-boys, and some grotesque human-monsters who may have been the remains of what is now fashionably called the “under-class.” This is in keeping with our master metaphor of flight and abandonment: it is not only the earth that has to be left behind, but most of its population. The future belongs to the elites of scientific knowledge, technical know-how, and organization skill whose combined efforts to make life easier have also resulted in making it more efficient, more capital intensive, less needful of either the labor or the skills of most of the population. There are no reservations being taken for steerage flights aboard spaceships.

The clue to our new collective identity is in the thread that unites space fantasies, the political economy of corporate capitalism, and the managerial presidency. It is a common animus against forms of life grounded in historical places. From ancient times to the nineteenth century, Western societies have associated the highest expression of collective identity with their “constitutions.” Formerly, a constitution was not primarily understood in terms of a set of legal principles but of a distinct mode of life. Literally, a constitution constituted political and social existence in a determinate place (e.g., the “constitution of France” or “of England,” etc.), and thereby defined collective identity. Today, the intellectual construct which appears to be the carrier of the new form of collective identity is the concept of a “social system.”

System” is an idea that enjoys wide usage among the specialists who represent authoritative and influential forms of social knowledge and techniques: engineers, economists, computer scientists, social scientists, and communication theorists. It is also common currency among politicians, bureaucrats, managers, generals, and the controllers of the mass media. “System,” it can be fairly said, is becoming the contemporary substitute for “constitution.” Recall the common remark that was made after Nixon resigned, “the system worked,” that is, the “system” saved the “Constitution.” As a constitution, a system would signify a new set of constitutive principles for collective existence. Despite the numerous definitions of system that are currently floating around, it is possible to identify certain recurrent features that help to disclose the new collective identity.

Virtually without exception, a system stands for an organization of control made possible by a tightly integrated set of functions whose performance assures the survival and adaptation of the whole. Integration requires a transmission network that will reliably and rapidly communicate messages and decisions. The identity of the system, what it is, is derived from the conception of rationality embodied in its structure. It is, in that sense, a construct which is radically ahistorical, independent of time and place: like reason itself, it could be anywhere and it is the kind of entity about which we seem to learn nothing by asking about its origins. We learn about it by asking what it stipulates of things which, for one reason or another, would enter it. The conditions of entry are stern and strict: language must be turned into messages; actions into “inputs,” aspirations into costs, and impoverished lives into “acceptable” statistics. As a “constitution” it represents the last vision of modernity, a constitution which, as it were, can only blink uncomprehendingly when it is asked, What does it mean to be a citizen of a system? The last vision is of a constitution without citizens, a construct which commands neither loyalty nor affection. It is fit only for abandonment.

(This is the second part of a two-part article.)

  1. 1

    Why Not the Best? (Bantam, 1976), p. 173.

  2. 2

    State of the Union address, January 19, 1978.

  3. 3

    Why Not the Best?, pp. 171 and 173.

  4. 4

    The New York Times and CBS poll, The New York Times, January 18, 1978, p. A-16.

  5. 5

    The New York Times, January 22, 1978, p. E-22.

  6. 6

    Hedrick Smith, The New York Times, January 29, 1978, Sec. 4, p. 1.

  7. 7

    The New York Times, January 27, 1978, p. D-3.

  8. 8

    The New York Times, January 29, 1978, p. E-21.

  9. 9

    The New York Times, January 28, 1978, p. 6.

  10. 10

    Why Not the Best?, p. 167.

  11. 11

    Why Not the Best?, p. 4.

  12. 12


  13. 13

    Why Not the Best?, pp. 170 and 171.

  14. 14

    The New York Times, January 25, 1978, p. A-1.

  15. 15

    State of the Union address, January 19, 1978.

  16. 16

    The New York Times, December 26, 1977, p. 11.

  17. 17

    Cited in John N. Wilford, “The Spinoff from Space,” The New York Times Sunday Magazine, January 29, 1978, p. 29.