“How in the world did we get from the Federalist Papers to the edited transcripts?” This question by a member of the House Judiciary Committee is both improper and proper to consideration of these volumes by Daniel Boorstin. Improper because he has not been concerned with the aspects of the American past which might bear on the question; and proper because he has composed a history of “the” American experience in which these aspects are omitted on grounds of principle rather than of mere selectivity.
Boorstin is a prolific and fluent writer, serious and dignified, perceptive, cultivated, and wide-ranging; he has enjoyed both popular success and the highest forms of professional recognition. With the publication of The Democratic Experience he has completed his magistral work, The Americans; and in Democracy and Its Discontents he has presented simply the main themes which inform his understanding of the American past and present.
Like the society it describes, The Americans is unique and somewhat unconventional. It is not a detailed account of great and familiar political events. Instead, it addresses the questions of how America became the most dynamic, expansive, productive, affluent, and equalitarian society in history and what this has meant for the quality and texture of everyday life. The task is a difficult one. It is not like tracing the “growth” of an institution, but of making sense of a society in which old landmarks are being forever erased, the pressures of expansionism take a thousand varied forms, and familiar measures of time, space, and achievements seem inadequate. There is also a special difficulty of composing the history of a society in which the rhythms of life are linked to the stepped-up tempos resulting from modern science, technology, and largescale production. Such a society is constantly devouring its past. The historian’s task becomes even more formidable if he should claim, as Boorstin does, that, despite the awesome structures of power and its grossly inequitable distribution, the results have promoted “community” and “the democratic experience.”
Boorstin attempts to overcome these difficulties by metaphors, some deliberate, others unintended. He uses the metaphors of “process” and “flow” to supply meaning and continuity to our history. Thus, from its beginnings, America followed the form of an ever-widening stream of energy, opportunity, expansion, innovation, and movement; an outpouring of new forms—of homes, settlements, diets, vocations, knowledge, language, law, production, and organization. It has been a continuous process of “breaking down barriers” of class, status, skill, knowledge, and culture. The process of America has been infinite and futurist. We might however add that while “process” may lend an impression of continuity between the landing at Jamestown and the landing on the moon, it may also promote mystification by smoothing over discontinuities, spiriting off the casualties, and deodorizing the scent of radical evil.
The endless flow of goods, opportunities, and new desires is the foundation of “democracy.” Democracy, according to Boorstin, means giving “everything to everybody,” and so everything is produced in order that it can be given to everybody and everybody is made to want it. Advertising, market surveys, polls are the new democratic arts; food-packaging, which is how we come to know things, is the democratic “epistemology”; department stores the democratic palaces; and ready-to-wear clothes the democratic badge. And “democracy” is Boorstin’s second, unintended, metaphor. Democracy has nothing to do with participation in power*—power itself is absent from Boorstin’s democratic experience—and has no political content whatsoever. Ours is a “democracy of cash” (Democratic Experience, p. 89); our Idea of the Good is the idea of consumption.
“Community,” which Boorstin intends as a functional equivalent, is only another metaphor. Americans are depicted as history’s greatest community-builders. Beginning with Boonesboro and ending in Levittown, Americans have invented new communal forms which have nothing in common with older notions of community. Instead of the stabilities of place, shared intimacies over time, perduring and common involvements, American communities have been evanescent, functional, and composed of strangers. The ghost towns and still-born cities are the monuments to community; today we are still at it, with our “everywhere” and “invisible communities.” “Never before had so many been united by so many things” (Democratic Experience, p. 90). We have “fellowships” in hotels, “fellowships of consumers” founded by Sears, Roebuck, and peoples “united” by their car models and cereals, and “held together by their common use of objects so similar that they could not be distinguished even by their owners.” The ultimate expression is the “statistical communities” created by advertisers, marketing men, and social scientists, “communities of the insured,” of similar tax brackets, IQ levels, and credit cards (Democratic Experience, pp. 90, 165).
The hollowing out of the political content of “democracy” and “community” and their reduction to consumerism are crucial to Boorstin’s larger strategy of eliminating politics from the remembered experience of The Americans. For Boorstin it is a matter of pride, and an object-lesson, that America’s greatness was achieved because of a studied indifference, bordering on contempt, toward politics. Boorstin excludes politics, not because he is writing a “social” history, but because he believes that in the development of a technological democracy, politics, at best, is occasionally useful, and, at worst, a tempting vehicle for pursuing utopian visions. History, he writes, is “the only proven antidote for utopianism” and for the “most dangerous [of] popular fallacies…that democracy is attainable” (Discontents, pp. 52, 120).
Some utopians, however, are welcome and some crackpots are amiable. The extravagant visions of, say, Henry Ford, Edison, or the apostles of “scientific management” are praised as “practical,” while the eighteenth-century Quakers are ridiculed for being “an international conspiracy for Peace and for primitive Christian perfection” (Colonial Experience, p. 64) and the Mormons are lauded for being practical organizers (National Experience, pp. 62-65). History, Boorstin tells us, offers no “panaceas,” only a “palliative” (Discontents, p. 52)—and, we may note, one meaning of palliative is to cover up by excuses and apologies.
Accordingly, Boorstin’s history is of westward migrations, the flow of immigrants, the appearance of new technologies and techniques of mass production, the democratization of culture and everyday life. Its heroes are the founding fathers of the cattle business, railroads, hotel systems, department and chain stores, and industrial invention and research. There is little or no place in the American Experience for: the Declaration of Independence, the revolutionary war, the Constitutional Convention, the Bill of Rights, the politics of nullification or the struggle over the National Bank, the Mexican War, the abolitionist movement, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, reform movements, or the great wars of this century. But we can learn about what Boorstin calls the “gogetters” and “Boosters,” the organizers, wheeler-dealers, the slick lawyers and entrepreneurs who have made our history; that is, we can learn of their deeds, rarely of their misdeeds.
One would hardly suspect from Boorstin’s work that there have been great financial scandals, or that American businessmen and politicians concocted a system of bribery and corruption of which we are the residuary legatees; or that the monopoly movement was anything but an admirable case study in business acumen and legal ingenuity; that conditions in factories and mines were slightly less than invigorating; or that the status of women may have suggested a problem. And while Boorstin is forceful and eloquent on the treatment of blacks, his Indians—howling and scalphungry—are vintage Hollywood. The problem of poverty is mentioned in connection with the rise of statistics.
If Boorstin did not, in the third volume, begin to hesitate, one might suspect a satire. In The Democratic Experience, Boorstin’s exuberance falters, and most of his chapters end on a questioning note. Maybe consumption communities are “shallower” than the old neighborhoods (p. 112); maybe statistical communities lack a “moral guide” (p. 166); maybe it is troubling that goods are produced according to a standard of “no better than they need to be” (p. 195); maybe everything has become too homogenous, and our experience too “impoverished” (p. 389); maybe “the very power of the most democratized nation on earth had led its citizens to feel inconsequential before the forces they had unleashed” (p. 558); maybe….
To be sure, Boorstin ends on an upbeat with a glowing account of the greatest collective endeavors in history, our atom bombs and space programs. Yet the need to end on an affirmative note hints at a growing suspicion that the emptiness of our personal lives may be connected to the emptiness of our public life. To fill the void, a pseudo politics is introduced; its familiar outline reminds us that while Boorstin was at work on The Americans Richard Nixon was working on the republic; and the rhetoric of Boorstin’s study has a familiar cadence:
Our inventive, up-to-the-minute, wealthy democracy makes new tests of the human spirit…many of our national ills are imaginary…we may not be up to the daily tasks of a healthy life…. We talk about the war in Vietnam as if it were the first war in American history to which many Americans were opposed…. The great movement of our history has been to bring peoples together…. We must abandon the prevalent belief in the superior wisdom of the ignorant…give up the voguish reverence for youth and for the “culturally deprived”…cease to look to the vulgar community as arbiters of our schools…and of all our culture…. We suffer from a disease…”over-communication” [and lack of] silence….[Discontents, pp. 3, 6, 11, 45-47, 50-51]
This pseudo politics is the illusion of politics necessary to a technological society in crisis. Its secret is fear, the fear which comes from knowing that society has moved too fast, forgotten too much, and squandered all of the intangibles which its scientific, quantitative, and manipulative logic despised. Fear, too is outfitted in metaphor, perhaps the most revealing of all. Boorstin makes the point repeatedly that America has been held together by “vagueness,” by a genius for blurring distinctions of public-private, truth and advertising, private property and corporate property, and all manner of identities and boundaries. But when technological society encounters political crisis, “vagueness” ceases to be an account of reality and becomes an injunction against thinking critically about it. This injunction is applied in two ways: it attacks and ridicules as un-American the primary means by which Western man has reflected critically upon the common human condition; and it encourages a politics in which democracy is identified with passivity.
Whenever “political theory” is taken seriously, Boorstin asserts, it is a sure sign that the body politic is sick. The proof (and it is offered with a straight face) is that “the Great Age of American Political Theory” occurred in the era of the Civil War when “the pinnacle of political speculation in America” was established by Taylor, Calhoun, and Stephens, “a trilogy of political theoreticians…without match in American history” and “virtually” on a par with European theorists (Tocqueville, Marx, and Mill?) (National Experience, p. 218). The joke here lies not in the weird judgment that Boorstin makes, but that in seeking to fend off political theory while defending vagueness against the dissolvent of critical thinking, Boorstin ignores the fact that both the achievements and the problems of technological society are the result of the most sustained application of theoretical knowledge in human history.
The extension of scientific thinking into technology, production, and organization has created new and extraordinary forms of power. And power is fundamentally a political problem. Boorstin recognizes the power of the technological order but not its political significance. He sees it mainly as directed at the external world and as determining the trivia of our daily lives; but he mystifies its political significance by garbing it in the pseudoscientific language of “momentum,” a vast overpowering force beyond our control (Democratic Experience, p. 558). Once power is given this magical form, one need not explore its connection with corporate power and bureaucratic domination; or the form that it gives to class conflicts; or the violence that it encourages. Pseudo politics hurries over these questions, just as it manages to omit from the American Experience any mention of the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and to allude only incidentally to the assassination of John Kennedy while discussing the significance of instant replay (Democratic Experience, p. 387).
The special service which mystification renders to pseudo politics is to deprive us of the resources of political memory when they are most needed. Our present crisis is, in the most fundamental sense, political: it concerns constitutional power, the political virtues of our public men, and the civic virtue of citizens. By blanking out our political past, we invite solutions that are dangerous because ignorant of all but the market-place understanding of politics.
The original question of the member of the House Judiciary Committee is likely to be forgotten quickly, overborne by the universal relief following Nixon’s resignation and by the new myth which is beginning to take hold already. The new myth turns relief into national self-congratulation, old fears and outrage into childish fantasies: it tells us that the near-impeachment of Nixon proves that “the system works” and that, therefore, it is time to return to the real business of government. The courts have upheld the rule of law; Congress has discharged its constitutional duties in exposing the misdeeds of the President; a new president has been installed; and we may even expect that, in 1976, the opposition party will peacefully regain the presidency.
Before we are wholly numbed by the refrain “the system has worked,” we may want to raise a few questions: What is the sense in which the system has worked? What system is it that has worked? What system is it that is working when, for the first time, we now have a president who, in no sense, has been elected; who is the hand-picked appointee of the man who was nearly impeached; and who has now presented us with our second unelected vice president in less than a year?
The most common answer to the first question is that Nixon was almost impeached by the system prescribed in the law and the Constitution and carried out in various ways by the courts, House and Senate committees, and special prosecutors. The common answer, however, has an uncommon side that is likely to be expressed by professional politicians, lawyers, and political scientists when they try to explain the sense in which the system has worked. The system was successful because it kept the issue of Nixon’s removal within the narrowest possible legal bounds. Beginning with the investigations of the Ervin committee, continuing through the House committee’s debates on the articles of impeachment, and persisting in the present efforts to protect Nixon from prosecution, there has been an unrelenting pressure to confine the issues to legal categories, the hearings to courtroom norms, and the abuses to the standard of the criminal law. The pressures came not only from the President’s lawyers but from congressmen and senators as well. They worked to prevent a broad political debate about our recent past and the continuing crisis in our national life.
The surface signs of the crisis were first evident in 1968 at the turbulent convention of the Democratic party when two things became visible: the emergence of the presidency as an immense apparatus of power and the Vietnam war as the measure of its uncontrollability. The special significance of the convention was that, a few months earlier, Johnson had been forced to resign at the end of his first full term. His acknowledgment that he could not run again signified something new in American politics, something that we have been encouraged to forget. Johnson’s resignation was not the result of congressional or party pressures, but of the political climate created mainly by the extralegal and unofficial politics which flourished during the Sixties, the politics of the campuses, ghettos, streets, and suburbs. Although the economic demands of minority groups were an important element in the ferment, the peculiar quality of that politics was that it was significantly political and cultural.
The official system was unaccustomed to noneconomic politics in which bargains and trade-offs were not second nature. And so, with the help of psychiatrists and social scientists, the political renewal that took place was diagnosed either as a “generational” revolt (although that analysis was forgotten when all of the young Nixon men went before the bar) or as confusion on the part of the middle class about the proper relationship between revolution and deprivation. Nonetheless, the political culture of the Sixties persisted, penetrating the movies, the press and television, schools, and everyday life, and preparing the American consciousness for the unthinkable, the indictment of its highest official and symbol of national unity.
Without that preparation, it is doubtful that Nixon would have ever resigned. From the outset Congress did not want either resignation or impeachment; it accepted the latter course not simply because Nixon forced it or because the evidence was overwhelming, but because impeachment afforded a better chance of limiting the scope of the problem. At the same time that Congress was instinctively trying to prevent new political forms and values from entering the official system, it was also defending a political system significantly different from the one prescribed by the Constitution. The system that “worked” is the one familiar to political and social scientists: the system that mutes issues and screens out popular dissidence; a system which is affiliated to the idea of democracy only by rhetoric and whose highest art is to encourage democratic illusions without arousing democratic expectations. This system has a constitution but it is not confined to the Constitution. It stretches beyond the president, Congress, the civilian and military bureaucracies, the major political parties, to include the corporate structures of business, agro-business, and finance, big science and education, trade unions, and the press and television.
It would be foolish to contend that this system has stage-managed the recent spectacle of Watergate; but it is correct to say that it succeeded in establishing limits to the controversy and controlling its effects. It will give us the phony issue of campaign expenditures, knowing full well that no one is going to legislate big money out of politics unless they mean to destroy the existing party system and the network of influence which connects politics to the power centers of society. It will not tolerate, however, reopening the question of the secret bombing of Cambodia because that would inevitably raise the great question of presidential power. The reason why that question is a sensitive one and why, since the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, Congress has raised it only halfheartedly is that the inflation of presidential power has become a fundamental part of the new constitution.
Several years ago a famous constitutional scholar observed that the end of World War II marked the completion of a constitutional revolution in which our system had evolved from a constitution of restraints to a constitution of powers. Subsequently any “reasonable” exercise of power would be countenanced by the courts so long as procedural niceties were respected. The main beneficiaries of the new system were the president and, through him, the civilian and military bureaucracies. But at the same time that governmental power was being increased, the structures of power outside government were also increasing: big business was joined by big labor, big education by big science. Since each thrived on expansion and growth, it was inevitable that they should realize their dependence on one another.
They learned, too, that the presidency was the one political institution which possessed the power to galvanize expansion. Congress was too fragmented in its leadership to serve as anything but a tactical device, useful when obstruction was called for. All that was needed to complete the new constitution was for its constituent parts to realize how to convert dissidence into a force for expansion. If, for example, women and minorities could be taught to package their demands in the form of economic opportunities within the system, then the forces of change would be linked to economic expansion and made to promote the power of the new system.
A notable example of how the new system has reshaped the old is in the institution of the opposition party. The traditional justification for a twoparty system is that the party out of power will help to control the party in power by exposing misbehavior and proposing alternatives. To be sure, we have all become educated to believe that no substantial differences distinguish the two major parties; but we had not been prepared for the policy of silence which the Democratic party has observed since the summer of 1972. The reason, of course, is obvious: the Democrats hope to inherit the system that produced Watergate.
It might seem that the role of opposition party has been picked up by the press, which discovered Watergate and kept it alive. This interpretation is plausible if we remember that the mass media belong to the same system of power which has been superimposed on the traditional constitutional arrangements. Its affiliations are with big business and finance, advertising, big science, and the multiversity. If this is true, then it is possible to explain the tenacity with which the press and the networks pursued Richard Nixon.
From the beginning the Nixon Administration served notice of its intention to “get” the media, or rather, their most powerful representatives. The situation came to a head in the court battle over the Pentagon Papers. It was clear then that the press was fighting for its existence not as defined by the First Amendment but as defined by the new constitution of corporate structures. Nixon could get away almost indefinitely with violations of the old Constitution if he had not egregiously threatened the new system. Anyone who has doubts about the system to which the loyalties of the media are attached need only recall the media’s treatment of the movements of the Sixties. That experience, combined with the Eagleton affair, the McGovern campaign, and, now, Nixon’s resignation, reveal the new role of the press and television in our new system: they are the power that defines the tolerable limits of deviation within the new system.
It is, then, the new system that has worked to produce Nixon’s resignation and to prevent his impeachment. Its success has obscured what should have been the ultimate political significance of Watergate and of Richard Nixon. Watergate was America’s first genuine experience of tyranny. The Huston Plan, the role of the FBI and CIA, the attempts to bribe and corrupt the courts, the efforts to make the federal bureaucracy into an instrument of ideology, the studied contempt for Congress, the promotion of repressive legislation—it is a catalogue of abuses fit to be placed alongside the list which the colonists attached to the Declaration of Independence.
But Nixon’s tyranny was not George III’s. In his inept and visionless way he was the underlaborer of the new system, clearing away the debris of the old system, accomplishing his task in a faceless, private way, indifferent to the value of public things except as pomp or squalid profit, preaching political quietism in the guise of the work ethic. It is fitting that technological society, which dwarfs men by things, should have found so mean an instrument.
September 19, 1974
Our real “enemy,” Boorstin notes, has not been “powerlessness” but “discrimination” whereby one group is unfairly prevented from getting what everybody else has. Boorstin warns that social movements which began with “just demands for rights” have “ended in hollow demands for power” (Discontents, p. 58). ↩