…When these prodigies
Do so conjointly meet, let not men
“These are their reasons: they are
For, I believe, they are portentous
Julius Caesar, I, iii
Over the past fifteen years the American public consciousness has been witness to a succession of political prodigies: to assassinations, civil insurrections, imperial war, the shame of military defeat, and the brief tyranny of the Nixon regime. Yet the mood of the present moment, when the administration of Jimmy Carter has just completed its first year, is not one of relief but one of foreboding. And this despite the fact that Carter has committed no moral or legal offenses remotely comparable to those of Johnson and Nixon; and that for all of his mistakes he will never match Gerald Ford’s talent for blunder. Nonetheless it seems as though American society at large, and not merely the representatives of powerful interest groups, has silently refused its support and left the president virtually powerless.
This widespread anxiety among a citizenry which had grudgingly given the president only the barest claim to electoral legitimacy may reflect some deeper trouble than doubts about the competence of Jimmy Carter. It may indicate a disorder that has been gathering around the nation’s highest office for the past half century.
During the past fifteen years this society has been locked into a ritual of political excess, of misrule from both sides, of imperial presidents overreaching and contributing to the corruption of the citizenry, while the society has responded by indiscriminately destroying its leaders. The first intimation came with the murder of John Kennedy; then in the death and near death of presidential prototypes, such as Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and George Wallace; then in the forced retirement of Lyndon Johnson; then in the expulsion of Richard Nixon, preceded by the disgrace of his natural successor, Spiro Agnew; and, finally, in the temporary presidency of Gerald Ford who was distinguished by two qualities: he was unelected and he turned out to be the first incumbent since Hoover to have failed in the effort to succeed himself.
Taken along with the sense of collapse that surrounds the current president, these events signify that an unnatural rite has become incorporated into the anthropology of American political life: the ritual destruction of the president. In a relatively brief period the nation has consumed four presidents, terminating them all unnaturally, and now we are watching a fifth struggling to retain a semblance of authority. The significance of the ritual lies not only in what it portends for that office, but for what it signifies for the historical relationship between the president and the American people. In the twentieth century, especially, that relationship has been a critical element in America’s self-conception, in its collective identity as a democracy. The ultimate victim of the ritual described above may be the sovereign people.
How much of a crisis? It will be—I am thinking in terms of—the point is, everything is a crisis. (expletive deleted) it is a terrible lousy thing—it will remain a crisis among the upper intellectual types, the soft heads, our own, too—Republicans—and the Democrats and the rest. Average people won’t think it is much of a crisis unless it affects them. (unintelligible)
Even with the expletives deleted, whenever post-Watergate conversation turns to “crisis,” a certain (unintelligibility) creeps in. During the 1960s there was much worried discussion about our national political institutions, most of it centered around the question of why the arrangements didn’t seem to work.
Regardless of the institution under scrutiny, the basic approach has remained unvarying for forty years: it begins by positing a hermetic world of Washington politics and administration and then it proceeds to ask how current practices can be rendered more rational or, what comes to the same thing, more efficient. Rarely, if ever, have there been official investigations into the relationship between Washington institutions and the society in which those institutions are supposed to be grounded. The reason for the silence is the same as the clue to the current crisis: the relationship is, at best, tenuous. The crisis has to do with the grounding of our major political institutions: with their power, legitimacy, and, above all, their constitution. The fundamental stake in the crisis involves our political identity, a matter which has been contested from the time that our Constitution was first proposed.
Political identity concerns who and what we are together; how we define ourselves as a collectivity. Historically, some societies have defined themselves as “monarchies,” others as “aristocracies,” and, more recently, as “people’s republics.” These names do not stand for “mere” legal forms or outer shells. They indicate what a particular society conceives itself to be and to be about. A political form is expressive of collective identity, of how a particular collectivity defines its being in a world of other distinctive collectivities and, by that definition, announces to the world how it wishes to be perceived.
Among modern peoples, Americans were virtually the first to attempt a deliberate act of collective self-definition. There were two moments to that “act,” revolution then constitution, both premeditated and preceded by months, even years, of public discussion and controversy. The first statement of American collective identity was in the Declaration of Independence. It announced that the colonies were about to create a new collective existence, “to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them….” Within that context, the famous reference of the Declaration to “self-evident truths” must be interpreted literally if one is to appreciate the aim of the revolutionary action. It was to ground collective existence in ultimate reality, “the laws of nature and of nature’s God,” and thereby to define its being. The “self-evident truths” were about human equality, inalienable rights, and the new basis of legitimacy, “the consent of the governed.”
The success of this first attempt at collective self-definition was evident a decade later in the words chosen to begin the Preamble to the new constitution, “We the People….” Convinced that they were a people, the revolutionists could proceed to constitute their common being by means of a decision to live together in a certain way, “to form a more perfect Union….” Earlier the Declaration had set out a conception of collectivity that can be fairly described as democratic. It attempted to ground public authority in the specific capacity of the people to constitute their own political identity:
…whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying the foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
Although the original constitution clearly bears the imprint of the dominant elites and of their concern to frustrate the potential power of the lower classes, it is important to recall that the Preamble to the Constitution not only preserved the democratic conception of collectivity expressed in the Declaration but even conceded the most crucial element in it, the idea of a corporate people who could act politically. The language of the Preamble was unequivocal on that score; the repetition of active verbs, such as “form,” “establish,” “insure,” “provide,” and, above all, “ordain” is evidence of a conception of the “people” as an entity which could develop and express its collective will.
We, the People of the United States, in order to form a More Perfect Union, establish Justice, insure Domestic Tranquility, provide for the Common Defense, promote the General Welfare and secure the Blessings of Liberty to Ourselves and our Posterity, do Ordain and Establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The democratic understanding was that the authority of officeholders derived from the power which had produced the Constitution. In this view, government is not so much “based upon” the Constitution as grounded in the people. The distinction is important for preserving what was the truly unique claim that underlay the whole idea of a people constituting themselves. What was distinctive about democracy was not what it is sometimes said to be, the demand that public officeholders ought to be accountable to a mass electorate at periodic intervals, or the demand that all citizens should enjoy equal political rights. These requirements were considered important and precious, but not the fundamental point of this type of collective being. Rather the uniqueness of democracy was its boast that it was the only political constitution which was owned collectively, by the “people” who had given it existence. Democracy signified the form of political life that belonged to the people.
As everyone knows, the democratic conception of collectivity was a matter of controversy virtually from the time that the Revolution ended. An alternative view was embodied within the new constitution and elaborated during the great debates over ratification. That view accepted the need for democratic legitimacy, but argued that once the political order is established, the people, as a corporate, volitional body, is dangerous and has to be deactivated and kept at a distance.
The Founding Fathers made no secret of their intention to neutralize collective power. During the debates over ratification they spared no effort to explain how this would be done constitutionally, by the separation of powers, checks-and-balances, dividing power between the states and the central government, and the indirect elections of the senators and the president.
At the same time, the Founders appealed to certain economic groups in an effort to develop a social basis for the new political arrangements, an alternative ground to “the people.” The basis was to be property: landed, commercial, manufacturing, and financial. The strategy went beyond merely soliciting the support of the propertied groups. It envisioned, as Madison noted at the time, the organization of these interests and their involvement “in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.” The boldness of the idea was, partly, in the attempt at legitimating partisanship within the political arrangements and, partly, in inventing a new type of political actor. Organized interests, according to Madison, were “united and actuated by some common impulse.” This recognition, that interests were cohesive political forces, is all the more revealing if it is remembered that while Madison was busy legitimating this form of concerted will, he was also occupied in demonstrating how the new Constitution would frustrate action by popular majorities. With a fine impartiality Madison’s Constitution offered its hospitality to both the fragmented majority and the “united” minorities.
The destruction of the political conception of the people was carried further in the twentieth century when “pluralism” became the unofficial ideology of the Republic and the main dogma of academic political science. Pluralism perpetuated the Madisonian concern to have organized interest groups, rather than the “people,” recognized as the authoritative actors in politics.
The “people” more or less vanished into the status of what Arthur Bentley, the arch-theorist of pluralism early in this century, called “metaphysical spooks”; its place as sovereign was taken by the legal “rules of the game” which, in some unexplained way, were supposed to regulate group conflicts impartially and keep them within decent bounds.2 Viewed from one angle, academic pluralism merely updated Madison’s argument by supplying a fresher rationale for frankly connecting political processes with the most powerful economic organizations. In his own cranky way, Arthur Bentley quietly fulfilled the ambition of Max Weber, to serve as the Karl Marx of the bourgeoisie. Unfortunately, the permanent ground which Bentley and his disciples thought they had discovered proved temporary. Interests began to reach beyond the nation to seek foreign ground.
The full significance of these developments was obscured by the extension of formal democracy during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The direct election of senators and the decline of the electoral college; the progressive broadening of the suffrage; the reduction of barriers to the exercise of the franchise; and the emergence of mass political parties seemed to increase the instruments and prospects of popular control. On the face of it, the creation of a mass electorate seemed to hold out the promise of translating into action the abstract idea of a collective will. In reality, the “electorate” was a pseudo equivalent for the “people,” little more than a mystification which hid the disorganized character of the citizenry. The electorate was the “voters,” which meant that only on infrequent occasions was the citizen encouraged to think of himself as a member of a national body politic. More regularly, the attention of the electorate was divided and distracted by state and local elections and, increasingly, bemused by the rapid proliferation of minute electoral districts, from sewage to transportation.
And while the electorate was being atomized the Union was being capitalized. During the last half of the nineteenth century the corporate economy began to take hold; economic power became increasingly concentrated in fewer large units; and those who acquired and controlled them were displaying greater interest in the political application of economic power. A diffuse electorate presented a sharp contrast to the organized power of corporations; its weakness explains why corporate power was largely indifferent to the spread of electoral democracy.
From the perspective of our contemporary crisis the most important thing to be said about the antidemocratic tradition is not that it has been successful, or that it complements nicely the requirements of the political economy of corporate capitalism, but rather that there is a special sense in which, from its inception, its success has been incomplete.
Although the eighteenth-century elites managed brilliantly to control the process of constitution-making and to include numerous provisions for preventing majority rule while allowing the power and influence of wealth and social superiority to make itself felt in decisive ways, they never managed to develop a convincing justification for their own elitism. During the Revolutionary War the “rich and the well-born” had actively led the attack upon the social norms which had served to legitimate the elites of the Old World, e.g., family, rank, privilege, or wealth. They failed, however, to furnish substitutes for what they had discredited. This gave rise to a tension that became particularly acute in the twentieth century: domination by the elites was increasingly visible, even boldly proclaimed in the literature of social and political science, and yet the political ideology of the society gave it no legitimacy.
The lack of legitimacy meant that elitism has had to be somewhat furtive. Denied an open, public place in the collectivity’s conception of its political existence, American elitism developed a distorted, profoundly antipolitical form. Ironically, the elites had mainly themselves to blame for this. The problem had its historical origins in the eighteenth-century arguments which the representatives of the elites put forward to discourage popular democracy. The most important of these depicted politics as being literally a dirty business, where ambition, self-interest, partisanship, and the appetite for power were the driving forces. The Federalists distilled that conception into maxims such as the following: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition…the interests of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place…government itself [is] the greatest of all reflections on human nature….”3 Of all the teachings the most influential was that popular majorities were naturally prone to tyrannize over the rights of minorities, a precept that rings ironically today when the intellectual and economic descendants of the Federalists denounce public policies which aid minorities. Typically, the precept is taught to students as a straightforward principle of constitutional law, thereby undervaluing its greater service as a lesson about collective self-doubt and resignation. It teaches the demos to distrust itself politically and to hesitate before risking the contagions that infest the public realm. The success of this antipolitical education is that the teachers have gotten the common people to respect the Constitution and, simultaneously, to disrespect the politics which it established.
Nonetheless, while the elites were successful in promoting fragmentation and self-doubts among the majority, they never succeeded in gaining open acceptance of elite rule.
It is humanity’s leap from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom.
Not long ago a revelatory phrase was used by President Carter’s chief speech writer in describing how the State of the Union Message of 1978 had been drafted. After noting the reactions and suggestions of various high officials, the writer remarked that one idea had survived the various revisions: “One theme on which everyone agreed right from the start was the point about historical inevitability.”4
One could not, of course, expect this phrase, with its Marxian resonance, to appear in the State of the Union address. From the contents of the address, however, it is evident that “historical inevitability” was a shorthand expression for the condition of helplessness conveyed by the main message. “There is,” the president declared, “no single overwhelming crisis” and yet there were “profound national interests at stake.” There were “problems” that “will only grow worse” if unattended, yet “we cannot be the managers of everything and everybody.”5
The oscillations in the president’s message, denying crisis while emphasizing the gravity of the problems, urging action while doubting its efficacy, were indications of a certain attitude of detachment bordering on dissociation as the president surveyed a society which appeared suddenly to have become dependent. The prospect of managing a cooled-down society accustomed to the intoxications of endless growth is bound to have a sobering effect on elites who have been nurtured on Walt Rostow rather than Malthus. The collective identity which elites have sought to affix to the society is the one that corresponds to their own sense of identity. Their self-conception has been formed by the extraordinary expectations about power and reward that are at the center of the prevailing conception of modernity. The gloom that is so widespread among elites may be a reflection of the impasse produced by modernity.
During the past four centuries “modernity” has become a summary expression for the material promises which the combined power of science, technology, and capitalist industrial organization would realize in ever-increasing increments. The processes of rational exploitation have been developed and defined by a particular form of social and political rule, rule by the elites which have controlled capital, administrative skills, and technical knowledge. These elites are now experiencing acute disenchantment. Conscious of the vast power which modern science, technology, and communications have placed at their fingertips, they are painfully sensitive to the fact that the potentialities of power cannot be fully realized, or further exploited within the limits imposed by the realities, political and ecological, of this world.
Accordingly, a certain restlessness is evident among the dominant elites in all advanced societies. The sources of dissatisfaction are historically explainable. Modern elites were shaped by the experience of expansion: modern science, the authority to which educated elites looked increasingly, offered proof after proof that the most useful knowledge ever discovered by mankind was, in principle, capable of unlimited extension and improvement; technology, the practical form of the application of science, showed how innovations in techniques of all kinds could be made into a process and extended endlessly; mass production techniques encouraged the notion of ever-increasing levels of productivity, consumption, and wealth; political imperialism offered the prospect of extending the boundaries of national power; and administrative organization or bureaucracy furnished the skills for controlling larger and larger jurisdictions and populations. Born, as it were, to the culture of increase, contemporary elites have encountered frustration in the last decade. Signs of dwindling resources, challenges from the non-Western world, manifest military defeats, sluggish economies, restrictive environmental regulations, and welfare expectations that drain resources and support discontent have created an atmosphere in which the dominant elites, with their “take-off” mentality, cannot but feel suffocated and hemmed in.
One expression of the internal crisis within the elites is to be found in the spate of academic writings, especially from academics associated with the Trilateral Commission, bemoaning the “ungovernable” nature of contemporary democracies, the decline of “respect for authority,” and the inflationary pressures which they blame upon the masses. According to the diagnosis, elites are prevented from governing effectively because they are the victims of electoral “blackmail.”6 The ballot is being used by the masses to extract material benefits and to lay claim to a share of social resources. The effects are inflationary, as well as disruptive of the fine calculations upon which the complex political economy of modern society depends. The present crisis, according to Samuel Huntington, “is mistakenly attribute[d] to capitalist economies” when it “is, in fact, a product of democratic politics.” 7
These developments are now being reflected in the mystifying language about “historical inevitability” and in the efforts of a fumbling administration to gain a grip on things by concentrating upon managerial reforms. The actual result is to transfer its own impotence to those groups and classes which are, in fact, politically, economically, and socially powerless. This was a message within the Message:
There is a limit to the role and function of Government. Government cannot solve all our problems, set all our goals, or define our vision. Government cannot eliminate poverty, provide a bountiful economy, reduce inflation, save our cities, cure illiteracy, provide energy or mandate goodness.8
Underlying these remarks is a perception of an emerging, post-modern world which, from the viewpoint of the elites, turns upside down the prophecy of Engels: we are in the process of leaping from the realm of freedom to the realm of necessity. If this is so, what does it signify for the transition to a new conception of collective identity? In his Message President Carter spoke of “a new partnership between Government and the people”: what message does historical inevitability have for the people, and about their political capacity?
During these past years Americans have seen our Government grow far from us. For some citizens it has become almost like a foreign country, so strange and distant….
President Jimmy Carter,
State of the Union Message,
January 19, 1978
Law and custom have decreed that presidents will use the occasion of the State of the Union Message to expound their conception of the tasks which lie ahead and the policies by which they propose to accomplish them. On its face President Carter’s Message offered an obvious contrast to the more imperious Messages delivered by recent presidents: messages from the “New Frontier” and about “The Great Society,” even “A State of the World Message” from President Nixon. Predictably, the tone of President Carter’s communication was less expansive, coming as it did after years of political disorders, war and defeat, the near impeachment of a president, and the first signs of a deteriorating economy.
This particular address, however, had a certain incoherence that made it appear less as a program for action than a text for hermeneutics. While overtly the president was pronouncing the state of the union to be “sound” and its people “confident,” he was also delivering a warning about the estrangement of the people from its government and about what this might mean for the kind of political society America claimed to be.
This second message hinted at a political condition in which the state had become separated from the society, and it described the mood of the citizens in language reminiscent of a textbook account of political alienation. Declaring that we, the citizens, have become dissociated from “our Government,” that we are as travelers in “a foreign country,” the president drew a darkening picture of our condition: “often we have to deal with [our Government] through trained ambassadors who have become too powerful and influential….” The seriousness of the situation was underscored by the president’s solemn warning, “This cannot go on.”
Unfortunately, when the president proceeded to identify the “trained ambassadors,” the Kafkaesque imagery of a “strange and distant” realm, whose ruler we can contact only through “powerful” intermediaries, was dispelled as unexpectedly as it was first injected, leaving a faintly comic trail and suggesting that the presidential messagesender might have confused a tax shelter for the Castle. Who were those “too powerful” henchmen of a distant potentate? They were, according to the president, “lawyers, accountants, and lobbyists.”
The disjunction between the dangers depicted and their causes took a more serious turn when the president offered his remedies for overcoming the abyss between democracy and its government. “We must have,” he asserted, “what Abraham Lincoln sought—a Government for the people.” In selecting that particular phrase and appealing to the memory of the folk hero who is the unique symbol of the realized promise of democracy, the president effected a distortion in Lincoln’s original that was as revealing as it was radical. Lincoln’s formulation, “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” recognized that a democratic conception required that the first two prepositional phrases had to control the third and that, by itself, government “for” the people was inconsistent with democracy. Carter, in contrast, omitted the crucial references to government “by” and “of” the people. The effect was to set democracy against itself, to use it to legitimate an essentially bureaucratic conception of government and to redefine the president as a manager—as the rest of the quotation confirmed:
We have made progress toward that kind of Government. You have given me the authority I requested to reorganize the Federal bureaucracy and I am using it. We have already begun a series of reorganization plans…. But I know that our people are still sick and tired of Federal paper work and red tape…. I consider Civil Service reform to be absolutely vital. Worked out with the civil servants themselves, this reorganization plan will restore the merit principle to a system which has grown into a bureaucratic maze.
The transformation of the president into a manager is not a small matter of improving the efficiency of the executive branch. It involves an institution whose historical evolution has been furthered by, and is inseparable from, its peculiar relation to democracy. The original conception of the president was as a center of energy who stood above the system—an eminence that the Founders had hoped to assure by providing for election by an electoral college decently removed from popular frenzies. The twentieth-century presidency is an office which has become decisively defined by its “democratic” basis in popular elections. It owes its aura of unique legitimacy to the people’s votes and to the close identification they have forged between the office of the president and the people at large. The American president became the main symbol of collective identity, the sole connection between “We the People” and what Hamilton had early dubbed “the great American system.” The president is the sole surviving institution to remind the society of its popular constitutive principle and of the possibility that citizens can act collectively. As long as the democratic character of the president persists, the new system will be incompletely realized.
Not surprisingly the house theorists of the Trilateral Commission—from which Mr. Carter has recruited his top officials—have produced an ideological weapon designed to undermine this last remaining link between government and people. It aims to discredit the importance, even the legitimacy, of popular participation. The strategy is not to abolish popular elections but to sever the connection between elections and the exercise of power. The political scientist Samuel Huntington can usually be relied upon to express the company position. Presidential elections, he has written, are “almost irrelevant” once the election has taken place. For when the president assumes office, the issue is “governing” and this is a matter, not of electoral campaigns or support, but of negotiating peace terms with the “private establishment” or “leaders of the key institutions in society” and in “government.”9
That Huntington’s formulation corresponded to political reality became abundantly clear as soon as Carter took office. Daily and monotonously one prominent business “leader” after another announced that the president had yet to win the confidence of the “business community.” Thus, although most of that community had been ranged against him during the campaign, it is apparent that a second-stage of legitimation is presupposed by corporate interests, one which marks the beginning of the remaking of the president.
In the next issue I will examine some of the processes by which the presidency is being remade and their implications for collective identity. My purpose is to try to identify the political form which is coming into being and the reasons why it is not, as our original Constitution was, an occasion for rejoicing.
(This is the first part of a two-part article.)
May 18, 1978
The White House Transcripts (Bantam edition, 1974), p. 115. ↩
Bentley’s classic, The Process of Government, was first published in 1908. For his dismissal of the “people” see p. 453 et seq. ↩
Federalist Papers, No. 51. See also Nos. 10 and 39. ↩
The New York Times, January 22, 1978, p. E-2. ↩
State of the Union address, January 19, 1978. ↩
Michael Crozier, “Western Europe,” in The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission, by Michael Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington, and Joji Watanuki (New York University Press, 1975), pp. 46-47. ↩
Samuel Huntington, “The United States,” in The Crisis of Democracy, p. 73. ↩
State of the Union address, January 19, 1978. ↩
The Crisis of Democracy, p. 96. ↩