Amid the smoke and stench of burning careers, Washington feels a bit like the last days of the ancien régime. As the world’s finest democracy, we do not do guillotines. But there are other less bloody rituals of humiliation, designed to reassure the populace that order is restored, the Republic cleansed. Let the perp walks begin. Whether the public feels reassured is another matter.
George W. Bush’s plight leads me to thoughts of Louis XV and his royal court in the eighteenth century. Politics may not have changed as much as modern pretensions assume. Like Bush, the French king was quite popular until he was scorned, stubbornly self-certain in his exercise of power yet strangely submissive to manipulation by his courtiers. Like Louis Quinze, our American magistrate (whose own position was secured through court intrigues, not elections) has lost the “royal touch.” Certain influential cliques openly jeer the leader they not so long ago extolled; others gossip about royal tantrums and other symptoms of lost direction. The accusations stalking his important counselors and assembly leaders might even send some of them to jail. These political upsets might matter less if the government were not so inept at fulfilling its routine obligations, like storm relief. The king’s sorry war drags on without resolution, with people still arguing over why exactly he started it. The staff of life–oil, not bread–has become punishingly expensive. The government is broke, borrowing formidable sums from rival nations. The king pretends nothing has changed.
The burnt odor in Washington is from the disintegrating authority of the governing classes. The public’s darkest suspicions seem confirmed. Flagrant money corruption, deceitful communication of public plans and purposes, shocking incompetence–take your pick, all are involved. None are new to American politics, but they are potently fused in the present circumstances. A recent survey in Wisconsin found that only 6 percent of citizens believe their elected representatives serve the public interest. If they think that of state and local officials, what must they think of Washington?
We are witnessing, I suspect, something more momentous than the disgrace of another American President. Watergate was red hot, but always about Richard Nixon, Richard Nixon. This convergence of scandal and failure seems more systemic, less personal. The new political force for change is not the squeamish opposition party called the Democrats but a common disgust and anger at the sordidness embedded in our dysfunctional democracy. The wake from that disgust may prove broader than Watergate’s (when democracy was supposedly restored by Nixon’s exit), because the anger is also splashing over once-trusted elements of the establishment.
Heroic truth-tellers in the Watergate saga, the established media are now in disrepute, scandalized by unreliable “news” and over-intimate attachments to powerful court insiders. The major media stood too close to the throne, deferred too eagerly to the king’s twisted version of reality and his lust for war. The institutions of “news” failed democracy on monumental matters. In fact, the contemporary system looks a lot more like the ancien régime than its practitioners realize. Control is top-down and centralized. Information is shaped (and tainted) by the proximity of leading news-gatherers to the royal court and by their great distance from people and ordinary experience.