Essay — From the November 2015 issue

Bombast Bursting in Air

The story, so far, of the 2016 election

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We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.

 — Louis Brandeis

When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

 — The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, directed by John Ford

Between democracy and concentrated wealth the country throughout most of its history has preferred the latter to the former, the body politic asking only that the big money make a credible show of caring for something other than itself. For the past thirty-five years the modest requirement has been met with prolonged and costly stagings of a presidential-election campaign invariably said to be, as it was this past summer by Jeb Bush, “everybody’s test, and wide open — exactly as a contest for president should be.”

It is neither wide open nor, strictly speaking, a contest. It is a ritual re-enactment of the legend of democracy as fairground spectacle: the proving that our flag is still there with star-spangled photo ops and bombast bursting in air, the candidates so well contrived that they can be presented as game-show contestants, mounted on selfie sticks until they come to judgment on Election Day before the throne of cameras by whom and for whom they are produced. The contrivances don’t come cheap. Luxury items made to the order and under the supervision of concentrated wealth, they can be counted upon, if and when elected, to stand, foursquare and true blue, for the freedom of money, moralizing and vigilant against the freedoms of movement and thought. Names of candidates inclined to think or act otherwise won’t appear on the November ballot.

But why then, if the race is already come and gone, the pretense of a democratic running for the White House roses and the heavy spending for multiflavored sound bites and dawn-to-dusk press coverage? The short answer comes from John Ford, the Hollywood director, whose movies called forth from the mist of heavily redacted memory the existence of a wide-open American frontier West that never was.

The longer answer is Plato’s in The Republic, his calling forth Socrates to explain that “noble falsehood” is the stuff that binds a society together in self-preserving myth. To the young aristocrat Glaucon preparing to become a ruler of Athens, Socrates says that the children of the city must be told that the god who made all of them mixed gold into the some of them “who are adequately equipped to rule, because they are the most valuable.” Whether the intel is true or false matters less than the children’s remembering their duty to believe it, to know what their rulers would have them know.

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Lewis H. Lapham, editor of Lapham’s Quarterly, is editor emeritus of Harper’s Magazine.

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