With regard to the political system, the Reagan era represents a significant advance in capitalist democracy. For eight years, the
Reagan’s duty was to smile, to read from the teleprompter in a pleasant voice, tell a few jokes, and keep the audience properly bemused. His only qualification for the presidency was that he knew how to read the lines written for him by the rich folk, who pay well for the service. Reagan had been doing that for years.
He seemed to perform to the satisfaction of the paymasters, and to enjoy the experience. By all accounts, he spent many pleasant days enjoying the pomp and trappings of power and should have a fine time in the retirement quarters that his grateful benefactors have prepared for him. It is not really his business if the bosses left mounds of mutilated corpses in death squad dumping grounds in
Not only in the subject domains but at home as well, there are unimportant people who must be taught to submit with due humility, and the crafting of a figure larger than life is a classic device to achieve this end. As far back as Herodotus we can read how people who had struggled to gain their freedom “became once more subject to autocratic government” through the acts of able and ambitious leaders who “introduced for the first time the ceremonial of royalty,” distancing the leader from the public while creating a legend that “he was a being of a different order from mere men” who must be shrouded in mystery, and leaving the secrets of government, which are not the affair of the vulgar, to those entitled to manage them. In the early years of the Republic, an absurd George Washington cult was contrived as part of the effort “to cultivate the ideological loyalties of the citizenry” and thus create a sense of “viable nationhood,” historian Lawrence Friedman comments. Washington was a “perfect man” of “unparalleled perfection,” who was raised “above the level of mankind,” and so on. To this day, the Founding Fathers remain “those pure geniuses of detached contemplation,” far surpassing ordinary mortals (see p. 00). Such reverence persists, notably in elite intellectual circles, the comedy of Camelot being an example. Sometimes a foreign leader ascends to the same semi-divinity among loyal worshippers, and may be described as “a Promethean figure” with “colossal external strength” and “colossal powers,” as in the more ludicrous moments of the Stalin era, or in the accolade to Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir by
Franklin Delano Roosevelt attained similar heights among large sectors of the population, including many of the poor and working class, who placed their trust in him. The aura of sanctity remains among intellectuals who worship at the shrine. Reviewing a laudatory book on FDR by Joseph Alsop in the New York Review of Books, left-liberal social critic Murray Kempton describes the “majesty” of
The political and social history of Western democracies records all sorts of efforts to ensure that the formal mechanisms are little more than wheels spinning idly. The goal is to eliminate public meddling in formation of policy. That has been largely achieved in the
One major step towards barring the annoying public from serious affairs is to reduce elections to the choice of symbolic figures, like the flag, or the Queen of England — who, after all, opens Parliament by reading the government’s political program, though no one asks whether she believes it, or even understands it. If elections become a matter of selecting the Queen for the next four years, then we will have come a long way towards resolving the tension inherent in a free society in which power over investment and other crucial decisions — hence the political and ideological systems as well — is highly concentrated in private hands.
For such measures of deterring democracy to succeed, the indoctrination system must perform its tasks properly, investing the leader with majesty and authority and manufacturing the illusions necessary to keep the public in thrall — or at least, otherwise occupied. In the modern era, one way to approach the task is to rhapsodize (or wail) over the astonishing popularity of the august figure selected to preside from afar. From the early days of the Reagan period it was repeatedly demonstrated that the tales of Reagan’s unprecedented popularity, endlessly retailed by the media, were fraudulent. His popularity scarcely deviated from the norm, ranging from about 1/3 to 2/3, never reaching the levels of Kennedy or Eisenhower and largely predictable, as is standard, from perceptions of the direction of the economy. George Bush was one of the most unpopular candidates ever to assume the presidency, to judge by polls during the campaign; after three weeks in office his personal approval rating was 76 percent, well above the highest rating that Reagan ever achieved. Eighteen months after taking office, Bush’s personal popularity remained above the highest point that Reagan achieved. Reagan’s quick disappearance once his job was done should surprise no one who attended to the role he was assigned.
It is, nonetheless, important to bear in mind that while the substance of democracy was successfully reduced during the Reagan era, still the public remained substantially out of control, raising serious problems for the exercise of power.