An American Versaille : THE WISH FOR KINGS: Democracy at Bay, <i> By Lewis H. Lapham (Grove Press: $22; 213 pp.)</i>

<i> Sara E. Melzer is currently writing a book on The Mystique of Power: Spectacle and Image-Making in the Reign of Louis XIV and William Jefferson Clinton. She is a professor of French Literature and Culture at UCLA</i>

Historically, American democracy has given rise to many fears as well as hopes. George Washington, disillusioned at the end of his life, complained that one could “set up a broomstick” as candidate, call it a “true son of Liberty” or a “Democrat” and it would still “command their votes in toto!”

Like Washington, many founding fathers dispaired of the new democratic order they had created. John Adams and Alexander Hamilton protested that their fate now depended on the judgments and votes of the petty-minded, ignorant, unthinking masses.

Shortly after this time, Alexis de Tocqueville gave the classic formulation of this problem in his Democracy in America. Democracy, which claims to be the rule of all over all, is, in fact, the rule of only a part--the majority--over the rest. This part can exploit other parts and become tyrannical, as in an aristocracy or monarchy. This tyranny of the majority could be exercised not only against the disadvantaged minorities (the poor, the Blacks, the Indians), but also against the advantaged minorities (the rich, the educated, the wealthy). Tocqueville, like our founding fathers, feared the tyranny of the mediocre, mindless masses against the more enlightened, educated few.


But there’s an opposing tradition which argues that the greatest danger to democracy lies in the tyranny of the wealthy elite. Much political commentary in America revolves around the question, is America too democratic or not democratic enough?

In “The Wish for Kings: Democracy at Bay,” Lewis H. Lapham grapples with this important question and answers loud and clear--not democratic enough. Editor of Harper’s Magazine, Lapham has contributed significantly to this debate. He has written three other books, “Money and Class in America,” “Fortune’s Child,” and “Imperial Masquerade,” all of which deal with similar concerns, but this is his most convincing and powerful work to date.

He argues that although we are theoretically a democracy, which should empower the majority, in practice, an elite has taken over, “a government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich.” This is due primarily to what could be called the “cocooning of America.” Surrounded by such terrifying realities as the riots in Los Angeles and homelessness everywhere, we retreat into the cozy comforts of our shrunken little lives. In this anesthetized state of denial, we disconnect not only from others and the world, but also from ourselves. We hand our lives over to others who supposedly care and are better equipped to govern for us.

But those who rule over us are themselves ruled by a similar shrunken consciousness. This is what Lapham calls “the courtier spirit.” In his chapter, “Versailles on the Potomac,” Lapham argues that contemporary Washington looks surprisingly like the court of the Sun King of Absolutist France where the courtiers’ whole worth is measured by where one gets to sit or stand or by the bow with which one greets or is greeted. Officials in the court of 20th-Century America are obsessed with equivalent hierarchical distinctions. Who gets to ride in the secretary’s limousine? Who will occupy the office overlooking the lawn? These are the questions our officials really care about, although they hide their petty, narcissistic impulses behind socially correct rhetoric about the people’s welfare.

Even the idols of our culture serve to enclose us within our cocoons. Liz and Elvis, Madonna and the Kennedys, symbols of our highest aspirations, bestow on us the “smiles of infinite bliss. Like minor deities or a little crowd of unpainted idols in a roadside shrine, they ease the pain of doubt and hold at bay the fear of change.”

In an incisive, witty rhetoric worthy of Voltaire’s protests against the oppression of Absolutist France, Lapham tries to jolt us out of our stupor. He urges us to act and become engaged in the world to reclaim the democratic values that define the best of what we are and can be. Exactly what those actions are, however, he doesn’t say. But Lapham is most interested in changing our consciousness since for him democracy is not simply a form of government but also a habit of mind that encourages activism and responsibility.

It’s ironic that in a world which is ever expanding that our consciousness should be ever shrinking. But perhaps it is precisely that expansion which creates greater fears. In Lapham’s most probing chapter, “The Wish for Kings,” he argues that although we think we want democracy, deep-down we really want kings--or the illusion of kings, or any kind of authoritative being. “What matters is the presence of immortality . . . the indefinite postponement of death and time.” This desire for an unchallenged authority is really the fear of freedom. Lapham has put his finger on one of the most problematic aspects of modern society and politics. Now that politics has been cut free from its more traditional support in religion or a transcendent realm of values, it must derive its authority from the consent of the people. But that authority changes almost as frequently as daily opinion polls. Such changes cannot help but heighten our awareness of the arbitrary nature of all authority. This freedom is frightening. But this does not mean we should abdicate responsibility.

While I would have wished for a serious confrontation with the opposite view of where the tyranny is coming from, one cannot deny the force of Lapham’s argument. This book is a serious and powerful attempt to wake up the sleeping consciousness of America.