NOW with Bill Moyers

Bill Moyers Interviews Lewis Lapham

MOYERS: Our report on Wal-Mart is just one example of the way money and power have polarized America. My next guest knows all about the deep contradictions and fault lines in America today, so I've asked him to tell us what the victories this week might mean for our lives here at home.

Lewis Lapham speaks the truth to power and wealth in each issue of America's oldest political journal, HARPER'S Magazine, of which he's the editor. In the essays he writes and the articles he publishes, he opens the veins on issues like class, power and politics.

You can also watch him at work in his many books including MONEY AND CLASS IN AMERICA, and his latest, THEATER OF WAR just published by The New Press. He joins me now.

LEWIS LAPHAM: Thank you, Bill.

MOYERS: Who do you think won on Tuesday night?

LAPHAM: Well, I think the Republicans won and I think the oligarchy won.

MOYERS: Oligarchy.

LAPHAM: Yes. I think that the Congress represents what I would call the frightened rich, the people who think that the democratic experiment has served its purpose, run its course, gone far enough.

And here we are, we will now protect ourselves with...behind gated communities or with such steep differences between incomes that we will be forever safe. And or with an invincible army that will...or an invincible homeland security department that will protect us against death and time.

And so I think that the election that Bush appealed to the country's weakness and fear, not to its courage and strength, and for the moment, I think that the message of weakness and fear found a sympathetic hearing.

MOYERS: There is a fear over terrorism.

LAPHAM: Yes, there is a fear of terrorism. But we promote it.... I mean, you know, during the last two months of the election, one week George Tenet, with the CIA would come out and say, tomorrow or the next day obliteration, or annihilation looms.

And then nothing would happen. And then 10 days later Buehler or the FBI would come out and say, the terrorists are manning trains and... And if you'll remember, on the morning, on election morning, on Tuesday morning, the administration, the Pentagon releases the news of a predator drone obliterating an al-Qaeda agent in a car in the desert of east Yemen.

And that photograph appears on page one of the NEW YORK TIMES on election morning, which echoes the Bush theme throughout the last five days when he was campaigning in the Middle West and in Florida.

So the fear is one on which the administration trades. And this serves the purposes of a government that seeks to suppress, hold in check, human liberty. I mean, it's parallel to the fear of a loss of a job with which the Wal-Mart management keeps the employees in line.

MOYERS: You have uncanny sense from your office in Manhattan to sense and write about people that we saw in the Wal-Mart...

LAPHAM: Right.

MOYERS: I've been reading you for 20 years. How do you think the lives of ordinary folks, the hairdresser in Waco and the car repairman in Marshal, Texas -- how do you think ordinary lives are going to be affected by what happened on Tuesday, by the election?

LAPHAM: Well, you find...I just talked.... I just had breakfast this morning with a friend of mine who had come back from a little town in Winder, Georgia, which used to be a small manufacturing town of textiles. Now, of course, all of the textile manufacturing has been exported to Mexico.

MOYERS: And it's going from Mexico to China...


MOYERS: ...I saw just this week.

LAPHAM: And then you see also over the last several years numbers of people who are let go, fired. The CEO departs with a $30 million golden parachute to Florida and 15,000 employees find themselves out of work.

So I think many people in the country will find their comforts much diminished. I also think they will find it harder to have access to healthcare and education for their children.

MOYERS: But this has been happening as matter what party is in power.

LAPHAM: Yeah, right.

MOYERS: The class system is often defended by its advocates as the working of the market, Adam Smith's Invisible Hand. But you and I know both know there's a deeply political component to it, isn't there?

LAPHAM: Sure. I mean, much of it is based on government subsidy. I mean, the subsidy to the corporations far exceeds the subsidy given to welfare mothers. And it also, it's the way our politics works, it favors that.

That is why you have so little differentiation between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, because they both are going to the same sources of money. And they're both serving the interests of wealth.

MOYERS: I was watching that Wal-Mart piece, I was reminded that at one time Hillary Clinton was on the board of the Wal-Mart corporation, and...if the Democratic Party is not, and the Republican Party is not speaking for the people like that who lost their jobs or lost their pension plans or lost their savings in the recent corporate debacles, who is speaking for them now?

LAPHAM: No organized political force. That was the disappointment of the most recent election. Here was a chance for the democratic party to stand up and say that, to say, look at what it's become, look what we have learned about our economy, look what we have learned about the selfishness of the corporate interests know, which are represented in the persons of George W. Bush and Chaney and Rumsfeld, and these are who these people are.

And make an objection. That objection was not forthcoming. I mean, you may find it in the occasional speech, but not organized into a political force.

MOYERS: You grew up privileged. Your father it your father or grandfather, was mayor of San Francisco?

LAPHAM: My grandfather was mayor.

MOYERS: Your grandfather was mayor of San Francisco. And yet you write more radically than anybody I know. I mean, do you have a love/hate relationship with the system?

LAPHAM: Yes. It's...sure. But I mean, it comes out of my sense of being a democrat with a small D. I mean, you could find the same kind of arguments in lots of wonderful American writers, if you read Franklin, if you read Paine, if you read Lincoln, if you read...

MOYERS: Mark Twain. You're a great Twain buff.

LAPHAM: I am, great...Mark Twain, you find the same argument.

I mean, it's an argument from the side of people who want to try to make it better, not from the side of people who want to destroy it.

MOYERS: I was intrigued that you said, if I heard you a moment ago, you said you thought that the frightened rich felt that democracy has gone too far.


MOYERS: It's time to rein it in.

LAPHAM: Right. They're like gamblers, that you know, when you get ahead, and you've got a lot of chips, and you want to put your arms around the chips and now you don't want to bet anymore, you don't want to take a chance because you might lose it. And paralysis sets in, and that is when the curve turns down.

That's when the pirates become mere thieves. And if we've reached that point, and I think we might, I think that's where the Bush administration is coming from. I think they're thinking about sending the 82nd Airborne Division to return them safely to Connecticut in 1952. And that's a losing proposition, because that's on the side of the past and not on the side of the future.

MOYERS: And do you see the future optimistically? More optimistically than you write?

LAPHAM: Well, yes, because the future, you never know. You see, you never know. It's always got promise.

MOYERS: Lewis Lapham, thanks very much.