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Bedtime for Democracy

“The earth belongs to the living and not to the dead,” Thomas Jefferson said. And a lot of good that did. The founding father railed against economic royalists and their schemes to perpetuate wealth through inheritance, giving the dead hands of the past a leg up (so to speak) over the lowborn living. Mr. Jefferson probably wasn’t the first, and certainly wasn’t the last, to complain that inherited privileges of succession, if enshrined, would produce a dynastic pattern of rule over a permanent American underclass.

And boy, was he right. Natty old Uncle Sam himself bows before the scions of today’s one percent—snot-noses, thumb-suckers, trust-fund bums, lucky sperm, and meddling ninnies that they are. Marrying within their own social class, romping through the same legacy schools, embracing the rites of chummy nepotism, and worst of all, being taken seriously (most egregiously, by themselves) as some sort of natural aristocracy, the economic royalists of our time have restored the family as the fulcrum of power.

Once it was the Rockefellers and Fords, and other multigenerational cartels of the industrial state, nameplating our institutions. (And remember how they filled their factories with immigrant workers looking to improve their station by shedding rather than hanging onto their Old World family surnames?) Now it’s the Kochs, the Murdochs, the Waltons, the Gateses, and the Kardashians—the mutant offspring of the twenty-first-century merger of entertainment, business, and politics—who magnify the American contradiction. Two of the contenders for next year’s presidential coronation are members of the same two families that, between them, have occupied the White House for twenty of the last twenty-seven years. How nice—for them.

It’s come to this: the perennial expectation that every generation of enterprising youth will transcend the horizon of the family, to achieve independence in rebellion against its authority, doesn’t ring true to our experience. We have highborn and we have lowborn, but no middle. The “grassroots” hero who goosed the GOP establishment, Donald Trump, was himself featherbedded to success by his rich father. That Trump made his recent splash by tapping into the mottled veins of birthright politics, a discourse as old as the revolution itself, comes right on schedule.

When you poll these grandees on the issues of the day, of course, they all favor good clean family living. As ritually intoned by the preachers, pundits, and politicians, the sanctity of the family idyll helps manage the inevitable frustrations that grow between the official model of success and the dread reality that your destiny depends more on your birth-class than on your achievements.

As we discovered in begetting this issue, sitcoms from The Cosby Show and Married. . . with Children to The Simpsons and Modern Family have been obsoleted by more risible spectacles of disintegration. So we give you nervous teenage girl vloggers posting their “Morning Routines” to YouTube and Instagram. We give you the fallout from the hack of the pro-infidelity website Ashley Madison. And we give you the wantonly family-unfriendly punk rock of the 1970s, now mainstreamed onto the bulging laps of suburban papas.

What actually happens is that yuppie clans colonize our city playgrounds in leisurely spells between ferrying junior and the young miss to test-prep class and piano lessons, while toddlers in certain Los Angeles neighborhoods die from violent abuse—unsaved by “concerned” squadrons of California’s “family preservation workers.” Domestic order is said to be the prerequisite for social change, rather than the other way around. Dysfunctional poor families have to put up with pious social scientists from Harvard (we’re talking about you, Professor Putnam) telling them to get their houses in order. Protest leaders like the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan have said pretty much the same thing. Rich or poor, the family unit is pointed to as an incubator of personal responsibility and atonement.

Not only in America, of course, does family-worship anchor conservatism. Among this issue’s many poems and stories, in translations from Greek, Russian, and Chinese, is a daughter’s memoir of her father’s 1983 execution in Iran. Her parents were in hiding when “the brothers”—the revolutionary guards of the Islamic regime—came and took him away.

And in the lighter-fare department, we offer a more down-market patrimonial putsch. Close observers of the upcoming dynastic square-off for the presidency have noticed the word “cuckservative” bandied about throughout the endless season of GOP presidential primaries and caucus debates.

The “cuckservative” coinage, we learned, is an unholy blend of “conservative” with “cuckold,” intended to neutralize right-wing candidates believed to be lacking the cojones to stand up to the Man, or something like that. Demonstrating yet again the fatal incompatibility of conservatism with irony, “cuckservative” also derives from a Christian persecution complex rooted in the psychosexual racial perversions of the dwindling patriarchy.

Yeah, that one surprised us, too.