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democracy in america

I have been rereading Alexis de Tocqueville’s masterful Democracy in AmericaThis book, written in the first half of the nineteenth century by a French aristocrat for his countrymen, remains standard reading for American college students and even some of their professors. In a way it is too bad that we tend to read it as Americans, as if it were written for Americans. The problem with this bit of (entirely understandable) self-involvement is that it blinds us to just how unique—even odd—the United States is in global and historical perspective.

Tocqueville knew how odd we were, and this knowledge helped him to analyze and highlight what made it possible for us to combine two important but usually contradictory principles of public life: democracy and ordered liberty. To make sense of this achievement, one first must understand what Tocqueville meant by “democracy.”  Tocqueville often referred to “the sovereignty of the people” in a way that comports with democracy as majority rule through representatives.  But this purely political definition in no way captures all Tocqueville meant. For Tocqueville, our “democracy” was as much social, and even economic, as it was political.  Equality of condition—in terms of how much formal political power each American citizen had, but also in terms of how they were treated by the laws, their roles and respect in social life, and even their wealth—was, according to Tocqueville, a defining characteristic of American life.

Living in our liberal, post-Marxian age, most Americans today would emphasize how unequal Americans were in the nineteenth century. In addition to the scandal of slavery, many Americans would point to the great families (the Washingtons and the Lees, to name but two) and the seemingly stratified hierarchies of early American social life, with its mechanics, farm workers, and semi-aristocratic landholders. But the French aristocrat Tocqueville was astonished by just how equal Americans were, and how equally they were treated by their governments and by one another.

Inequality in aristocratic Europe really meant something. It meant that aristocrats would be subject to different courts and different laws, allowing them, for example, to get away with harming those “beneath them” through dishonesty and even violence, with impunity.  It meant that the “lower orders” would bow to their “betters” or be beaten, that one class ruled, by law, the others, and that aristocrats were not taxed, while the poor found themselves dragooned into back-breaking work on public projects, without pay. The list could go on, but the point is that real, aristocratic inequality was a system instituted and maintained through law and other powers of the state as well as by individual and social prejudice.

America, meanwhile, was democratic in the sense of being characterized by deep and fundamental equality. But it was not today’s equality. The government did not redistribute income from some to others, did not demand that employers discriminate against some types of people in favor of others, did not impose a uniform, awful education system on Americans in the name of “equal opportunity.” Nor did “democracy” mean empowering the federal government to regulate our economic, social, and even religious lives.

The “inegalitarian” equality of Tocqueville’s America can be attributed to the people’s attachment to another, seemingly contrary ideal, namely, ordered liberty. Americans’ attachment to equality, on Tocqueville’s view, was at times excessive and even dangerous.  It could spawn a “tyranny of the majority,” stifling dissent and punishing anyone who dared espouse views contrary to the mainstream-of-the-moment.  But these impulses were kept in check by institutions, beliefs, and practices strengthening local associations so that they could, and did, keep the central government from taking over the essentials of everyday life, along with an attachment to “sacred” rights of property and the family to which the people were attached through long practice as well as self-interest and philosophical disposition. In particular, the township served as the focus of daily life and a bulwark against administrative centralization, empowering people in their local communities to lead free lives within accepted constraints of custom and tradition.  Especially important, of course, was the “spirit of religion,” which motivated the Puritans to come to American shores and to found tight-knit communities committed to living Godly lives in common, with the people ruling themselves according to rigorous conceptions of duty and the common good. Such a pattern of life did not create fertile soil for grand schemes of universal reform, instead buttressing the authority of myriad local groups within looser state and national institutions limited in their scope to addressing particular issues of general concern.

So what happened?  How did we “progress” from an equality of freedom and community to our administrative and welfare state, which enforces a meaningless equality at the expense of primary social groups?

The easiest answer would be “the Civil War.” According to many historians and, judging by their actions, most politicians, the War Between the States destroyed the old republic on the grounds that its loose structure was both unjust and unstable, allowing for too much local liberty and, with it, the injustice of slavery and racism.

But that answer is too pat, too easy, and too superficial. Perhaps most important, it assumes what it should prove—that the Civil War fundamentally changed our culture and society. And the facts on the ground disprove these claims. Even if taken in the most anti-Southern view possible, the fact of continuing unrest, racial violence, and discrimination in large parts of the United States (north, south, east, and west) show that the attitudes we all can and should deplore regarding race did not simply disappear at Appomattox. Rather, the more rational argument is that America was changed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, granting Congress the power to enforce equal citizenship (with its privileges and immunities), due process, and equal protection of the laws.

But, was the Fourteenth Amendment intended to bring a revolution, centralizing administration into the hands of the federal government, quashing the rights and traditions of states and localities in the name of a new kind of equality? Clearly not. As Raoul Berger’s classic Government by Judiciary shows, not even the most radical supporters of the Fourteenth Amendment believed it would even extend the right to vote to freed slaves. Rather, the intention was to open the courthouse door to freed slaves, providing them with the basic rights necessary to participate in social and political life, thus allowing them to fight for the respect and dignity they deserved (Tocquevillean equality).

A better question might be “was it inevitable that, in protecting the rights of freed slaves, the Fourteenth Amendment would destroy local life and politics, instituting a new kind of government and society?”  Here, too, the answer seems to be a clear “no.” Sadly, the Fourteenth Amendment was, in practice, found to be consistent with unjust laws penalizing, not just freed slaves, but anyone with even a small amount of African blood, with legal disabilities and the humiliations of segregation.

The change in our society from Tocquevillean democratic liberty to government-enforced egalitarianism was the result of broader, deeper, and more corrupting trends than a specific change in the Constitution. For laws, and even constitutions, can “lead” societies and cultures only on rare occasions, and are themselves the result and not the cause of revolutions.

The revolution in American society took place over many decades, in the hearts and minds of Americans, from old stock and new immigrants, who came to choose uniformity, security, and individual pleasure over the hardships of self-government under God.

Perhaps the greatest flaw Tocqueville saw in the American character was individualism.  Most Americans would resist the very idea that the kind of independence and self-reliance we associate with individualism could be a threat to liberty. But what Tocqueville saw as individualism was not the spirit of liberty that combined with the spirit of religion and the reality of vibrant communities in America.  Rather, it was the considered view that we are happiest when we ignore the world outside our small group of family and friends, retreating into the felicities of domestic life. That feeling, while understandable, blinds people to the needs of their wider community, and the dangers thereto posed by centralizers preaching ideological slogans and promising material progress.  Do we want better schools, roads, and human relations?  Well, then, let us bring in the experts from Washington!  This is the attitude that enervates local life, leaving our communities prey to outside forces.

It was not the sins of slavery that required the growth of the leviathan state, any more than it was the battle against those sins. Rather, it was our own loss of virtue, of our practice of participating in local life, that allowed power to shift from its most natural locale to the distant realm of ideology. Can such a shift be undone? On a national level, perhaps not.  But there remain attachments to important, permanent goods and groups that can make our lives more meaningful and awaken, at least in some of our neighbors, a capacity for more fully human lives.

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3 replies to this post
  1. I think this is a very good essay. It is too easy to pinpoint the demise of the American republic on one event, era or policy, like the civil war or even the New Deal. Much more difficult, albeit fruitful, is this sort of argument which looks at the character of the nation and souls of its citizens as it develops in time. Why, even the New Deal, given the soul of American citizens in the 30s, was an effort to get people back to work – not to give them handouts for doing nothing. For all its faults, the New Deal was still rooted in a basic assumption about the necessity of work for happiness. Now, the American soul is burdened by work. Government is not supposed to ensure jobs, just paychecks for doing nothing. Modern liberal Americans would not accept the New Deal because it would compel them to work rather than collect welfare.

  2. I know that people like De Toqueville and treat him as an authority figure, but De Toqueville believed in White Supremacy. He believed that the Europeans were civilized and were the brightest amongst people with the British being the superior race.

    At best, which I don’t think is necessarily accurate, De Toqueville believed that the Indians and Africans could reach that level of superiority if they became like the Europeans in everything but the color of their skin. So let’s look at some other views.

    The “tyranny of the majority” is the battle cry of those who object to democracy because they fear losing privilege and the right to abuse those under them. For though the Constitution and the new America did not show the same reliance on the American aristocracy that Europe did on theirs, it was still constructed to rely on and protect those with privilege. This is why, during the Constitutional debates, Madison, in arguing for longer Senate terms, objected to a one man-one vote democracy because he was afraid of what the privileged in England would lose to agrarian reform. We should also note that the tyranny of the majority is what any representative gov’t relies on. The differences exist in which majority gets to rule.

    Thus the “ineqalitarian” equality is an oxymoron. For Liberty – equality = privilege. And the reliance of those who have privilege is basically what Europe had.

    But I do agree with De Toqueville on America’s isolationist tendencies, which he referred to as individualism, being one of our greatest weaknesses.

  3. Well, in all fairness you are right insofar as the Aristocratic regime in France was hopelessly corrupt and did not function in accordance with the general principles of aristocracy that Tocqueville eloquently defended in his writings (I have in mind here the chapters on individualism wherein Tocqueville upholds the ideal of a hierarchic society wherein people are bound together by custom and duty).

    The problem with France and the French was that the Aristocratic system could only function properly if the nation had a true faith in God. The anti-clericalism and hyper-rationalism of the revolution did not appear ex nihilo – it was a poison long present in the aristocracy, which destroyed the ancien regime from within and continued to pollute the body politic following the revolution.

    That said, the failure of French Aristocracy does not portend a failure of the aristocratic regime Tocqueville upheld. After all, aristocracy in Poland functioned quite well – as one can easily surmize by comparing the food of both countries (something my wife noted). She argued the following when comparing French and Polish aristocracy (very convincingly)

    The French have cleverly made a high art of mass starvation, claiming that snails and frogs are culinary delights, when in fact snails and frogs are all that starving peasants can find in the grass to eat. Meanwhile, Polish culinary dishes are things like pork, beef, potatos, etc etc.

    Polish cuisine appears less refined than French cuisine because it is less exotic, but French cuisine is only apparently exotic due to the regime being so poorly ruled prior to the revolution that people had to eat snails and frogs.

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