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The End of Democracy in America

Tocqueville foresaw how it would come.

Myron Magnet writes: Alexis de Tocqueville was a more prophetic observer of American democracy than even his most ardent admirers appreciate. True, readers have seen clearly what makes his account of American exceptionalism so luminously accurate, and they have grasped the profundity of his critique of American democracy’s shortcomings. What they have missed is his startling clairvoyance about how democracy in America could evolve into what he called “democratic despotism.” That transformation has been in process for decades now, and reversing it is the principal political challenge of our own moment in history. It is implicitly, and should be explicitly, at the center of our upcoming presidential election.

“The man who properly understands his own self-interest has all the guidance he needs to act justly and honestly. They believe that every person is born with the faculty to govern himself and that no one has the right to force happiness on his fellow man.”

Readers don’t fully credit Tocqueville with being the seer he was for the same reason that, though volume 1 of Democracy in America set cash registers jingling as merrily as Santa’s sleigh bells at its 1835 publication, volume 2, five years later, met a much cooler reception. The falloff, I think, stems from the author’s failure to make plain a key step in his argument between the two tomes—an omission he righted two decades later with the publication of The Old Regime and the French Revolution in 1856. Reading the two books together makes Tocqueville’s argument—and its urgent timeliness—snap into focus with the clarity of revelation.

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“True, readers have seen clearly what makes his account of American exceptionalism so luminously accurate, and they have grasped the profundity of his critique of American democracy’s shortcomings. What they have missed is his startling clairvoyance about how democracy in America could evolve into what he called ‘democratic despotism.’”

What’s missing in volume 2 of Democracy is concrete, illustrative detail. Volume 1 mines nine months of indefatigable travel that began in May 1831 in Newport, Rhode Island—“an array of houses no bigger than chicken coops”—when the aristocratic French lawyer was still two months shy of his 26th birthday. Tocqueville’s epic journey extended from New York City through the virgin forests of Michigan to Lake Superior, from Montreal through New England, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee by coach, steamboat, and even on foot through snow-choked woods, until he and his traveling companion, Gustave de Beaumont, boarded a steamer for New Orleans.

“That transformation has been in process for decades now, and reversing it is the principal political challenge of our own moment in history. It is implicitly, and should be explicitly, at the center of our upcoming presidential election.”

From there, they crossed the Carolinas into Virginia, visited Washington, and returned to New York to embark for home with a trunkful of notes and American histories. Tocqueville had watched both houses of Congress in action and interviewed 200-odd people, ranging from President Andrew Jackson, ex-president John Quincy Adams, Secretary of State Edward Livingston, Senator Daniel Webster, Supreme Court Justice John McLean, and future chief justice Salmon Chase to Sam Houston, a band of Choctaw Indians, and “the last of the Iroquois: they begged for alms.”

[Read the full story here, at City Journal]

Only by the time The Old Regime came out, though, three years before Tocqueville’s untimely death from tuberculosis at 53 in 1859, had he amassed the wealth of practical political experience needed to flesh out the argument of Democracy in America’s second volume. After three terms in the Chamber of Deputies during Louis Philippe’s bourgeois monarchy, he had served in the Constituent Assembly following the 1848 revolution, helping to write the Second Republic’s constitution and serving as foreign minister, until president Louis Napoleon made himself emperor. He had researched The Old Regime by reading mountains of official reports and correspondence from the 1750s onward in the archives, chiefly of Tours and Paris. All this allowed him to document what had 51mOL73ChuL._SL250_been inspired but mostly theoretical speculation in volume 2 of Democracy in America.

[Order Alexis de Tocqueville’s masterpiece “Democracy in America” from Amazon.com]

Tocqueville didn’t go to America out of blind democratic enthusiasm. “It is very difficult to decide whether democracy governs better, or aristocracy,” he mused: but the question is merely academic, because anyone who pays attention to swiftly shifting French affairs—from the Revolution, the Directory, and Napoleon to the Restoration and the constitutional monarchy of 1830—can’t deny that “sooner or later we will come, as the Americans have come, to an almost complete equality of conditions.” In that case, “[w]ould it not then become necessary to consider the gradual development of democratic institutions and mores not as the best way to be free but as the only way left to us?”

“In French, the word is moeurs, meaning manners, morals, core beliefs, and customs—what we would call culture. There are ‘three major factors that have governed and shaped American democracy,’ Tocqueville argued, ‘but if I were asked to rank them, I would say that physical causes matter less than laws and laws less than mores.’”

So he went to America in search of “lessons from which we might profit”—negative lessons as well as positive ones. And just after the publication of volume 1 of Democracy in America, he cast his own lot with democracy, marrying, to his family’s horror, a beautiful middle-class English Protestant, Mary Mottley, whom he considered “the only person in the world who knows the bottom of my soul”—but who never shed her middle-class outrage at “the least deviation on my part,” he complained. After all, who can stop his “blood boiling at the sight of a woman”? (And, already at 17, he had fathered a child, whose fate is unknown, with a servant girl.) Still, he at least remained faithful to democracy: when he inherited the title Comte de Tocqueville in 1836, he never used it.

[Also see – We’re Losing The Two Things Tocqueville Said Mattered Most About American Democracy, at The Federalist]

In America, he believed, he’d find democracy in its purest form—morally pure but also unmixed with any vestiges of a hierarchical regime from which it had had to revolt, unlike any other modern democracy. The earliest Anglo-American settlers had crossed the sea to begin the political world A view of America, from France.afresh. This band of equals had “braved the inevitable miseries of exile because they wished to
ensure the victory of an idea,” he wrote—the Puritan idea that “was not just a religious doctrine” but that “coincided with the most absolute democratic and republican theories,” inseparably intertwining “the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty.”

 “’There is nothing the human will despairs of achieving through the free action of the collective power of individuals.’ Free and collaborative: that’s the mainspring of American mores.”

For the Pilgrims, Tocqueville explained, “Religion looks upon civil liberty as a noble exercise of man’s faculties, and on the world of politics as a realm intended by the Creator for the application of man’s intelligence. . . . Liberty looks upon religion as its comrade in battle and victory, as the cradle of its infancy and divine source of its rights.” As the settlers believed, “religion subjects the truths of the other world to individual reason, just as politics leaves the interest of this world to the good sense of all, and it allows each man free choice of the path that is to lead him to heaven, just as the law grants each citizen the right to choose his government.”

“Nongovernmental associations spring up for furthering ‘public security, commerce and industry, morality and religion.’”

So Puritanism was the wellspring of American mores—a key term for Tocqueville that refers not just to “what one might call habits of the heart, but also to the various notions that men possess, to the diverse opinions that are current among them, and to the whole range of ideas that shape habits of mind.” In French, the word is moeurs, meaning manners, morals, core beliefs, and customs—what we would call culture. There are “three major factors that have governed and shaped American democracy,” Tocqueville argued, “but if I were asked to rank them, I would say that physical causes matter less than laws and laws less than mores.”

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From the seventeenth-century Puritan acorn grew American culture’s fundamentally libertarian creed. Universal reason (which reveals Jefferson’s self-evident truths, for example) is the source of moral authority, “just as the source of political power lies in the universality of citizens.” Most Americans believe that “consensus is the only guide to what is permitted or prohibited, true or false,” and that “the man who properly understands his own self-interest has all the guidance he needs to act justly and honestly. They believe that every person is born with the faculty to govern himself and that no one has the right to force happiness on his fellow man.” And they believe in human perfectibility, the usefulness of the spread of enlightenment, and the certainty of progress, so that what seems good today will give way tomorrow to something better but as yet unimagined.

[Read the full text here, at City Journal]

Why are your ships not built to last? Tocqueville once asked an American sailor. Naval architecture improves so quickly, the sailor replied, that the finest ship would be obsolete before it wore out. A Silicon Valley engineer would sound the same today.

Not surprisingly, a culture that leaves men free to judge for themselves in religion and politics nurtures independent self-reliance from childhood on. Even in the schoolyard, American children make up their own rules and punish infractions themselves. As adults, they never think of waiting for government to solve everyday problems. If a road gets blocked, they organize themselves to fix it. If they want to celebrate something, they spontaneously join together to make the festivities as fun and grand as possible. Spontaneous nongovernmental associations spring up for furthering “public security, commerce and industry, morality and religion,” Tocqueville marvels, pointing to the temperance movement and the founding of seminaries and hospitals as just a few examples. “There is nothing the human will despairs of achieving through the free action of the collective power of individuals.” Free and collaborative: that’s the mainspring of American mores.

With such an emphasis on self-reliance, it’s also no surprise to see American trade and industry booming. The typical American is “ardent in his desires, enterprising, adventurous, and above all innovative,” Tocqueville writes. Focused on material gratifications, and seeing idleness as shameful, Americans “think only of ways to change or improve their fortunes,” so that “any new method that shortens the road to wealth, any machine that saves labor, any instrument that reduces the cost of production, any discovery that facilitates or increases pleasure seems the most magnificent achievement of the human mind.” If one scheme fails, an American doesn’t quit: “picking himself up again, often disappointed, never discouraged, he marches indefatigably on toward the immense grandeur that he can but dimly make out at the end of the long road that mankind has yet to travel.” No wonder Tocqueville judges (as Arthur Goldhammer deftly translates him for the Library of America) that “there is something heroic about the way Americans do business.” These traits will soon enough make Americans “one of the greatest peoples of the world. Their offspring will blanket all of North America. . . . Wealth, power, and glory will inevitably be theirs some day, yet they hasten after this immense fortune as though they had but a moment left to lay hold of it.”

And note, Tocqueville emphasizes, that all this is the product of culture and institutions. With the same natural advantages, but different mores, the Spaniards of South America have created some of the most “miserable” nations on earth. Similarly, with a vast wilderness stretching from their doorstep…(read more)

Source: City Journal

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One Comment on “The End of Democracy in America”

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