Politics & Policy

Tocqueville At 200

What would he think of democracy in today's America?

These remarks were presented at the opening dinner of the Summer University of Aix en Provence at the end of August, in conjunction with a two-day Liberty Fund colloquium on the life of Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59). This year marks the 200th anniversary of Tocqueville’s birth.

If Tocqueville were alive today, he would be 200 years old. It’s rather amazing, isn’t it, to think that when he was born, in1805, Thomas Jefferson still had three more years to go as president of the United States. If Tocqueville were still alive today, the span of his life would have covered all but fourteen years of the entire history of the United States.

Let us pretend that Tocqueville returned to France after his travels in America in 1831, and lived there until rather recently as an old but fully alert man. Let us suppose, further, that when France went Socialist a few years back, Tocqueville returned to Reagan’s America, and stayed on to witness the Clinton years, and then the first five years of the George W. Bush administration. We may happen to know that he secured a large book-and-television contract from Rupert Murdoch, to write a big book, and to be a partial author of and consultant for a five-part television documentary to be called “Tocqueville’s America 200″–America as observed by Tocqueville in his 202nd year. In other words, about 170 years after he wrote that famous book of long ago, Democracy in America. Which some of us think is still the best single introduction to American civilization (if Jack Lang will excuse the term) ever written.

What does this older, wiser man, now going on 201, see in America today? Does it please him? Does it surprise him? Does it worry him?

The answer is, a little of all three.

America 2005 does please him, because it vindicates his central judgment that the tiny democratic experiment in America in 1831 was going to be of world importance to the future of other nations, and that aristocracies would begin to fall everywhere, to be replaced by democracies. He might be sad that his native France has not become quite the sort of democracy he had hoped for, but he certainly would have been pleased to see how the poverty of the people (les miserables) had been overcome, how modern and how comfortable life had become in France, and how good the bread and cheese and wines and tomatoes and peppers and scents still are. (I myself would be willing to excuse the French Agricultural Policy so long as they maintain the world-class quality of their bread, wine, and cheese. When you find a treasure in humankind, respect it.)

Almost certainly in the U.S., Tocqueville would have been amazed by automobiles, jumbo Boeing 787s, freeways, hospitals, clinics, cell phones, television monitors, and other wonders of life in the United States–and by the height of buildings in New York City, the vast expanse of great cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, and others hehad visited long ago, when they were still small, fairly rural towns.

He might not have been surprised by the population growth of the United States, nor by its domain from Atlantic to Pacific, for he had foreseen both. Still, the difference between the vague image summoned by his prediction and the vivid reality of today might have made him swallow in wonder.

He would not have been surprised when the Los Angeles Olympics during the Reagan administration were organized and managed, not by government, but by a large network of associations put together by a private association created just for this purpose. Tocqueville would have been proud of having pointed out that the most distinctive discovery of the Americans was the art of association–which he even dared to call the central art of modern life and the most important art of democracy. He valued especially associations invented by citizens to improve civic life in its intellectual, moral, and cultural dimensions, but of course in all its dimensions.

We can be pretty confident that Tocqueville would have been quite worried, however, about a new method employed by the state (or if not the state, at least the elites who make it their chief interest to enlarge the state) to turn civic associations into instruments of the State. These new organs are typically called Non-governmental Organizations, NGOs, and many of them are genuine associations, which allow citizens to govern aspects of their own lives cooperatively without turning to the state. But many of them are no more than lobbying organizations, founded and financed to build constituencies for enlarging government activities and government bureaucracies. Such NGOs take advantage of the “iron triangle” formed by lawyers, statist political parties, and the staffs of government agencies, to pick off the ripe fruit made available by the benefits and privileges and entrapments of the new regulatory state.

In fact, the older and wiser Tocqueville would no doubt have experienced his most intense recognition when he wondered how his prediction had turned out about the “new soft despotism” that would spring from the democratic love for equality. That is the sort of fulfillment of a prediction that confuses a man’s emotions: on the one hand, gratification to have gotten it right (especially because so many at the time thought it extremist and far-fetched), on the other hand sheer disgust at seeing the awful face of the reality.

Tocqueville’s sense of “equality” had never been that of the socialists. For him, equality meant the stripping away of aristocracy, its family memories, ideals, connections, and special obligations, until men were left flat, connected to nothing and no one, without family duties and honor, and any distinctive mission in life. Equality meant everybody is just a nobody, like everybody else. “I’m nobody. And you? Are you nobody, too? That’s two of us. Don’t tell.” It was the emptiness of the lower classes that bothered Tocqueville. He didn’t really think about the socialist concept of equality–equal incomes, leveling, everybody wanting what anybody else has, virulent envy lest anybody get ahead of others. He thought about the vulgarity of the lower class–as it appeared to an aristocrat.

Tocqueville foresaw a new soft despotism coagulating around the lower classes, with their low tastes and their resentments of anybody supposedly better than they are. They will want everybody pulled down, controlled, regulated, to enforce a leveling equality. The passion behind this machinery of repression will be envy. Here is how he describes it:

I am trying to imagine under what novel features despotism may appear in the world. In the first place, I see an innumerable multitude of men, alike and equal, constantly circling around in pursuit of the petty and banal pleasures with which they glut their souls. Each one of them, withdrawn into himself, is almost unaware of the fate of the rest….

Over this kind of men stands an immense, protective power which is alone responsible for securing their enjoyment and watching over their fate. That power is absolute, thoughtful of detail, orderly, provident, and gentle. It would resemble parental authority if, fatherlike, it tried to prepare charges for a man’s life, but on the contrary, it only tries to keep them in perpetual childhood. It likes to see the citizens enjoy themselves, provided that they think of nothing but enjoyment. It gladly works for their happiness but wants to be sole agent and judge of it. It provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasure, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, makes rules for their testaments, and divides their inheritances. Why should it not entirely relieve them from the trouble of thinking and all the cares of living?

Thus it daily makes the exercise of free choice less useful and rarer, restricts the activity of free will within a narrower compass, and little by little robs each citizen of the proper use of his own faculties. Equality has prepared men for all this, predisposing them to endure it and often even regard it as beneficial.

Having thus taken each citizen in turn in its powerful grasp and shaped him to its will, government then extends its embrace to include the whole of society. It covers the whole of social life with a network of petty complicated rules that are both minute and uniform, through which even men of the greatest originality and the most vigorous temperament cannot force their heads above the crowd. It does not break men’s will, but softens, bends, and guides it; it seldom enjoins, but often inhibits, action; it does not destroy anything, but prevents much being born; it is not at all tyrannical, but it hinders, restrains, enervates, stifles, and stultifies so much that in the end each nation is no more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as its shepherd. (Democracy in America, Vol. 2, Part 4, Chapter 6) [emphasis added].

The United States has not sunk nearly so far into the welfare state, the administrative state, the nanny state, as the European Community. But the fact that Europe’s own soft despotism is deeper and downier does not make Americans feel any less suffocating. Among us, too, as Tocqueville predicted, the green mold of envy spreads an invisible, odorless gas that strangles liberty in the dark, to replace it with the meaningless happy talk of featureless equality. Aristocrats with “de” and “von” before their names think of this as serfdom. We former serfs think of it as the same old dreck. It is liberty we cried out for. It was not this.

On yet one other count, Tocqueville should have been far happier to have been correct. He hit the bulls-eye when he wrote that the truly distinctive genius of America was to solve the riddle that Europe and Asia had failed to solve, how to incorporate the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom into each other, “forming a marvelous combination”:

Religion regards civil liberty as a noble exercise of man’s faculties, the world of politics being a sphere intended by the Creator for the free play of intelligence. Religion, being free and powerful within its own sphere and content with the position reserved for it, realized that its sway is all the better established because it relies only on its own powers and rules men’s hearts without external support.

Freedom sees religion as the companion of its struggles and triumphs, the cradle of its infancy, and the divine source of its rights. Religion is considered as the guardian of mores, and mores are regarded as the guarantee of the laws and pledge for the maintenance of freedom itself.

Tocqueville could observe around him in 2005 that the United States was, if anything, more religious than it had been in 1831. On television on autumn weekends, more Americans watch football than anything else; that is where the biggest audiences are. Those same weekends, more Americans attend church or synagogue than watch football, whether on TV or at all the stadia all around the nation put together.

What does their religion–almost entirely Jewish and Christian–add to American civic and political life? you might ask. It grounds Americans’ sense of personal dignity in the conviction that each woman and each man is made in the image of the Creator, and is loved by that Creator. It also grounds their fundamental right to freedom of conscience in the knowledge that God made human minds free, and chose to be approached by them based upon the evidence of their own minds, and through their own free choice, not through coercion. For such is the nature of the Jewish and Christian God.

These beliefs have always given Americans confidence in the idea that liberty is universal, intended by the Creator for all humans. Their philosophy of natural rights is backed up by their faith in the God Who addresses them in their liberty. In dark and difficult times, this faith is of quiet but irreplaceable assistance. It gives to Americans a sense that the world has a purpose and a direction.

And also a reliable measure for what is better and worse, progress and decline.

All in all, Tocqueville has a right to take pleasure in getting a number of very important matters right–including a new form of despotism to worry about. Moreover, there are religions and civilizations whose God seems not be committed to liberty and the personal dignity of each. But is that only an appearance? Is it in fact true?

Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Novak’s own website is www.michaelnovak.net.


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