In the face of Europe’s all-too-obvious moral, political, and demographic decline, Americans should not gloat or be smug. Unless something changes in the near future, the odds are good that we will follow our European cousins on the path that leads to servitude. In the course of the last century, we, too, have contracted what I call the French disease — under Democrats and Republicans alike, the malady advances at a quickening pace.
Today marks 150 years since the death of Alexis de Tocqueville. Is the democracy that he wrote about with such sharp insight dead as well? The steady erosion of mores, manners, and religion suggests, at the very least, that its condition may be critical.
#ad#Many of the moral obstacles to majority tyranny identified in Democracy in America have now disappeared. In the United States, the legal profession and the courts were once, as Tocqueville observed, a restraint on the populist impulse. Today, their game is demagoguery, and their aim is to anticipate, strengthen, guide, and profit from the impulse that they once restrained. In the name of democracy, legal activists and politicized judges are willing to sweep away forms and formalities; in the name of progress, they are prepared to run roughshod over the legislative branch, especially in the states and localities; and, in the name of compassion, they are prepared to sanction systematic theft. Whether genuinely responsible for a tort or not, the defendant who has deep pockets is made to pay.
Civil associations still exist, to be sure. But, within the administrative state, the only ones that really flourish are lobbying operations, staffed at the national level, with little local presence and virtually no civic engagement. Moreover, to an increasing degree, civil associations subsist as shells for the sole purpose of securing federal grants and subsidies. As such, they are instruments of the administrative state and not of civic agency. In effect, what Tocqueville once said with France in mind now pertains to the United States as well. Most Americans may still “admit, as a general principle, that the public power should not intervene in private affairs, but, as an exception, each of them desires that it aid him in the special affair that preoccupies him,” and for this reason “the sphere of the central power extends itself imperceptibly in every direction” despite the fact that many individuals wish “to restrain it” overall. Our country has aged and, as Tocqueville predicted, it has steadily become more centralized. “Time works on behalf” of this process, he wrote. “All accidents are to its profit; individual passions come to its aid without [anyone] being aware of it.” In consequence, where once we were citizens, we have become clients and ours is the age of the lobbyist.
As a people, if we are to judge solely by attendance in church, Americans are still comparatively religious. But no one today would describe religion as “the first” of our “political institutions,” as Tocqueville once did, for it is no longer generally the case that our churches provide us with a moral anchor and impress upon us a severity in morals. Most of the mainline Protestant sects now fiercely advocate a toleration and compassionate embrace of that which they once regarded as abhorrent: if sanctimony is sustained, it is solely in offering succor to sin. Those Catholic priests and evangelical Protestant ministers who are genuinely unsympathetic with the culture of self-indulgence all too frequently lack the moral authority required for persuasion. In our day, as in Tocqueville’s time, they fear their flocks, and they tailor their sermons to accommodate current fashion. The American Catholic Church is quick to hand out annulments, and the evangelical Protestants wink at serial monogamy punctuated by a recurrence of divorce.
Moreover, in the course of the last 60 years the courts have interpreted the First Amendment to the Constitution in such a fashion as to ban religion from the public sphere in a manner reminiscent of the militant laïcisme that has long formed the basis for public policy in France; and, in keeping with the logic underpinning these court decisions, some states have excised the phrase “under God” from the version of the Pledge of Allegiance recited in public schools. It is as if the First Amendment were designed to provide Americans with freedom from religion and to protect the polity from contamination at its hands. In the same period, elite opinion, especially as situated within the universities, Hollywood, and the national media, gradually became virulently hostile to and contemptuous of religious faith; and, in certain, highly influential quarters, strong religious convictions are now treated publicly as a disqualification for election or appointment to high office. Religious Americans who feel threatened by these developments may be inclined to push back, but they are thwarted at every turn. If the present trend continues, they will eventually come to occupy in America the pariah status to which they are to an ever increasing degree consigned in many countries on the continent of Europe. At this point, Christians will sink into an embarrassed silence.
There is no need to dwell on the state of American sexual mores. It suffices to say that the sexual division of labor, so admired by Tocqueville, has gone by the boards; that young faculty members who wonder out loud whether its abandonment was a good thing risk having their careers brought to an untimely end; that stay-at-home mothers are quite commonly treated with condescension, if not open contempt, especially by women in the professions; that, among sophisticates, manliness and femininity are considered hopelessly passé; that in public, as a matter of good manners, we are now required to pretend that, apart from the role that biology assigns the two sexes in procreation and nursing, the differences in conduct generally exhibited by women and men are no more reflective of the dictates of nature than is the assignment of gender to particular nouns in ancient Greek, Latin, German, Italian, and French; and that a university president, such as Larry Summers of Harvard, who fails in public to give lip service to this pious pretense courts immediate dismissal. It goes without saying that chastity and fidelity are no longer as fashionable as they were in Tocqueville’s day, and the unavoidable consequence is that quite frequently, in America, the home is no longer the haven from inquiétude that it once was.
#ad#In the United States, divorce has become so commonplace that, by way of anticipation, couples on the verge of marrying often sign pre-nuptial agreements specifying its terms. Matrimony — the public ritual in which, as the word’s etymology reminds us, motherhood is the aim, and, to that end, a man pledges to take responsibility for a particular woman’s future offspring — is itself on the wane, especially among those not college-educated. Moreover, to an increasing degree, ambitious young women in college, and high school girls who are college-bound, prefer casually “hooking up” to the rituals of courtship and romantic love; and, within our educated elite, a species of serial concubinage called “partnership” is now in vogue. When one is introduced to someone’s “partner,” as often now takes place, one might be inclined, if one were mischievous, to ask what business the two are in, what are the terms of the contract between them, how long their partnership is expected to last, how many other partners they have, and precisely what it is that they share — but a frank exposure of the subterfuge would be thought unconscionably rude: so, out of politeness, we must pretend that nothing is amiss.
In keeping with this new ethos, in which marriage delayed generally comes to be marriage denied, out-of-wedlock births have soared; the overall birth rate has plummeted, especially among those who are themselves native born; and the casual killing of children as yet unborn is anything but rare. Our euphemisms betray us. We have “adult bookstores” that no genuine adult would visit and “gentlemen’s clubs” that no gentleman would frequent; and in the name of “reproductive rights,” over the 35 years that have passed since the U. S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Roe v. Wade, we have put a violent end to nearly 50 million human lives. With what we have sacrificed, one could populate a country of considerable size.
Perhaps worst of all, many of the best educated among us — coarsened by a cowardly surrender to the fashionable conviction that killing a helpless human being for one’s own convenience is a matter of right — have come to adopt what Tocqueville called the “impious maxim” that “everything is permitted in the interests of society.” Just as, in the past, compulsory sterilization was commonplace and medical personnel associated with the Public Health Service, intent on improving our understanding of syphilis, were willing in the name of progress to deny proper medical treatment over a period of decades to ill-informed, comparatively helpless African-Americans known to be infected with the disease, so today their spiritual heirs think nothing of creating human beings in order to harvest from them, by way of premeditated murder, stem cells useful for medical research. In our progressive age, we mistake wants for rights and talk of the latter incessantly, but no one who is not generally regarded as retrograde seriously holds it to be self-evident that “all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; [and] that among these” — the first and most important, the one that takes priority over all others — is the right to “life.” If we continue on the path we now traverse, soon, like the Dutch, we will casually kill the decrepit and old. After all, in Oregon, a progressive state which has always seen itself as a model for the nation, “physician-assisted suicide,” as it is so delicately called, has been sanctioned by the law since 1994.
In sum, the difference between the United States of America and France would now appear to be merely a matter of degree. In our mores and manners, in our attitudes with regard to religion and morality, as well as in our political institutions and practices, we are more like Tocqueville’s compatriots than like the Americans of his day. And the fears that he expressed with regard to the French now apply with considerable force to us as well, for we have forgotten that human life is sacred, that it is unjust to take from one to give to another, that libertinism is fatal to liberty, and that strong, stable families and personal self-discipline are prerequisites for sustaining a government limited with regard to the ends it may pursue and the means it may employ. In the process, we have jettisoned much of the equipment — political, social, moral, and psychological — that in the past enabled us to join together, stand our ground, and resist liberal democracy’s despotic drift; and now, denied the benefit of that equipment, we face a worldwide financial panic and an economic downturn more severe than any encountered since the stock market collapsed in 1929.
Once again, as in the 1920s, rational administration has failed us. As on that other occasion, the Federal Reserve Board and the Department of the Treasury pursued over an extended period under more than one administration an easy-money policy bound in the end to give rise to “irrational exuberance” in the markets and to a bubble followed by a catastrophic decline in prices and a collapse of the credit markets. And, to make matters worse, we responded to this set of circumstances precisely as we did on that earlier occasion — by electing a president and choosing a Congress intent on dramatically increasing the scale and scope of the administrative state.
#ad#Our new masters have ample room for maneuver. They have it in their power to deepen the economic crisis and worsen our distress in the manner of Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. By instituting a second New Deal, as they would very much like to do — by sharply raising taxes on fossil fuels, dividends, and capital gains; by targeting the earnings of the well-to-do; by confiscating our 401(k)s and IRAs and substituting government retirement accounts at fixed interest; by pursuing protectionism, expanding the regime of programmatic rights, and forcing workers into labor unions — they can discourage investment, curb entrepreneurship, reduce foreign trade, and decisively slow economic growth, or even bring it to a lasting halt, while offering to those consigned to the dole thereby a dependence upon the generosity and good will of an all-encompassing state. Just how ambitious and ruthless they will prove to be on this occasion, just how far in the next few years they intend to hustle us down the path we tread, remains as yet undetermined.
The only thing that is crystal clear is the direction of our drift and the nature of the threat we face. Walter Lippmann’s warning is as apt today as when he issued it in 1937 — for “the premises of authoritarian collectivism” are once again, as they were then, “the working beliefs, the self-evident assumptions, the unquestioned axioms” behind “nearly every effort which lays claim to being enlightened, humane, and progressive,” and hardly anyone today “is taken seriously as a statesman or a theorist who does not come forward with proposals to magnify the power of public officials and to extend and multiply their intervention in human affairs.” Like the younger Roosevelt, our new leader poses as a secular Messiah; his minions believe, as did the progressives of an earlier time, that “there has come into the world” in recent times “some new element which makes it necessary for us to undo the work of emancipation” achieved by our forebears and “to retrace the steps men have taken to limit the power of rulers”; and in the ranks of our compatriots they will find many prepared to sacrifice self-reliance and personal independence for a promise of security no government can keep. The hour is, indeed, late.
To those caught up in the maelstrom, recent developments may well seem dramatic, but, in truth, they serve merely to highlight the plight that we have been in for more than three-quarters of a century. In consequence of our abandonment of our religious and moral heritage, of our rejection of the spirit of individual responsibility and the principles of limited government, over our own people today, as over the French, there “is elevated an immense, tutelary power,” whose aim is to take “sole charge of assuring their enjoyment and of watching over their fate.” In America, as in France and in Europe more generally, this power is “absolute, attentive to detail, regular, provident, and gentle.” It works willingly for our “happiness,” but it exacts a price, for “it wishes to be the only agent and the sole arbiter of that happiness.” It provides for our security, it foresees and supplies our needs, it guides us in our principal affairs, it directs our industry, it regulates our testaments, it divides our inheritances, and it covers the “surface” of our society “with a network of petty regulations — complicated, minute, and uniform.” Generally, it is gentle; almost never is it harsh. “It does not break wills; it softens them, bends them, and directs them.” Only on the rarest of occasions “does it force one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting on one’s own; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it gets in the way: it curtails, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupefies.” And, step by step, relentlessly, with every passing day, as we gradually succumb to the spirit of irresponsibility and self-indulgence, this power grows in influence and scope, making us more and more like “a herd of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”
– Paul A. Rahe holds the Charles O. Lee and Louise K. Lee Chair in the Western Heritage at Hillsdale College. This is adapted from Soft Depotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect, which has just been published by Yale University Press.