Pope Benedict referred to that threat, one that a body of citizens
and its leaders can stumble its way into, when he addressed the United
Nations General Assembly in April 2008. There’s a might makes right
implication in it, and he warned these leaders not to usurp the
ultimate human rights of all citizens to their inherent dignity and
The anniversary of the death of Alexis de Tocqueville,
though largely overlooked in a week of tax deadlines and tea parties,
brought fresh reminders of that warning from this “great thinker of
modern times”, who pretty much nailed the essence of America as a
foreign observer, better than many Americans even know.
Among the severest was his statement that because of the
tyranny of majority opinion, “there is no freedom of mind in America.”
Political correctness reigns. The majority craves adulation, and even
the minority who know better cravenly comply.
And to think, he published this in 1835.
Whether his descriptions of us still hold or not,
Tocqueville is invaluable. Reading him is like running a virus-scan on
the American polity. How healthy are those immune functions like
federalism and the jury system? Does religious belief still protect us
from willfulness on one side and despair on the other? If not, what can
What can be done if enough willful Americans pay attention (unlike
the frog in the boiling pot) to the changing environment of this
representative republic, maybe using Tocqueville’s Democracy in America as
a reference point, we can start making repairs as the seams come apart
in the fabric of the nation. Not to wax poetic or anything…
He does, after all, warn against ’soft despotism’. Pay attention:
Travelling through 1830s America, Tocqueville was struck
by government’s apparent absence from this bustling commercial society.
Unlike France, Americans had no particular regard for government
officials, let alone politicians. They wanted to be let alone to follow
their chosen pursuits. Why, Tocqueville wondered, did this not
degenerate into anarchy?
The answer, he discovered, was two-fold. First, Americans had
developed habits of free association. They did not address social and
economic problems by asking the state to fix the situation. Instead
they banded together to resolve their own difficulties.
Second, there was the influence of religion. Tocqueville was amazed
at the plethora of religious activities in America which, unlike
European countries, had no established church. While religious bigotry
existed, religious liberty was generally taken seriously by American
society and government alike.
This, however, did not translate into ACLU-like attempts to exorcize
religious influence from the public square. On the contrary, Americans
openly drew moral sustenance from their various faith traditions. This
helped temper the everyday tensions of civil, economic, and political
life. Simply being “a nation of citizens,” as President Obama recently
labeled America, was not enough. “The Americans.” Tocqueville noted,
“combine the notions of religion and liberty so intimately in their
minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive of one without the
Remember those days?
And then there’s the problem of ‘class warfare’, as it’s called these days.
For all their love of liberty, Tocqueville stated,
“Americans are so enamored of equality that they would rather be equal
in slavery than unequal in freedom.”
Democracy, Tocqueville argued, encouraged this fixation with
equality because it requires people to relate to each other through the
medium of democratic equality. This encourages us first to ignore, then
to dislike, and finally to seek to reduce all differences that
contradict this equality — particularly wealth disparities.
Mind you, all people are created equal. All outcomes of their endeavors, or lack thereof, are not.
This is key to what Tocqueville considered democracy’s
tendency to “soft despotism.” Democratic despotism, Tocqueville
thought, would rarely be violent. Instead it would amount to a Faustian
bargain between the political class and the citizens. He predicted that
“an immense protective power” might assume all responsibility for
everyone’s happiness – provided this power remained “sole agent and
judge of it.” This power would “resemble parental authority” and
attempt to keep people “in perpetual childhood” by relieving them “from
all the trouble of thinking and all the cares of living.”
Recalling Tocqueville can get uncomfortable.
Is America on the road to comfortable servility? “The
American Republic,” Tocqueville wrote, “will endure until the day
Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s
money.” Since Roosevelt’s New Deal, America has slowly drifted towards
a political economy of soft despotism.
So….back to that question, what can be done?
In these circumstances, America’s greatest hope is
hardly its political leaders. Rather it is those millions of Americans
who still treasure liberty and have no intention of becoming
comfortable serfs. As Tocqueville himself observed, “The greatness of
America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but
rather in her ability to repair her faults.”
Let’s hope he’s still right.