Tocqueville in the 21st Century

by Anatol Lieven

US domestic politics and political culture 32 mins read

The American Creed, and the civic nationalism of which it is the foundation, have been the essential glues that have held a wildly diverse country together.
Without the Creed, America risks becoming something like the Habsburg Empire without the Habsburgs.

AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM is in an exceptionally parlous condition. The Right declares with metronomic regularity that America is exceptionally good; the Left that it is exceptionally bad. Neither side makes much of a pretense at serious historical study or international comparisons. Meanwhile, the liberal establishment consoles itself with the belief that America is a very good thing, but only when it is governed by very good people like themselves.

For now, the demonstration of their own goodness to themselves and the world, however, tends to take a very Protestant evangelical form: that of loud public confessions of their own badness, the public admission of which goes to show how exceptionally good they are.

These attitudes put together might make for a diverting picture if some of its implications were not so menacing. American exceptionalism— or what the scholar D.W. Brogan once called the illusion of omnipotence—has all too often led to grief at home and abroad. Under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, it contributed to military adventures that damaged U.S. interests and the stability of the Middle East.

At the same time, it is hard not to be worried by serial assaults on the foundation of American exceptionalism, which is the “American Creed”: a belief in exceptional American commitment to and success in the practice of constitutional democracy and the rule of law. Take, for example, the recent “1619 Project” of the New York Times, which essentially reduces the U.S. political tradition, and U.S. independence itself, to no more than a long series of hypocritical cover-ups for slavery and racism.

The reason for worry (leaving aside disputed issues of historical fact) is that the American Creed, and the civic nationalism of which it is the foundation, have been the essential glues that have held a wildly diverse country together. The 1619 Project essentially does just what the chauvinist “Jacksonian” and now Trumpian tradition in the United States has always been accused by critics of doing: reducing the American Creed from a set of universal principles to an ethnic badge of white American civilizational identity and superiority which non- whites cannot share or practice. We should remember Richard Hofstadter’s words: “It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies, but to be one.” Without the Creed, America risks becoming something like the Habsburg Empire without the Habsburgs.

Any halfway objective observer must however recognize that the American polity is indeed in pretty poor shape, that American exceptionalism is looking rather battered, and both are in urgent need of renewal. And this should be of concern to liberal democrats all over the world. For while it is true that since 1945 democracy has spread to many more countries, it is also true that in many of these the liberal form of democracy is severely threatened. Furthermore, in the growing ideological rivalry with China, the United States cannot rely on the threat of communist revolution to drive social and economic elites around the world into alliance with America, because of course China is not threatening any such thing. Unlike the Cold War with the USSR, the contest with China is not one to preserve the free market or religion from bloodstained fanatical revolutionaries: it hinges on the comparative success of two capitalist systems in economic development, the distribution of benefits for the good of society as a whole, social tranquility, and freedoms guaranteed against both state oppression and mass collective hysteria. In this rivalry, the maintenance of international respect for the U.S. political and economic model will be absolutely critical.

IF THE activist and missionary form of American civic nationalism has contributed to disasters, the U.S. democratic example, therefore, remains of critical importance to democracy in the world as a whole. In order to understand both what American exceptionalism was originally grounded in, and the dangers it now faces, it is useful to turn to the foundational analysis of the subject: Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (published 1835). Tocqueville’s purpose was to analyze the sources of American democratic success, to herald not just what Tocqueville saw as the inevitable spread of democracy (which he also used to mean what we would call “modern mass society”) in Europe, but also to warn Europeans about the dangers for democracy that lay ahead.

Tocqueville, far from seeing liberal democracy as the inevitable and eternal “end of history,” worried constantly about how liberal democracy could in effect lead to the destruction not only of itself but of what he regarded as enlightened civilization. And unfortunately, much of Tocqueville’s work should make very uncomfortable reading for the American political elites of today: Republicans, chiefly on economic grounds; Democrats, chiefly on cultural grounds; both, on political grounds.

[I]n America it is religion that leads to liberty … Anglo-American civilization is the product (and one should continually bear in mind this point of departure) of two perfectly distinct elements which elsewhere have often been at war with one another but which in America it was somehow possible to incorporate into each other, forming a marvellous combination. I mean the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom.

As Robert Bellah and his colleagues pointed out in Habits of the Heart, Tocqueville differed from his French near-contemporary Crevecoeur in not seeing the American as a “new man,” but rather as a man who could live happily and successfully in a new society precisely because his own identity was firmly rooted in biblical Christianity. This, Tocqueville also believed, was an essential barrier against an unrestrained and therefore socially, morally, and psychologically destructive individualism which he feared would otherwise take command of Americans’ souls and wreck their communities—as it has indeed often done in recent decades.

With the partial exception of the Southern slave-owners (the nearest approximation to European hereditary landowning aristocrats), Tocqueville was also unequivocal about the fact that the American culture that underpinned successful democracy resided in the American protestantoid middle-class—“protestantoid” because a particularly brilliant perception of his was how new religions in America (starting with the Catholics) have had a strong tendency to adopt many of the forms and attitudes of Protestantism, and in the process also to assimilate to American democracy.

Tocqueville saw the United States—as it was in the 1830s—as a country overwhelmingly dominated by the middle-classes (including, of course, middle-sized “yeoman” farmers). He was also convinced that the stability and the long-term survival of democracy depended on this class and on the maintenance of a society without great extremes of wealth and poverty. Democracy in America begins,

No novelty in the United States struck me more vividly during my stay there than the equality of conditions … the more I studied American society, the more clearly I saw equality of conditions as the creative element from which each particular fact derived, and all my observations constantly returned to this nodal point.

When Tocqueville repeatedly equates “democracy” with “equality of conditions” and makes the former dependent on the latter, he is speaking not only of legal equality of status (unlike traditional and previously feudal Europe), but also of a society which (once again, with the tragic exception of Southern slavery) did not have great extremes of rich and poor. Moreover, he wrote, so dominant were middle-class mores that even the few rich were careful to practice middle-class behavior and avoid ostentation and conspicuous consumption.

Tocqueville also saw the wealthy American businessmen and industrialists of his day as lacking strong influence over politics and deferring to the middle-classes. Nonetheless, he worried that “equality of conditions” could not be permanently guaranteed, and warned that,

The friends of democracy should keep their eyes anxiously fixed in that direction [the potential development of a capitalist plutocracy]. For if ever again permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy make their way into the world, it will have been by that door that they entered.

Tocqueville, however, emphasized the key importance not only of the relative absence of social inequality, but of the homogeneity of culture and ideology, due to middle-class cultural hegemony, lack of extremes of wealth and poverty (among whites), universal respect for religion (but not tied to one state church), and also to a combination of almost universal (for whites) access to primary education with very limited higher education.

Far from worrying about the diversity of American culture and ideology, Tocqueville worried that their uniformity, and the crushing power of public opinion, contained the potential to degenerate towards what would later be called totalitarianism, one generated from below rather than imposed from above.

With the exception of the issue of slavery, these features also led to a lack of bitterness in American politics (under the superficial froth and spume of party politics), compared to most European countries:

In the United States there is no religious hatred, because religion is universally respected and no sect is predominant; there is no class hatred because the people is everything and nobody dares to struggle against it; and finally, there is no public distress to exploit because the physical state of the country offers such immense scope to industry that man has only to be left to himself to work marvels.

In his emphasis on middle-class cultural homogeneity, Tocqueville was heavily influenced by the unhappy example of his own France, where prospects for stable democracy were for many years ruined by the deep cultural-political divide between Republican anti-clericals looking to the example of the French Revolution, and Catholic monarchists nostalgic for the ancien regime. Much of Democracy in America can be read as advice to his French compatriots on how this divide could be overcome.

Even in the vastly more ethnically homogenous (white) United States of the 1830s, Tocqueville did not however attribute this cultural homogeneity simply to common ethnic Anglo-Saxon and Scots-Irish roots. He noted how Irish and German Catholic European immigrants were being homogenized to Protestant middle-class culture, and how the Catholic Church, which in the Europe of the 1830s was closely associated with monarchical authoritarianism, had in the United States taken on strong democratic features. Heavily influenced by the miserable example of France during the Revolution, Tocqueville viewed the strength and prosperity of these property-owning middle-classes as crucial to resisting both the growth of a new plutocratic aristocracy and the redistributive frenzy of the poor. He emphasized their centrality to the participatory local government which he saw as forming the essential basis of real democracy and as an essential barrier to democratically-elected but potentially tyrannical central government.

The importance of these protestantoid middle-classes, however, went far beyond the merely political. Tocqueville anticipated Max Weber by sixty years in seeing specific forms of Protestantism, and Protestant- like behavior, as essential to the success of capitalism. He also saw this specific culture as central to the power and strength of the American family, which he regarded both as the supreme social good in itself and as essential to the maintenance of social and moral stability, and, therefore, to preventing American society from being carried away by the waves of mass hysteria which had overwhelmed his own country during the Revolution.

Finally, he believed that the cultural homogeneity of the American middle-classes (once again, with the partial exception of the South of his day), was essential not only to the effective working and maintenance of democracy and to the survival of the American union but also to the process of assimilating and civilizing the rough and violent world of the frontier settlers. He contrasted this with the experience of the former Spanish colonies in Latin America, which were regularly overwhelmed by frontier violence and anarchic militarism.

If the ultimate foundations of the exceptional strength of U.S. democracy were as described by Tocqueville, then it might be no exaggeration to say that the present Republican and Democratic parties are in a de facto conspiracy to destroy them. FOR THE past two generations, the Republican Party has worked to deepen economic inequality in American society, to ignore and even encourage the economic decline of the middle-classes, to encourage rampant economic individualism stripped of collective identity and responsibility, to wreck communities at the local level and a sense of American society at the national level, to increase the wealth of an American plutocracy, and to remove any legal barriers to plutocratic political influence. Much of this plutocracy or “overclass” (in Robert Reich’s formulation) has ceased even to pretend to have the interests of the United States or American society at heart, instead moving both jobs and money overseas for their own profit. At least the eighteenth- century French aristocracy, for all the faults which Tocqueville condemned (speaking as their descendant), had certain values of patriotism, courage, personal honor, military service, and high culture. It would be hard indeed to attribute these virtues to the American plutocracy of today.

Moreover, when Tocqueville talked about the threat of plutocracy in his own time he talked of “industrialists”—possibly dangerous but also legitimate products of the protestantoid industriousness that he praised. It is not likely that he would have regarded hedge-fund managers in this light, while as for someone like Donald Trump, Tocqueville would have seen him and his family as a negation of every economic, cultural, and moral foundation of U.S. democracy and exceptionalism.

The Democratic Party establishment, for its part, has also been so dominated by the plutocracy that it has made only halting, limited, and ineffective attempts to check these tendencies. Meanwhile, the cultural revolutionary wing of the party has consciously and deliberately set out to destroy the cultural unity and shared moral values that Tocqueville viewed as essential to a stable democracy.

Amazingly enough, wild free-market Republicans and wild cultural liberals have even formed a de facto conspiracy to destroy families. While Republican economic policies (usually with Democratic assent) have undermined the material base of middle- and working-class families, cultural revolutionaries on the Left have attacked the family itself as “heteronormative” and, therefore, illegitimate, and have declared that “The Coronavirus Crisis Shows It’s Time to Abolish the Family.” This despite vast and incontrovertible evidence about the link between family disintegration, poverty, child abuse, and social despair that previous generations of progressives would have seen as an imperative call to support and strengthen working families. Liberals talk of “community,” but in fact strip out all the features that have ever shaped and maintained real communities.

Tocqueville could not have predicted the sexual revolution of the 1960s and its consequences. Nor, writing before Charles Darwin, could he have predicted the depth of the cultural and intellectual gulf that would later emerge between liberals and religious conservatives in the United States. Nonetheless, it is entirely clear from what he did see and write that he would have regarded the Democrats’ deliberate promotion of the politics of a morally-empty “diversity” and of separate ethno-cultural and gender identities as nothing short of lunacy, and a grave threat to American democracy.

Liberals must of course, defend liberal principles, and all Americans have a duty to defend basic rights of personal choice and freedom. But all sensible and patriotic democratic citizens also have a duty to maintain some basic unity of their societies, on which in the end the survival of pluralist democracy depends.

In the United States today, precisely because the old non-sectarian religious consensus that Tocqueville wrote of has disintegrated over the past sixty years, it is even more important for both liberals and conservatives not to stoke the fires of the “culture wars” in cases where their own fundamental principles are not truly engaged. This applies especially to those members of the cultural Left who would turn the defense of minority sexual rights into an attack on the family as such— a position that is certainly not held by the vast majority of Democratic Party voters, and that only strengthens both the paranoia and the propaganda of the chauvinist Right.

THIS IS not the first time that American society and the U.S. economy changed into something that Tocqueville would have regarded as incompatible with the survival of democracy. By the end of the nineteenth century, the mainly rural, middle-class, and Anglo-Saxon America of the 1830s had been transformed by the enormous growth of industry and of cities, the development of a colossally rich and politically powerful plutocracy, the entry of huge numbers of (European) immigrants from very different cultures, and the appearance of impoverished urban masses suffering—amongst other things—from a severe problem of alcohol addiction. Despite its tremendous success, the U.S. economy also contained elements of instability and vulnerability that led to a series of economic depressions culminating in the crash of 1929.

This transformation of the old United States created great anxiety among the American elites and the older white population. The response was essentially twofold. On the one hand—from Theodore Roosevelt’s “New Nationalist” measures to break up monopolies and initiate Social Security to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal—a series of reforms curbed the power and wealth of the plutocracy, reduced economic inequality, established basic social security, and committed the state to the creation and maintenance of national infrastructure as an essential foundation for successful industrial capitalism. On the other hand, a program of state education instilled in the new immigrants and their children American middle-class values, American civic nationalism, and adherence to the American Creed.

In the 1950s and 1960s, a row of great thinkers, following Tocqueville’s own concerns and reacting against McCarthyism and the Vietnam War, critiqued the resulting tendency of American society to produce mass ideological and cultural conformism punctuated by episodes of mass cultural and ideological hysteria. Or, in the words of Louis Hartz, “Even a good idea can be a little frightening when it is the only idea that a man has ever had.” Nonetheless, by the 1950s the United States had become a society that Tocqueville would have recognized as still possessing enough of the old social, cultural, and economic bases for exceptionally stable democracy—along with the tendencies to mass conformism that he feared, and together with (in a changed form) the exclusion and oppression of the blacks and Native Americans that he had noted and deplored in the 1830s. This, however, also began to change in the 1950s, albeit far too slowly.

This American national renewal, therefore, did not just happen. It was the product of a series of far-reaching reforms (and admittedly of victory in World War II), involving the creation of a new national consensus (or dispensation) that for several generations was accepted by both political parties. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon were as much political descendants of the two Roosevelts as were John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan created a similar dispensation but of a different kind. Such a national consensus requires a much greater majority than either political party currently hopes, or can hope, to gain; it depends totally on winning over large numbers of voters and politicians from the other political camp.

Such a new dispensation cannot, therefore, be founded on the current ideology and mythology of either of the present U.S. political parties. Anyone hoping to create such a consensus should remember that much of Democracy in America was written with the intention of helping the French overcome their own political and cultural divisions; and should read with attention the last works of another great French scholar, the French-Jewish medievalist and soldier Marc Bloch. These were written after these divisions had led to one of the greatest catastrophes in French and European history, and while France was ruled by the quasi- fascist (and deeply anti-Semitic) client state of Vichy.

After the French defeat in 1940, Bloch was urged by friends to flee to America. He refused, joined the Resistance, and was eventually captured by the Nazis, who then tortured and shot him. In his book Strange Defeat, Bloch analyzed both the military causes of the French collapse in 1940 and the bitter political and cultural divisions, dating back to the French Revolution, that paralyzed the French government and national will in the years leading up to 1940. In words that should be taken to heart by both sides of the present political- cultural divide in America, he wrote that,

There are two categories of Frenchmen who will never really grasp the significance of French history: those who refuse to thrill to the Consecration of our Kings [emphasis mine] at Rheims, and those who can read unmoved the account of the Festival of Federation [the Revolutionary celebration that preceded Bastille Day on July 14]. I do not care what may be the color of their politics today; such a lack of response to the noblest uprushes of national enthusiasm is enough to condemn them.

Looking at the breakdown of cultural-political consensus in the United States today, Tocqueville for his part, could he rise from the dead, would almost certainly say that American democracy is doomed. Let us hope, however, that his judgment would be too pessimistic. Remembering how the Great Depression of the early 1930s gave rise to the New Deal, we should also remember that the New Deal was not only a matter of state economic, social, and infrastructural policies. As symbolized by the paintings sponsored by the Federal Arts Project, it also had a philosophical aspect: the restoration of a sense of morally and nationally purposeful collective work, linked to the restoration both of local communities (which Tocqueville also saw as crucial to a stable democracy) and of a sense of American national purpose.

In this way, the New Deal looked back to the “New Nationalism” of Herbert Croly and Theodore Roosevelt; and it can also be said to have anticipated to some degree the philosophical work of Alasdair MacIntyre (who might simplistically be described as a morally conservative, economically progressive, Christian Marxist), who has argued for the regeneration of moral and social value, social trust, and local communities through the practice of purposeful and meaningful work in the service of shared projects and not for the sake of endlessly expanding personal consumption. These communities will in the America of the future have to achieve the exceptionally difficult task of being simultaneously multiracial, reasonably pluralistic, yet also sufficiently morally and socially cohesive to work together for essential common goals.

Although the signs so far are hardly encouraging, we can hope that the cumulative effects of the present crisis, the shattering of traditional middle-class labor by automation and artificial intelligence, and the menace of climate change will between them summon up the traditional American virtues of which Tocqueville wrote; and that these virtues will be capable of meeting the ancient challenges to democracy that he accurately portrayed, as well as new ones that he could not have imagined.

The National Interest, Washington DC 
August 16th 2020

Anatol Lieven is a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar. His most recent book, Climate Change and the Nation State: The Case for Nationalism in a Warming World was published by Oxford University Press in April 2020.