22. Democratic Statecraft: Tocqueville’s Democracy in America

22. Democratic Statecraft: Tocqueville’s Democracy in America


Professor Steven Smith:
Last time, I believe I said I wanted to discuss three features
that Tocqueville regarded as central to American democracy.
That is not to say they were central to the democratic
experience, but they are central features of the American
democratic experience and to what degree these can be or
could possibly be translated to other contexts in other emerging
democracies remains very much an open question.
But of these three features, the first I talked a little bit
about on Monday is the importance of local government,
the township as it’s translated in this edition,
what Tocqueville calls the “commune,”
the community, community spirit,
local government. In some way,
connected to what he calls later in the book “the spirit of
the city,” using “the city” here in the
context of the ancient sense of polis,
l’esprit de cité, a kind of polis-like character
in these small New England townships, very important,
Tocqueville believes, for the sustaining a democratic
country and a democratic society.
But the second, and probably the aspect of
Tocqueville’s account of democratic America that has
received the most attention at least recently,
is the aspect of what he calls throughout the book “civil
association,” civic association. It is what one might think of
as intermediary groups, voluntary groups,
civic organizations of all kinds that Tocqueville is
immensely impressed with and which he turns into one of the
central pillars of the democratic experience.
He writes that, “in democratic countries,” one
of the most famous sentences from the book,
“In democratic countries, the science of association,” he
says, “is the mother science. The progress of all the others
depends on the progress of that one.”
And it is through uniting and joining together in common
endeavors, he believes, that people develop a taste for
liberty, a taste for freedom. “In America,” if I can just
quote him again, “In America,
I encountered all sorts of associations,
of which, I confess, I had no idea and I often
admired the infinite art with which the inhabitants of the
United States managed to fix a common goal to the efforts of
many men to get them to advance it freely.”
Struck by the immense variety and multiplicity and sheer
number of these various kinds of civic association.
It is important to see, perhaps, this is one area in
which Tocqueville seems to most clearly depart from Rousseau,
at least the Rousseau of the Social Contract after
having said last time that his account of local democracy,
township democracy owes so much to Rousseau’s account of the
general will. But remember that Rousseau in
the Social Contract, would inveigh against,
warned against what he called “partial associations,” partial
associations like interest groups of various kinds that had
the tendency to frustrate the general will,
that stand, as it were, between the individual and the
general will. But Tocqueville,
on the other hand, regards these kinds of
voluntary associations, associations of all sorts as
precisely the place where we learn habits of initiative,
cooperation and responsibility with others.
By taking care of our own interests or the interests of
our association, we learn to take care of the
interests of others. “Sentiments and ideas renew
themselves,” Tocqueville writes. “The heart is enlarged and the
human mind is developed.” So you can see from a passage
like that how much weight he puts on these civic
associations. “The heart is enlarged.
The mind is developed.” It is through these
associations, PTAs, churches,
synagogues and other civil bodies and associations that
institutions are formed that can both resist in its way the power
of centralized authority, central government.
But they are also, as it were, the locus,
the seedbed where citizens learn to become democratic
citizens. It is very much important for
Tocqueville that these associations,
the absence of which he felt very acutely in France,
which had already become a highly centralized society.
It was these intermediary, voluntary associations that
stand between the individual and central authority,
the authority of the national government, which is what makes
them, of course, so important for him.
This argument about the importance of civic
association–I say it has become,
in a way, the most talked about passage or part of the book in
recent years–is due in large part to the influence of
political scientist, Robert Putnam,
a man who teaches at another university, a book called
Bowling Alone. You’ve probably maybe heard of
that. Here, Putnam speaks about what
he calls “human capital,” what Tocqueville, in less social
scientific jargon, calls “habits of the heart,”
mores, habits of the mind and heart.
But Putnam argues that it is this social capital that is
developed through civic association and his chief
example, as the title of the book and
the article from which it draws suggest, is that the bowling
league is a kind of model of civic association.
Particularly, he is concerned with the
decline of these associations in contemporary American life.
Hence the title of the book, Bowling Alone.
The fact that Tocqueville himself describes these civic
associations as the product of art suggests that,
that is to say, that they are not natural.
They are not somehow the result of some kind of instinctual
behavior on us. Joining with others in
voluntary associations is a learned activity.
It is something that requires a certain kind of culture and is a
learned activity. It is something also,
it is an art, it’s a skill,
it is a craft that can also be lost.
His argument is that more and more people are,
so to speak, choosing to “bowl alone,”
something that shows an alarming tendency towards
isolation and the subsequent kind of depletion almost of our
civic capacities. The question is,
taking Tocqueville to the present, have our capacities for
joining with others been eroded by the forces of modern politics
and technology? Are, in fact,
we becoming more and more a nation of solitaries and couch
potatoes? These are some of the serious
questions and there is a big literature that has grown up
around it. Some of this literature finds
Putnam’s conclusions to be overdrawn, that he exaggerates
the influence of these associations or the decline of
these associations. In fact, our civic state is not
as bad off as he suggests. But what I want to do,
suggest today, and this is where we’re going
to show a film and Jude’s going to help me,
just a couple of clips, is that there is a serious
question, I think, in my mind,
whether bowling leagues are a proper model for a democratic
association. Now, one can say,
and using the title “Bowling Alone” that Putnam is just
speaking metaphorically, that he doesn’t mean bowling
leagues. He’s just using it as a
metaphor. But let’s take him at his word
and let’s find out if bowling leagues are, in fact,
the ideal transmitter for democratic mores and values.
I want to take an example from a movie of which I’m very fond
by the Coen brothers called The Big Lebowski,
which is a movie about a bowling league,
or at least three gentlemen who take their bowling and their
bowling league very seriously. The three of them are “The
Dude,” who is a stoned hippie, “Walter,” who’s kind of a
whacked out Vietnam vet and “Donny,” who’s a lost waif.
They are very, very concerned with getting
into the finals, into the bowling tournament.
In their way stands a man named Jesus Quintana who happens also
to be a sex offender. I want to show a couple of
clips from this movie and I should warn you that there is
some very bad language being used here.
So if you think that is going to be offensive to you,
you should leave. It won’t take more than about
four minutes or so. We’re going to show a couple of
clips about the ethos of men bowling. Professor Steven Smith:
One more. Professor Steven Smith:
Obviously, it goes to show that civic association alone is not
enough to create democratic citizens.
Again, otherwise, “Smokey” and “The Dude” and
“Walter” would be a perfect example of democratic citizens.
Tocqueville focuses on a third, another leg of the stool of
democratic life and that is what he calls the “spirit of
religion.” Central, again,
as the third and maybe a very important prop of the American
democratic experience. “On my arrival in the United
States,” he observes, “It was the religious aspect of
the country that struck my eye first.”
Very impressed with that. Like other European visitors to
the United States, both then as well as now,
Tocqueville was deeply struck with how democracy and religion
seem to walk hand-in-hand with each other,
precisely the opposite of what has occurred in Europe where
religion and democracy or religion and equality were long
on a collision course. What made the American
encounter with democratic life unique?
That is one of Tocqueville’s big questions.
In the first instance, you could say,
or as Tocqueville notes that America is primarily a puritan
democracy. “I see the whole destiny of
America contained in the first puritan who landed on its
shores,” he says, “like the whole human race in
the first man.” Our experience was determined
in crucial ways by early Puritanism.
America was created by people with strong religious beliefs
and habits who brought to the New World a suspicion of
government and a strong desire for independence.
This has been the foundation of the separation of church and
state that has done so much both for religious and political
liberty. Tocqueville drew from this two
very important consequences, I think, about religious life
in America. The first is that the thesis
propounded by the great philosophers of the
Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and still advanced in
many, you might say,
enlightened quarters today, that religion will disappear
with the advance of modernity. As modernity advances,
religious life will disappear. I suppose in the twentieth
century, Max Weber gave voice most prominently to that point
of view that would be a process of secularization within
modernity and a sort of gradual withering away of religious
belief. Tocqueville shows that to be
demonstrably false, that religion will not simply
disappear as modernity moves forward and that the
Enlightenment and its contemporary heirs,
theorists of development and modernization and so on have
been all together wrong about their confident predictions
about the decline and withering away of religious faith.
Secondly, Tocqueville takes it to be a terrible mistake to try
to eliminate religion or to secularize society all together.
This is, in fact, probably a more controversial,
a very controversial claim. It was his belief,
and again, perhaps here he’s influenced by Rousseau in the
chapter on civil religion at the end of the Social
Contract that free societies rest on public morality and that
morality cannot be effective without religion.
It may be true that individuals can derive moral guidance from
reason alone, but societies can’t.
The danger of attempting to eliminate religion from public
life is that the need or desire to believe will therefore be
transferred to other and far more dangerous outlooks.
“Despotism,” he says, “can do without faith,
but freedom cannot.” A very arresting sentence.
“Despotism can do without faith, but freedom cannot.”
“Religion is more necessary in a republic and in a democratic
country than any other,” he says.
But why is religion necessary to a republic?
Why does democracy require religion?
Here, Tocqueville gives a variety of answers.
One persistent theme running throughout his book as a whole
is that only religion can resist the tendency toward materialism
and a kind of low self-interest that he believes is intrinsic to
democratic ages and societies. “The principal business of
religion,” he frequently writes, “is to purify,
is to regulate, is to restrain the kind of
ardent desire for well-being and particularly,
material well-being that becomes particularly prominent
during ages of equality.” That’s one reason.
But secondly or in addition, Tocqueville operates,
I find, with a very interesting,
I might even call it a metaphysic of faith that regards
religious belief as a necessary component for human action.
“When religion is destroyed in a people,” this is Tocqueville.
“When religion is destroyed in a people, doubt takes hold of
the higher portion of the intellect and half paralyzes all
the others.” When religion is destroyed,
doubt takes over. It has a kind of a paralyzing
effect on the will and our capacity for action.
This paralysis of the will, this inability to act is a
condition that later writers would choose to call “nihilism.”
Faith is a necessary component for our belief that we are free
agents and not simply the play-thing of blind forces and
random causes, so to speak.
Our beliefs about freedom and the dignity of the individual
are inseparable for him from religious faith and it is
unlikely that these beliefs about the dignity of the
individual can survive without religion.
Just to take a contemporary example of that,
think about the debates we have had over such things as cloning
and the sense that many people have that the dignity of the
individual, which is often connected with a
kind of religious belief, sanctity of life,
the dignity of the individual is somehow deeply violated by
these advances of sort of scientific technology.
Religion remains a crucial prop for our beliefs about human
dignity. No more powerful challenge to
the Enlightenment’s faith in science and scientific progress
can be found than in Tocqueville.
One final issues remains, I would say.
Tocqueville often writes, and I would say this is the
dominant tone of his writing on religion.
He often writes as if religion is only valuable or valuable
primarily for the social function it serves.
This is certainly consistent with lots of things he says
about religion. He’s only concerned about
religion for its social and political consequences rather
than from the deeper truths of religious belief.
“I view religion,” he says, “only from a purely human point
of view,” he says. He’s only looking for its
affect on society. But I would ask,
how accurate is that statement, or does it describe or
characterize all of Tocqueville’s views about
religion? I think not.
Let me just say why for a minute.
I think that sort of sociological or functionalist
reading of religion, that he’s interested in it only
for its social affect, is only part of Tocqueville’s
very complex attitude towards this subject.
Maybe you’ll have a chance to talk about this in your section.
Maybe you’ll have an opportunity to write about it at
some other time. But remember that Tocqueville
was not only a student of Rousseau.
As he said in that letter to Louis de Kergolay that I
mentioned last time, his other two great sources of
inspiration were Montesquieu and a seventeenth-century French
philosopher named Blaise Pascal. Pascal was a religious
philosopher, who more than any other, emphasized the emptiness
of knowledge without faith. Man may be the rational animal,
but reason is somehow unable to plumb or reason is unable to
grasp the unfathomable depths of the universe.
In one of his most famous statements, Pascal said,
“A vapor,” a drop of water is enough to kill him,
speaking of us, humans.
“A drop of water is enough to kill us.
Man is a reed, a reed, the weakest in nature,
but he is a thinking reed.” We are weak.
We think, but it is our weakness.
It is our dependence, sense of dependence that struck
Pascal. Tocqueville,
you can find this in several passages throughout the
Democracy. Tocqueville,
I think discovered in Pascal a sense of kind of existential
emptiness, an incompleteness of life that
cannot be explained in terms of reason alone.
There is also, he felt, something deeply
hubristic about the way in which conditions of equality foster
this idea of rational self-sufficiency.
Tocqueville’s purpose, in many ways,
was to limit reason to make room for faith,
and this is one of my favorite passages.
Let me just read a sentence or two.
“The short space of 60 years,” he writes, almost as an aside.
“The short space of 60 years will never confine the whole
imagination of man. The incomplete joys of this
world will never suffice for his heart.”
Incomplete joys of this world will never suffice for his
heart. In other words,
there is something we desire beyond the here and now that
only faith and can supply. The soul exhibits a kind of
longing, a desire for eternity and a kind of disgust with the
world and the limits of physical existence.
“Religion,” he goes on, “is only a particular form of
hope and it as natural to the human heart as hope itself.
Only by a kind of aberration of the intellect and with the aid
of a sort of moral violence exercised on their own nature do
men stray from religious belief. An invincible inclination leads
them back to religion. Disbelief is an accident.
Faith alone is the permanent state of humanity.”
If anyone’s interested, that’s on page 284.
But no one can possibly read that section and come away from
Tocqueville by thinking he had only a kind of functionalist,
sociological view of religion, concerned with its effects on
human behavior and society. Disbelief is an accident.
Faith is the permanent condition of humanity and only
through a kind of moral violence, through moral violence
can religious faith be eliminated.
I think these passages show a much deeper, almost metaphysical
dimension to Tocqueville’s thought.
It shows him to be, like Plato in many ways,
of enormous psychological depth and subtlety and insight.
But these are the three features, or three of the
features, I think the three central features that remain for
him crucial to democracy: local government,
civil association and what he calls the spirit of religion.
Yet, obviously, all is not well. All is far from being well.
Too often, way too often we read Democracy in America
as it if were simply a celebration of the democratic
experience in America. It is not.
Tocqueville, among other things,
is deeply worried about the potential, I mentioned briefly
about this last time, the potential of a democratic
tyranny. Why is there a belief or why
would one believe that the democratic government alone will
eliminate various forms of arbitrary rule in tyrannical
government? In fact, it might create new
forms of tyranny, democratic tyranny of which
previous societies had been, perhaps, unaware.
This is an issue that he treats twice in two important parts in
his work; one in Volume 1,
the other in Volume 2. I’m going to talk for a little
bit today about his account of tyranny of the majority in
Volume 1 and I’m going to save the rest of the discussion for
next week when he talks about what he calls “democratic
despotism” in the second part of Democracy in America.
In Volume 1, he treats what he calls the
“tyranny of the majority” largely in terms,
you might say, that are derived or inherited
from Aristotle and even the authors of The Federalist
Papers. As you remember in Aristotle’s
Politics, Aristotle associated democracy
with the rule of the many. “Rule of the many,” for all
kinds of purposes, generally means rule of the
poor and rule of the poor for their own interest.
The danger with democracy for Aristotle was that it still
represented the tyranny of one class of society over the
society of a whole, the largest class ruling in its
interests over the minority. Democracy for the ancients was
always a form of class struggle between the rich and the poor.
That was, in many respects, the way in which democracy came
to be viewed even by The Federalist’s authors who
came up with their own solution to the problem of democracy or
what they called “republican government.”
The problem of republican government was this problem of,
you might say, majority faction and their
answer to the problem of majority faction was in
Madison’s term, “to enlarge the orbit of
government,” to make societies and polities much larger in
order not to try to eliminate faction,
but to increase them. By increasing the number of
factions, you decrease the possibility that any one of them
will be able to represent or exercise a kind of permanent
majority control, a kind of permanent tyranny of
the majority. The greater the number of
factions, the less likelihood that any one of them will be
able to exercise despotic power over national politics.
This is a question that Tocqueville returns to or turns
to in that very important chapter from book one called
“The omnipotence of the majority in the United States and its
Effects,” which is, in many respects,
a response or provides his reading and critique of the
classical or traditional theory of democratic tyranny.
The U.S. constitution,
he talks about, has enshrined the majority in
its own Preamble–“We, the People.”
It has enshrined the majority even as it has sought to limit
the powers of the people. Although Tocqueville devotes a
great deal of attention in Volume 1– we’re not really
reading these sections, I don’t think they’re all that
important for our purposes–he spends a great deal of attention
simply sort of describing the makeup of the federal
constitution, the structure of the Houses of
government and so on. One has to say he is far less
impressed than Madison or the Federalist authors were,
that the problem of majority faction has been solved in
America. Again, the Federalist
authors, following Locke and Montesquieu, believed all that
was necessary was separation of powers,
a system of representation, a system of checks and
balances, that this could serve as an effective check on
majority rule. But Tocqueville was less
certain of that. He was less certain that these,
as it were, institutional devices alone could check what
he calls the “empire of the majority.”
The empire of the majority, a term that he uses that
clearly has kind of theological connotations,
denoting a kind of divine omnipotence, that the people
have come to be the ultimate or final authority.
Rather than regarding, as it were, the people in
Madisonian terms simply as a kind of ongoing shifting
coalition of interests, Tocqueville regarded the
majority in democratic societies, the power of the
majority, as unlimited and unstoppable.
Legal guarantees of minority rights, he thought,
were unlikely to be ineffective in the face of mobilized public
opinion. Why does Tocqueville believe
that, or what led him to express such skepticism about even
American democracy’s inability to check the prospect of
democratic tyranny? In part, I think,
Tocqueville’s answer was that majority tyranny was inseparable
from the threats of revolutionary violence and
particularly charismatic demagogues and military leaders
like Napoleon in France and America’s counterpart to
Napoleon, Andrew Jackson.
Napoleon was in France, the man capable of mobilizing
the masses into fits of patriotic zeal and to carry on
war. Jacksonianism,
for him, simply looked like an American form of Bonapartism,
a military commander riding to political power on the wings of
popular support. More than anything else,
Tocqueville feared militarism combined with a kind of
unlimited patriotic fervor. It is in these respects you can
begin to see some of the less ennobling features of the
democratic experience and the more ominous possibilities of
democratic rule. The power of the majority,
he says, makes itself feared especially through the dominance
of the legislature. He believed,
we could talk about whether this belief is still valid or
true, he believed that the most,
again, that democracy tends towards a dominance of the
legislatures where the people’s voice makes its will most
clearly known. By having short elections or
short cycles every two years in the House of Representatives,
it was a way of making sure that the legislatures,
the House, the Houses, are very close to public
opinion and public control. He sees this as a dangerous
thing, this kind of legislative dominance that he sees is one
form in the way in which the tyranny of the majority
expresses itself. But the most important and the
most memorable aspects of tyranny of the majority have
less to do with these institutional forms,
you might, say. It has to do with the way in
which the empire–again, I’ll use his term– the empire
of the majority makes itself felt in the realm of thought and
opinion, the influence of the majority
over thought. In an always startling passage
from the book, Tocqueville remarks,
“I know of no other country where,
in general, less independence of mind and genuine freedom of
discussion reign than in America.”
There’s no country where there is less independence of mind and
freedom of discussion. He is, I suspect,
overstating the case, but his argument here is that
the dangers to freedom of thought in a democracy do not
come from the threat of an inquisition.
They do not come from something like that, but they are
exercised in more subtle forms of exclusion and ostracism.
Tocqueville is, perhaps, in that passage,
one of the first and most perceptive analysts of what
today might be called the power of political correctness,
to control and to eliminate certain kinds of ideas and
opinions from being thought. It is the fear of ostracism,
in some sense, the fear of being socially
ostracized through which the majority exercises its control.
Tocqueville’s statement here is, of course,
that persecution can take many forms under a democratic people,
from the cruelest to the most mild.
He gives various examples of the crueler forms of the way in
which the majority have expressed itself.
In a lengthy footnote to the book, for example,
in some of these parts, he gives two examples;
one in which during the War of 1812, he says there were some
anti-war journalists in Baltimore–maybe you read that
passage–who were taken out. Their newspaper press was burnt
down and I think they were hung, he says.
This is a way in which mob mentality took over.
He also uses the example of the way in which black voters in the
state of Pennsylvania, and he focuses on this
particularly, have been disenfranchised.
He mentions Pennsylvania in particular because Pennsylvania
is a Quaker state, that is to say a state where
one would have thought liberal opinion towards questions of
racial justice would have been most advanced.
Even there, he says, the majority constrained
African American voters from, free blacks,
from voting. So these are ways in which,
again, some overt and cruel and persecutory, others milder and
through the form of ostracism that he wants to say that
democratic sovereignty can exercise itself.
“Chains and executions are the coarse instruments,” he writes,
“that tyranny formerly employed.
But in our day, civilization has perfected
despotism itself, which seemed to have nothing
more to learn.” We have perfected despotism,
he says. “Under the absolute government
of one man, despotism struck crudely at the body so to reach
the soul,” no doubt thinking about the
Inquisition and things like this in Spain and in parts of
Catholic Europe. He writes, “and the soul
escaping from those blows rose gloriously above it.
But,” he goes, “in democratic republics,
tyranny does not proceed in this way.
It leaves the body alone and goes directly for the soul.”
Well, there’s a wealth of commentary you might think about
when you read that passage that’s implied there.
Oh, God. The time’s moving so quickly.
There’s so much more. So that, for Tocqueville,
is one of the other sides of the democratic experience.
Again, I want to return to a piece of that on Wednesday,
next week rather, Monday,
because I think you will see in Volume 2, Tocqueville has
something of a change of heart. He doesn’t become more
optimistic. In fact, he becomes far more
pessimistic about this. But there’s certainly a change
of tone in what Tocqueville has to say about the potentiality of
majority tyranny. Well, we had so much fun
watching the movie, I didn’t get a chance–There’s
a little more I wanted to say, but this seems like a good note
to break on. I’ll try to finish whatever I
can with Tocqueville on Monday and Wednesday I’m going to try
to wrap things up and tell you what you should be thinking
about. So anyway, enjoy yourselves and
I’ll see you next week.

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