Can America Remember What It Takes to Survive as a Democracy?


Can America Remember What It Takes to Survive as a Democracy?

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.

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.