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.

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.

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.

Image: Reuters