It's the end of American democracy as we've known it, says Myron Magnet, and he does not appear to feel fine; in fact, he seems more than a little peeved, even distressed by the development.
Writing at City Journal, where he is editor-at-large, Myron Magnet praises Alexis de Tocqueville for his prescient grasp on how democracy in America would degenerate (as, according to Magnet, it has) into “democratic despotism.” As Magnet sees it, “That transformation has been in process for decades now, and reversing it is the principal political challenge of our own moment in history. It is implicitly, and should be explicitly, at the center of our upcoming presidential election.”
Had M. Tocqueville never existed, modern American conservatives would have had to invent a time machine, go back to 1830 and Jacksonian America, and find someone else to write DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA, the book that has long since become a conservative touchstone, occupying a niche in right-wing lore only slightly below that of the FEDERALIST PAPERS. Conservatives are convinced that Tocqueville captured everything that was good and decent about early America, as well as foreseeing what could (and would) go wrong with it in subsequent decades.
Following Tocqueville’s 19th-century narrative, Magnet presents the American story in a nutshell:
From the seventeenth-century Puritan acorn grew American culture’s fundamentally libertarian creed. Universal reason (which reveals Jefferson’s self-evident truths, for example) is the source of moral authority, “just as the source of political power lies in the universality of citizens.” Most Americans believe that “consensus is the only guide to what is permitted or prohibited, true or false,” and that “the man who properly understands his own self-interest has all the guidance he needs to act justly and honestly. They believe that every person is born with the faculty to govern himself and that no one has the right to force happiness on his fellow man.” And they believe in human perfectibility, the usefulness of the spread of enlightenment, and the certainty of progress, so that what seems good today will give way tomorrow to something better but as yet unimagined.
The good old days—at least through Tocqueville’s eyes—were marked by sturdy self-reliance:
A culture that leaves men free to judge for themselves in religion and politics nurtures independent self-reliance from childhood on. Even in the schoolyard, American children make up their own rules and punish infractions themselves. As adults, they never think of waiting for government to solve everyday problems. If a road gets blocked, they organize themselves to fix it. If they want to celebrate something, they spontaneously join together to make the festivities as fun and grand as possible. Spontaneous nongovernmental associations spring up for furthering “public security, commerce and industry, morality and religion,” Tocqueville marvels, pointing to the temperance movement and the founding of seminaries and hospitals as just a few examples. “There is nothing the human will despairs of achieving through the free action of the collective power of individuals.” Free and collaborative: that’s the mainspring of American mores.
That, Magnet implies, was the real America, the one we must now struggle somehow to regain. In order to do so, we must recognize that, sadly enough, there was a worm lurking in that Edenic apple of 19th-century America:
As nothing is perfect in human affairs, Tocqueville of course paints the inevitable shadows into his otherwise sunny panorama. Powering the frenzy of American activity is a high-voltage charge of anxiety. After the Revolution, most states outlawed entail, the inheritance rule that the owner of an estate must leave it to his eldest male heir, with pittances to the other children. Henceforth property got divided and redivided more or less equally, with the result now that “the families of the great landowners have almost all been absorbed into the common mass,” Tocqueville observes, and even fallen “into the uttermost depths of obscurity.” America thus has almost no permanently rich families: “wealth circulates there with incredible rapidity, and . . . it is rare for two successive generations to garner its favors.”
What with the hectic pace of his American travels, and what with being wined and dined wherever he went, M. Tocqueville may be forgiven for having overlooked the slave-owning gentry of the South and the already well-established New England aristocracy, both of which managed to accumulate, and pass along to their progeny, impressive amounts of wealth, prestige, and influence. That, however, was not the problem that captured Tocqueville's attention; his concern was with the striving, envious masses whose ambition and virtue could not be trusted:
This leveling force generates “that restlessness of the heart which is natural to men when, all conditions being almost equal, each person sees the same chance of rising.” With everyone feverishly striving, though, whenever some individual manages to shoot up out of the mass to wealth and power, his fellows respond with envy and wonder if he’s a crook. The result is an “odious mingling of the ideas of baseness and power, unworthiness and success, utility and dishonor.”
So while democracy often gives rise to “a manly and legitimate passion for equality that spurs all men to wish to be strong and esteemed,” it can also lead weak men “to want to bring the strong down to their level”—with such base fervor as ultimately to defeat democracy’s purpose by “preferring equality in servitude to inequality in freedom.”
In any event, all the striving intensifies Puritan individualism to an extreme where it “disposes each citizen to cut himself off from the mass of his fellow men,” leaving “the larger society to take care of itself,” Tocqueville writes. “These people owe nothing to anyone. . . . Thus not only does democracy cause each man to forget his forebears, but it makes it difficult to see his offspring and cuts him off from his contemporaries. Again and again it leads him back to himself and threatens ultimately to imprison him altogether in the loneliness of his own heart.”
Wait—what happened to the spontaneous community celebrations and the crackerjack fixing of roads? Self-reliance, it seems, is a mixed blessing, or perhaps even a myth. Not only that, but other complications to the promise of America quickly ensued:
American equality and materialism don’t provide fertile ground for deep thought, either. As people increasingly resemble one another, each man intellectually “feels weaker vis-à-vis all the others” and “loses confidence in himself when they combat him.” He finds it “very difficult to believe what the masses reject and to profess what they condemn,” and usually he ends up “admitting he is wrong when most people say he is.” Public opinion bears all before it in America; its power is one of Tocqueville’s prime examples in a chapter he heads with James Madison’s epithet “the tyranny of the majority.” So irresistible is its force that Tocqueville can think of “no country where there is in general less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America.”
We dumbed ourselves down, and just like that, the door was opened to tyranny, albeit of a mild and democratic flavor:
With no need for the racks and chains of old, democracy’s very mild tyranny “ignores the body and goes straight for the soul,” Tocqueville laments. It leaves the dissident his life, liberty, property, and civic privileges, but it makes them useless to him by making him a pariah, unable to gain the votes or the esteem of his fellow citizens, who will shun him for fear of being shunned themselves. Little wonder, therefore, that America has produced no great writers.* And if you want a refutation of the wisdom of crowds—the “theory of equality applied to intelligence,” Tocqueville scoffs—look no further. As someone who believes that “freedom of the intellect is a sacred thing,” as Tocqueville does, “when I feel the hand of power weigh upon my brow, it scarcely matters who my oppressor is, and I am not more inclined to submit to the yoke because a million arms are prepared to place it around my neck.”
This, my fellow American sheeple, is why we can’t have nice things: we have tyrannized ourselves into mindless submission. And, inevitably, our politics reflects that:
That same majoritarian tyranny explains why America’s elected officials are so mediocre. To win votes, they have to flatter public opinion with the obsequiousness of Louis XIV’s most sycophantic courtiers. Andrew Jackson is Tocqueville’s Exhibit A. He “is the slave of the majority,” Tocqueville sneers; “he obeys its wishes and desires and heeds its half-divulged instincts; or rather, he divines what the majority wants, anticipating its desires before it knows what they are in order to place himself at its head.” Like most politicians, he cares only about reelection, so that “his own individual interest supplants the general interest in his mind.”
Tocqueville was shocked, shocked, to find politicians looking out for their own individual interests; it had never happened before in the annals of government. It’s a shame that Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand is much too busy harmonizing our various and divergent economic self-interests to get involved in politics, where it could actually do some good.
Myron Magnet emphasizes the horror of America’s decline into something resembling, of all things, France:
[Our] federal government has more than 2.7 million employees, state and local governments have 14.3 million, and college students don’t know who won the Civil War or who the U.S. vice president is, and don’t care. Americans have come to resemble the French of Tocqueville’s day, who don’t know what’s happening in their country, are “indifferent to the fate of the place they live in,” and think that the fate of their town and the safety of their streets “have nothing to do with them, that they belong to some powerful stranger called ‘the government.’ ”
As happened in France, a gigantic modern state grew up inside the shell of America’s Founding-era institutions, with few Americans even noticing and most unaware of the magnitude of the revolution even today. We created a giant administrative regime, just as Tocqueville feared, composed of such executive-branch agencies as the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Elections Commission, and on and on.
Unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats have taken over, writes Magnet:
President [Woodrow] Wilson set the administrative state in motion in the name of disinterested government by nonpolitical experts, armed with science, statistics, and professionalism, who, laboring away quietly and selflessly, would advance the common good so much more efficiently than the free action of the collective power of individuals…These agencies don’t bother with the “moonshine” of the separation of powers or due process of law that Tocqueville ranked so high among America’s political virtues and that Woodrow Wilson classed among the “great deal of nonsense” that the Founding Fathers put forth as “the inalienable rights of the individual.” These executive-branch agencies legislate by making binding rules for individuals and corporations, and they then adjudicate and punish infractions of them through juryless administrative courts indistinguishable from those run by the French intendants and the Royal Council, lacking due process and usually with no appeal to the real court system. They provide, to use Tocqueville’s words, “an image of justice rather than justice itself.”
Nor, as in the ancien régime, can the victims of these agencies’ absolutism sue them or their functionaries. As for the congress whose legislation gave life to these bodies, it is as much a sham as the old French town corporations or magnificently titled nobles. It does little but seek exemptions from the agencies’ rules for corporate donors—whose companies the agencies’ original rationale was to control. And the Constitution that gave life to the government Tocqueville so cherished is, if not dead, then dying.
Our very liberties, Magnet insists, are dying along with the Constitution (and its "parchment barriers") that was supposed to protect them:
Under the New Deal’s mesh of minute and complex rules, the sovereign—with the Supreme Court’s blessing—punished a farmer in 1942 for growing grain in excess of his allotted quota, to feed to his own livestock. Today the iron cage of administrative rules prevents new businesses from opening, old ones from hiring, doctors from treating patients as they think best, groups of citizens from uttering political speech, even a landowner from moving a pile of sand from one spot to another on his property, purportedly because it could affect a navigable waterway 50 miles away. It slows projects to a crawl, so that building a bridge, a skyscraper, a power plant takes years—whereas in the old America, the Empire State Building rose in 11 months.
And today’s sovereign does force men to act as well as suppressing action, so that nuns must provide their employees with birth control that their religion holds to be sinful, bakers must make cakes celebrating homosexual marriages that their religious beliefs abominate, private colleges must regulate their students’ sex lives, banks must lend to deadbeats. The immense tutelary power has turned private charities into government contractors, so that Catholic Charities or Jewish Social Services are neither Catholic nor Jewish—though most public welfare comes direct from the state, from babies’ milk to old people’s health care and pensions, for which only a minority has paid. As Tocqueville observed, “It is the state that has undertaken virtually alone to give bread to the hungry, aid and shelter to the sick, and work to the idle.”
How dare the state intrude on people's God-given rights to be hungry, sick, and idle!
In New York State, where even in the 1830s Tocqueville saw administrative centralization taking form, the sovereign has commanded strictly private clubs to change their admissions criteria, so that even the realm of private association is subject to government power. And whatever traditional American mores defined as good and bad, moral and immoral, base and praiseworthy, the sovereign has redefined and redefined until all such ideas have lost their meaning. Is it any wonder that today’s Americans feel that they have no say in how they are governed—or that they don’t understand how that came about?
We have made, then, according to Tocqueville and Magnet, a devil’s bargain, exchanging our liberty as self-reliant individuals for the dubious pleasure of “equality in servitude” under a democratic despotism:
Such oppression is “less degrading” in democracies because, since the citizens elect the sovereign, “each citizen, hobbled and reduced to impotence though he may be, can still imagine that in obeying he is only submitting to himself.” Moreover, democratic citizens love equality more than liberty, and the love of equality grows as equality itself expands. Don’t let him have or be more than me. “The only necessary condition for centralizing public power in a democratic society is to love equality or to make a show of loving it. Thus the science of despotism,” Tocqueville despairingly concluded, “can be reduced . . . to a single principle.”
But, wonders Tocqueville, is this what human life is for? 1
This, then, is the story of how Americans were all “reduced to impotence” by a leveling egalitarian bureaucratic regime. It would be a compelling story indeed—if it fit the facts. But since the facts show instead that America is a land of raging inequality—economic, educational, social, and political—then the story, compelling as it is on its own terms, can only be labeled a fable. The facts also show that the notorious “centralization” of political power in Washington is greatly exaggerated; we still have fifty state (and thousands of local) governments that remain quite busy on their own, sometimes defying and sometimes evading decrees from the “sovereign,” insistent on their own identities and crying “Tyranny!” at the drop of a federal hat.
Why then does a man of Myron Magnet’s obvious intellect and ability present this fable as fact? Most obviously, Mr. Magnet is a political and social conservative whose best-known book 2 is a scathing indictment of the cultural revolution of the Sixties; he has received a National Humanities Medal (in 2006, from President George W. Bush) and he has been credited (through his editorship at City Journal) with helping shape Rudy Giuliani’s agenda as mayor of New York City. In other words, the lens through which Magnet sees American history has a decidedly rightward bias; which does not in itself prove that his view of our history is distorted, but it helps explains what distortions are present.
Magnet’s analysis of the death of American democracy, articulately presented as it is, echoes conservative criticisms that have been in circulation since the New Deal. The weakness of that analysis is, as noted, that it is mostly disconnected from actual facts; it is an ideological narrative through and through, cherry-picking a fact here and a statistic there to bolster a case that is tenuous at best. Moreover, conservatives can't decide if democracy is the problem or the solution; sometimes they lament the pitiful ignorance and venality of the masses, and other times they cry out against unelected judges who dare defy the will of the majority.
Ever since conservatives in the 1930’s insisted that the New Deal would lead to tyranny and to economic leveling, their ideological heirs have continued to act as though such is actually the case, even though it is manifestly not. Whatever ails American democracy and American politics—and no one can deny that ailments exist—unrestrained federal power and socio-economic egalitarianism are not the symptoms, much less the causes, of our distress. What they are is conservative hobby-horses; and while riding them may help stir up the populace and thereby get some people elected, it will do nothing to solve our actual problems.
* Whatever one thinks of Tocqueville's estimate of American writers circa 1830, Myron Magnet has the benefit of hindsight and should know better than to repeat this unjustified calumny. In the decades after Tocqueville graced our primitive shores with his presence, America produced (among others) Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, and Walt Whitman.
1 The correct answer, class, is “No”.
2 THE DREAM AND THE NIGHTMARE: The Sixties’ Legacy to the Underclass