History’s Long Road to Tyranny: Tocqueville and the End of Equality

First, Americans all accepted a general Christian creed, a civil religion, that was too general to interfere in much of daily life, but which provided a foundation for morality, and morality provided a foundation for law.  Without an unquestioned, if narrowly circumscribed, set of Christian beliefs, the naturally skeptical American would fall into the same state as the woefully “Cartesian” ennui that had taken over the mind of much of Europe.  Prophetically anticipating the rise of nationalist movements later that century, Tocqueville contends that, without Christianity, men become so anxious and insecure that they will seek the security of belief they have lost regarding God in the persona of a ruler.  Men cannot bear to doubt everything, and they will have their god one way or another.  As T.S. Eliot observed in a particularly Tocquevillian moment, “If you will nto have God (and He is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.”

Second, the primacy of local or township government in American society made it possible for a great number of Americans to participate in political institutions on a regular basis.  Whether as Fire Chief or head of the St. John’s Mint Festival, whether as Dog Catcher or Mayor, Americans were continually forced to turn away from themselves and to attend to the life and business of their neighbor.  The long habit of such participation in public life convinced Americans that, despite their equality, they need not and could not be indifferent to the particulars of social life.  This also preserved Americans from the tendency to invest their political beliefs in a few general ideas.  Accustomed to the details of daily participation in political life, they did not let what is often called (wrongly, I think) “ideology” substitute for active engagement in the public realm.  This was possible chiefly because the actions of political life were largely confined to the local level, even when the legislation directing that life occured far away.

Third, Americans formed and joined public associations outside of political parties with avidity.  A foreign student of mine sees this present even now, but Robert Putnam and others have shown that, however much Americans love to join groups now, they did so much more frequently in the past.  All public life and, indeed, all potentially “private” moral decisions found expression in some association or another.  As Tocqueville observed, teetotallers in America did not simply sit at home and drink water, nor did they (as in France) apply to the prefect to keep an eye on the taverns.  Rather, they joined a Temperance Union and marched through the streets of East Lansing — no doubt, on their way to a pancake breakfast to raise funds for future such marches.

Fourth — perhaps anti-climactically — Tocqueville observes the utilitarian spirit of American moral life.  If one can show that participation in social life actually advances one’s self-interest, then Americans will take to public life with pride and enthusiasm.  They will even do so, all the while insisting that their service to the common good is understaken entirely for “selfish” reasons.  Lacking a vision of ethics as the pursuit of the Good, Tocqueville is bit wary and even at a loss before this aspect of American life, but he sees it as a moral code well adapted to an age of equality.  “Self-interest rightly understood” teaches us that, in order to serve our own good, we must secure the good of others.  Even the convinced individualist can see that to advance his family’s interests, he must participate in a great number of public groups and actions — individuals in an egalitarian society are, after all, particularly weak when isolated.

Over the course of writing his brilliant account of American society, Tocqueville seems to have discovered something: the one preconceived certitude with which he approached his subject — the inevitability of equality — was his one definite error.  As he would explore more fully in his later writings, the timeline of history, with its undeviating arrow, did not point toward the spread of equality per se.  Rather, if one took a longer view than that of the recent European revolutions, or even than that of the founding of the American colonies, the trajectory of history seemed aimed at a different, not to say incompatible, end.  Centralization.

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