If you’re the type of person who skips the prefaces or introductions, shame on you; but if you pick up the Penguin Classics’ version of Democracy in America, you must read Kramnick’s introduction. Beyond its readability, it demonstrates that Tocqueville is someone we all should be reading right now.
“If the number of times an individual is cited by politicians, journalists, and scholars is a measure of their influence, Alexis de Tocqueville — not Jefferson, Madison, or Lincoln — is America’s public philosopher.”Isaac Kramnick, introduction to the 2003 edition of Democracy in America and Two Essays on America. (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), i.
I would further this point and argue that Tocqueville is also America’s prophet. His descriptions of the Supreme Court, his comments on China becoming a power admired by future leaders, and his belief that an idolatry of individualism would eventually be the downfall of America are being realized in our own time. He is a demonstration of how a philosopher is not someone with a crystal ball, but rather someone with a deep understanding of the causal relationship between ideas and the people that live by them.
One of Tocqueville’s observations is that liberty flourished in America because it was defended by those who lived under tyranny. It’s clear that our founders had their love of liberty branded on their hearts through the fires of political tyrants.
[Americans] had all received their upbringing amid a crisis in society during which the spirit of liberty had been constantly locked in a struggle against a powerfully tyrannical authority. Once the struggle was over, these men called a halt even though, as is usual, the passions aroused in the crowd still persisted in their fight against dangers long since gone.Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America and Two Essays on America, trans. Gerald E. Bevan (New York, New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 178
Appreciation for liberty comes from living under tyranny. I’m not sure that we understand this in our country; from millennials to boomers, we have become naïve about the corruptible nature of government. Tocqueville would, and did discourage, the blind trust our citizenry has in our government. Hence, those who have lived under tyranny are the most outspoken against COVID passports, while those who have gained a comfortable life through political apathy have complied.
Revolutions have a tendency to be indefinite, regardless of the moral superiority of their position. They are like sharks: once they get a taste of blood, they become frenzied and insatiable. We find ourselves in a time in which two revolutions are being waged, those of wokeness on the left and those of nationalism on the right. Neither of these groups are friendly to historic Christianity. Tocqueville saw this on the horizon of America and gave plenty of warnings to his readers about the future of the nation.
Idolatry of Individualism Leads to Totalitarianism
There are two long passages that I would like to quote for you that are the major takeaways from the first 250 or so pages. The first quote from Kramnick is an overview of Tocqueville. The second is from Tocqueville about the psychology of an apathetic citizen. Both excerpts express ideas that have already entrenched themselves in our politics today. Furthermore, they demonstrate why Tocqueville is vital to understanding the times in which we find ourselves.
Kramnick summarizes Tocqueville’s thoughts:
Rampant American individualism with its legions of fortune hunters, scurrying feverishly to better themselves, is more worrisome than merely the offense it gives to Tocqueville’s anti-commercial sensitivities. [Tocqueville’s] worst fear is that disconnected and docile individuals will apathetically succumb to a despotic, tutelary state. In love with property and ‘the enjoyment of the present moment,’ Americans turn from public life and ‘stand independently,’ creating the danger that individuals seeking only their own interest, existing for themselves alone, will leave all common concerns to the government, which if it offers them order and security will be granted more and more power unto omnipotence. Tocqueville conjures up a nightmarish democratic despotism, seemingly mild in its paternal control, but totalitarian in its reach. In this frightening fantasy the state takes over education, which the liberal Tocqueville, like Mill, opposed; it provides for economic wellbeing and manages most commercial affairs, virtually relieving individuals of the need to think for themselves. The horrible prospect comes full circle when self-centered individuals, whose initial abandonment of public affairs ultimately led to the state’s despotism, find themselves isolated and alone, ‘lost in the crowd.’ –Kramnick, introduction, xxxiii-xxxiv.
Tocqueville’s warnings of a “Big Brother” state came well before Orwell’s 1984. Those that trust governments as upright and righteous entities more than likely think too highly of themselves; this is known as projection. Those that self-deprecate but elevate the government are inconsistent, since every government is a direct result of the ideas and ethics of the citizens that produced it.
Centralization, Apathy, and the Conquering of Nations
“It’s a different time…” seems to be on the lips of everyone these days. When most people use this phrase, they are acknowledging the suppression of rights, while simultaneously informing that they will do nothing to restore them. There is one exception: they will do whatever the government says you have to do in order to get them back. But to accept the terms of this exchange is to forfeit the idea of natural rights, meaning your right to speak is based on your humanity, not on whether you say the “politically correct” words. These individuals identify with different parties, but agree on the centralization of the government and its authority for the “greater good”. Tocqueville discusses this kind of centralization of the government and how it will breed apathy in the nation and ultimately lead to its conquering.
There are European nations where the inhabitant sees himself as a kind of settler, indifferent to the fate of the place he inhabits. Major changes happen there without his cooperation, he is even unaware of what precisely has happened; he is suspicious; he hears about events by chance. Worse still, the condition of his village, the policing of the roads, the fate of the churches and presbyteries scarcely bothers him; he thinks that everything is outside his concern and belongs to a powerful stranger called the government. He enjoys what he has as a tenant, without any detachment from his own fate becomes so extreme that, if his own safety or that of his children is threatened, instead of trying to ward off the danger, he folds his arms and waits for the entire nation to come to his rescue.
Furthermore, this man, although he has so comfortably sacrificed his own will, still does not like obeying any more than the next man. Granted he submits to the whim of a clerk but, as soon as force is withdrawn, he enjoys defying the law as if it were a conquered enemy. So we see him constantly wavering between slavishness and license.
When nations have reached this point, they have to modify their laws and customs or perish, for the spring of public virtue has, as it were, dried up. Subjects still exist but citizens are no more. I maintain that such nations are ready for conquest. If they do not disappear from the world stage, it is only because they must be surrounded by nations either similar or inferior to them; or they must retain in their hearts a sort of indefinable intuition of patriotism, some unconscious pride in the name they bear, some indistinct memory of their past glory which, though unable to latch on to anything in particular, is enough, when pressed, to imprint upon them some impulse of self-preservation.Tocqueville, 110-112.
Tocqueville describes a state of affairs that we are only now beginning to reap from seeds planted some 20+ years ago. If you think it goes further than 20, comment below. Regardless of the timeline, we find ourselves in a country that has forgotten its identity. Its citizenry is largely unaware of the workings of government, people have adopted fidelity to government rather than to neighbor and truth, our citizens (on both sides of the aisle) have mainstreamed major conspiracy theories (The left – Trump is a Russian agent; The right – the vaccine is a genocidal weapon; both parties questioning election integrity). We no longer have a memory of why our country was founded, and those that are searching history for a memory of our country cannot agree on its historical identity. Regardless of your political perspective, Tocqueville and the greatest minds history has produced recognize that if our country continues on its current trajectory that it will no longer exist.
The malaise goes back, in my view, much further than twenty years. What follows is just one extended example of how laws can testify to this fact.
In 1942, in Wickard vs. Filburn, the US Supreme Court held that even economic activity sited wholly within a single state, the direct effects of which were confined to people and activities within that state, could nevertheless be regulated–i.e., conditioned, restrained, or prohibited–by Congress, as long as that activity’s effects–together with those of the same sort of activity’s agents elsewhere–could be viewed in their totality as significantly affecting interstate commerce. This ruling, of course, vastly expanded the reach of the Interstate Commerce clause in the US Constitution.
One problem with the ruling is the notion of “significant activity:” surely the judgment of when an activity becomes significant resides in the mind of the observer. Another problem is its long-term effect; this ruling has mushroomed into what today has become a glob-like control over almost every conceivable activity in which a citizen can pursue. Probably half of all congressional legislation today is based upon this single Interstate Commerce clause–a burden that the clause was never meant to bear. Was it not Nancy Pelosi who infamously said, “Congress can do whatever it wants to do”? She was likely thinking of the Interstate Commerce Clause.
For example, it was reliance on this clause that justified in congressional thinking the passage of the Lindbergh Law in 1932 , which made it a Federal crime to transport a kidnapping victim across a state line–even though no one in his right mind would call this action “commerce.”
(There is some opinion that in 1789, at the time of the passage of the US Constitution, ‘regulate’ did not mean ‘control’ or ‘restrain,’ but rather ‘keep regular’, and that the framers’ intent was to prohibit the several state from imposing duties on goods entering or leaving them.)
The recital of legislative histories such as this one is meant to illustrate how easily a people’s good intentions can help spawn bad actions: the public’s outrage at the kidnapping and death of young Charles Lindbergh ended up fueling what I think of as the glob effect of the Interstate Commerce clause. In this effect, words and expressions such as “commerce” mean almost nothing any longer. The very air you breathe can be regulated at the whim of Congress, for might it not have crossed a state line?
Thus tyranny relies on the façade created by torturing words into parting from their plain sense. This is a favorite tactic of all tyrannies.