Alexis de Tocqueville, the French visitor to the United States 180 years ago, already defined the enduring American character and what would come to pass, writes Micheal Brenner.
“In egalitarian America, each citizen is habitually engaged in the contemplation of a very puny object, namely, himself.” – Alexis de Tocqueville
Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) is a name nearly all recognize. So, too, his classic work Democracy In America (1835-1840). Its contents are less familiar. Yes, it is widely recognized that he said nice things about the United States’ historic experiment with popular democracy. The reconciliation of democracy with security of individual liberties from both the “mob” and tyranny lit the path that would guide so many peoples over the next 180 years.
Yet, the intricate, subtle analysis that led Tocqueville to his brilliant insights is hazy in our minds. For it is an intellectual challenge of the sort that is out of fashion – and the work itself seems somehow musty and antique. Generations ‘X’ through ‘Z’ to Millennial find it distinctly retro – if they have glanced at a dusty page or two.
This is a shame. Numerous passages read not only as luminous in their insight of the perpetual American mind and spirit. They also dazzle as penetrating commentary on today’s affairs.
Tocqueville was more than a brilliant political theorist and analyst. He was a cultural anthropologist as well. Probing the very soul of the American democrat, and thereby the soul of modern man, he fully appreciated the “software” of United States’ egalitarian society and how it sustained the nascent democracy’s institutional “hardware.”
These unique insights are worth noting – along with some brief annotation to highlight the connections between then and now.
References are a bit confusing since de Tocqueville wrote two books with the same title. Normally, they are presented as parts of a single volume. In fact, Book II is a distinct work of its own expressing the author’s reconsideration of the theses that run through Book I which, upon reflection, he judged inadequate.
Democracy in America, Then and Now
Traveling in upper Michigan among frontier settlements on the edge of the wilderness, Tocqueville and his companion the Duc de Beaumont chanced upon a log cabin in whose doorway stood a young woman of uncertain nationality.
“Etes-vous Francaise?” they queried.
“Are you English?”
“Not that either…. I am a savage.”
This native American married to a trapper from French Canada was an American – of triple cultural identity – displaying little deference to the itinerants or interest in what they might make of her. Not quite a new species under the sun, though. Elsewhere in the Americas, mixtures of blood and culture were the norm: in Mexico, in much of Spanish America generally, in the Caribbean and in Portuguese Brazil.
The avoidance of such a mingling would prove America’s curse. But to Tocqueville, the multi-lingual “savage” housewife was emblematic of how different, in so many respects, the United States was from the Europe which had spawned it. Misleading similarities with the Old War confuse us to this day. That distinctive Americanism still explains who we are, how we think, and how we behave – at home and abroad.
(Oddly, the English had little aversion to intermingling with the natives in India in the latter half of the Eighteenth Century; that is, until the arrival of European ladies disturbed the convivial practice. There, the ladies found husbands, privilege and the likelihood of early death from exotic diseases).
Tocqueville says the Anglo-American “is cold, tenacious, and relentless in argument. He attaches himself to the land and seizes from life in the wild all that it can yield to him… He holds that man comes into the world only to become well-off and to enjoy the conveniences of life.” (p. 369)
Is there a more apt explanation of the deep psychology that underlies America’s materialism – especially in its various expressions? Tocqueville’s words are figuratively engraved beneath the logo of every MBA program in the land; emblazoned on corporate banners from Silicon Valley to Wall Street; they suffuse our popular culture; taken as eternal truth by market fundamentalist economists; and guide the writing of our most influential behavioral psychologists.
“His features which are lined by the cares of life, display practical intelligence and a cold persevering energy…his words measured and his appearance austere.’(p. 79)
Dull but capable, severe but just, … genuine.
I often met, in the farthest wilderness, women who had been raised among the all the refinements of the big cities … Neither fever, loneliness, nor boredom had broken the springs of their courage. This woman is in the prime of life….but her delicate limbs are weakened, her features are weary, and her gaze is gentle and grave. Her whole face reflects religious resignation … .” (p. 75)
Yet this is the same American who birthed a country that is the world’s pornography hub, that is wracked with addictions of unmatched number and variety, that revels in popular entertainments of exceptional vulgarity and juvenility, and that elected Donald Trump as its president along with governors and congressmen distinguished by the singularly large number of outright wackos and blatant hypocrites.
Many of his contemporary ancestors, at the same time, are devout Evangelicals and members of other sects who claim to live by the strictures of the Bible while awaiting the End Days of Armageddon.
“Religious insanity is very common in the United States.” (p. 404)
The Forest as Enemy
“This transmutation represents one of the great mysteries of the American experience.
Americans consider the forest the symbol of wilderness and therefore of barbarism, so it’s against the woods that they mount their attacks… Among ourselves one cuts down only for us; in America they do it to destroy. The country dweller passes half his life in combat against his natural enemy – the forest; and he wages it relentlessly.” (p. 72)
The despoliation of the North American continent is unique – in speed if not in extent. Fauna as well as flora were targeted. It took but a few generations to kill 50 million buffalo, to decimate untold millions of migratory birds. The great forests are reduced to sparse reserves ever threatened by commercial interests and ex-urban expansion.
The period of conservation ushered in by Theodore Roosevelt salvaged only a small fraction of the natural world Americans first encountered. Now, it is being fritted away. “Tree huggers” are ridiculed and congressmen declare that “when you have seen one redwood, you have seen them all.”
This is Americanism every bit as much as the sacred Constitution and the devotion to freedom.
“Once an idea has taken a hold of the American people’s minds, whether it’s a just one or an unreasonable one, nothing is more difficult than to uproot it …the greatest liberty of thought and the most invincible prejudices … .Where social conditions are equal, as in America, public opinion presses with an enormous weight upon the mind of each individual; it surrounds, directs, and oppresses him. As men grow more alike … he mistrusts himself as soon as they assail him … .
When an opinion has taken root among a democratic people, and established itself in the minds of the bulk of the community, it afterwards subsists by itself and is maintained without effort, because no one attacks it. Those who at first rejected it as false, ultimately receive it as the general impression; and those who still dispute it in their hearts, conceal their dissent.” (p. 524)
Think of the entrenched ideas and obsessional thinking that today defy all honest questioning or earnest contestation or inconvenient facts:
- The deepest impulse of other peoples is to emulate the United States and to achieve what we have achieved
- The causes of the drug problem in the United States lie in Mexico, Columbia, etc.
- The huge demand for drugs is due to readily available supply rather than in the flaws of American society
- The American health care system is the best in the world – regardless of what the World Health Organization, the OECD, or anybody else says
- Americans are the most generous people in the world
- Americans are the most tolerant people in the world
- Other countries don’t appreciate how much the United States does for them
- China aims to displace the United States as the world’s dominant power. All of its policies are oriented by that overarching goal
- China’s autocratic government is incompatible with peaceful engagement internationally
- Hence, the battle between American-led league of democracy and the Sino-Russian autocratic bloc is a contest of historic dimension that will shape the world system
- Vladimir Putin is an incarnation of Evil whose aggressive instincts, expansionist plans and implacable hostility toward the United States make Russia him a clear and present danger to the United States.
- Russia is a greater threat than the Islamic State and al-Qaeda combined
- Russia interfered massively in the 2016 presidential elections
- By contrast, the 2014 instigation of an armed coup against the democratically elected government in Ukraine by Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt, represented a justifiable and selfless support for the cause of democracy, freedom and self-determination
- The American invasion and occupation of Iraq with no legal mandate bears no comparison with Putin’s occupation of Crimea. Nor does the U.S. led military intervention in Kosovo in the cause of the province’s secession from Serbia
- Putin tried to kill the Skripals and Navalny
- Russia was an accomplice in Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria
- The “White Helmets” was a great humanitarian organization deserving of consideration for the Nobel Peace Prize – even if they obediently trailed ISIS & al-Qaeda from place to place like camp-followers, fabricate incidents and run a public relations operation with unacknowledged money from MI – 6 (their Godfather) and the U.S. State Department
- Unseating Assad has been the correct priority in Syria – even if that has meant allying with al-Nusra (the al-Qaeda spinoff – especially since those jihadis are actually part of the ‘moderate’ opposition. Like Susan Collins and Joe Manchin in the Senate).
- Iran is a rogue state whose fanatical leadership promote terrorism. It is an unrelenting foe, whose very presence is an existential threat to our close partners in Israel, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf.
- The causes of the drug problem in the United States lie in Mexico, Colombia, etc. The huge demand for drugs is due to readily available supply rather than in the flaws of American society.
- The American health care system is the best in the world – regardless of what the World Health Organization, the OECD, or anybody else says
- It’s okay not to talk about the abandonment of Puerto Rico since Puerto Ricans are not really Americans (Ditto: residents of New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward after Katrina)
Close-mindedness, of course, is not a peculiarly American phenomenon. Nor is it an unvarying constant. It is considerably more pronounced nowadays than it was 40, 50 or 60 years ago. Propositions such as those noted above could be questioned and debated to a degree that is impossible today.
Check the media. Check the politicos. Check Congress. Check the churches. Check the think tanks. Check the universities. Check the AMA and the American Bar Association.
“In America the majority erects a formidable barrier around thought. Within its limits, a writer is free but woe to him who dares to go beyond… When you go among your fellows, they will shun you as an impure being, and even those who believe in your innocence will abandon you for fear the others will shun them as well.” (p. 404)
Michelle Wolf got it exactly right at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner when she correctly observed how panels of news commentators these days remind her of why we are reluctant to go home for Thanksgiving.
Conformity of thinking is accompanied by the disturbing habit of seeing communication as a form of self-affirmation rather than an exchange of thoughts and feelings. Tocqueville: “An American doesn’t know how to converse; he debates. He doesn’t discourse; he holds forth.” (p. 405)
Uniformity in American culture and thought is powerfully reinforced by American conformism. The affinity between a democratic culture and a uniformity of attitude is a prominent Tocquevillian theme.
Anyone who has been so imprudent as to cast aspersions at the rooted untruths that buttress American foreign policy these days can testify to the strength of conformist pressures. My anecdote about the encounter with Karl Rove a few weeks back is an exhibit of present realities and the accuracy of Tocqueville’s depiction.
A related incident occurred a couple of years earlier on the occasion of a visit by then C.I.A. Director John Brennan. He addressed an assembly of 400. It was studded with numerous lies (factual and other), distortions and deceit. Remarkable even by Brennan’s mendacious standards. The University of Texas audience gave him a standing ovation – 399 of the 400 in attendance, anyway.
Admittedly, this is Texas. Of all the places I have lived in the United States, Texans are far and away the most conformist, the most uniform in opinion and the most deferential to authority of all kinds. They are the exemplars of what Tocqueville was describing – self esteemed “rugged individualists” who are anything but autonomous and independent.
The outlier is rarely condemned; (s)he is simply ignored – shunned. This phenomenon crosses all lines of class, ethnicity, and education. The “intelligentsia” is at least as prone to it as is Joe Six-pack.
In truth, settled thinking may be all the more impenetrable among the former. Anyone who has attempted to persuade multi-degreed professionals of the progressive disposition that Barack Obama was something less than an enlightened leader dedicated wholly to the cause of virtue can attest to that proposition.
The shunning of non-conformists occurs in academia as well. That includes high prestige institutions of higher education like Harvard. Consider the case of the renowned scholar who came to Cambridge to fill a named Chair with the understanding that promotion to tenure would follow the next year. She made the mistake of speaking up when the administration under the President Drew Gilpin Faust was sweeping under the rug serious allegations of rape on campus.
Her long yet temperate letter pointing out the inadequacy of the actions taken resulted in her being summarily sacked within weeks. The near unanimous silence was deafening. Her mortal sin was to suggest that the tepid response by university authorities sprang from some basic institutional flaws rather than “misunderstandings’ and “honest disagreements” that could be resolved by a university wide “conversation.”
Incidents like this have taken place right across the span of the American university scene from Columbia to Yale to George Mason to Stanford to NYU.
Is this deviation from the modern American norm? Will the pendulum swing back in the other direction? Tocqueville alerts us to the likelihood that the situation will worsen – as is evinced in each week’s news events.
“Egotism is a vice as old as the world, which does not belong to form of society or another; individualism is of democratic origin. The conditions of life on an untrammeled continent have crystallized this sentiment…. Consequently, Americans believe that they owe nothing to any man. (p. 368)
“American individualism throws for ever each man back upon himself alone, and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart. [Read smartphone] There, each citizen is habitually engaged in the contemplation of a very puny object, namely, himself.” (213)
Where does this lead? The self-absorbed persons; the narcissism; the egotism; the greed; the imperative of looking after “number one.” “I’ and “me” are the only operative words in “communication;” instant gratification is demanded; pervasive childishness and the resistance to growing up. These are the stark features of twenty-first century American culture and society.
Restless Amidst Well-Being
The individual’s sense of being unfulfilled and insecure is a hallmark of today’s American. It is more pronounced than ever before. A neurotic people. In part, that is due to the blunt truth that the much vaunted American individualism arises from a “preoccupation with a single, puny object – namely, themselves.”
A related cause is the absence of rites of passage, of marks of distinction, of settled status – now exacerbated by economic dislocation (the gig economy) – which deepen diffuse feelings of disappointment and discouragement. All the more so when being subjected to graphic images of those who have “made it,” i.e. the celebrity culture along with the money mania.
In the United States, a scientist can be referred to as a Nobel Prize winner – but someone “who hasn’t done much recently.” Write four books, take a long breath, and you are “dead wood.” Coach your team into the championship, lose out in the 7th game – and the General Manager tells reporters that your contract renewal in under review while the management looks at other options. Be in standout on a squad that reaches the final round 3 straight years, have great teammates, love the city – but decide to test free agency to see how much more dough you might rake in.
Above all, you dream of getting the limelight exclusively on yourself. To write your name on the wind – forever. (The average person dreams of getting on TV – even if it’s a local daytime show).
Part of every American yearns for that elusive ultimate prize even as they sense the presence of oblivion always looming over their shoulder, gnawing at them. The relentless competition that animates American society in all domains is both cause and reinforced effect of this existential distress.
Escapes take multiple forms: binge drinking, drugs, mindless TV, Facebook, comfort food, reinventing oneself. When all else fails, melancholia sets in.
“Given the total absence of formal status distinctions and external distinctions, wealth presents itself as the natural scale by which to measure men’s merit…. That explains the mercantile spirit that shows up in everything the Americans do and say.” (p. 215)
My portfolio is richer than yours.
My presidential library is bigger than yours.
My smart phone has more useless features than yours.
My yacht has entertained more billionaires that yours.
My barbecue has more burners than yours.
I paid more for a forged piece of art than you did.
THEREFORE, I am a superior person.
“A native of the United States clings to this world’s goods as if he were certain never to die; and he is so hasty in grasping all within his reach that one would suppose he was constantly afraid of not living long enough to enjoy them. He clutches everything, but holds nothing fast, and soon loosens his grip to pursue fresh gratifications.” (p. 396)
The lure of Apple’s next smartphone, the next tantalizing sitcom, the status accoutrements one rung up the ladder; the three-peat while the repeat is still warm.
“Tocqueville saw Americans as hyper-active doers in search of some elusive gratification until, exhausted, we lapse into inert melancholia. Marooned in the middle lane on the road of life with the exit ramp approaching.” — Leo Damrosch: Tocqueville’s Discovery Of America
At the very end of Tocqueville’s second book, his guarded optimism about American democracy, and what it portends for the inexorable spread of democracy everywhere, yields to a different, troubling vision of the future. He vividly describes a benign dystopia:
“In America I saw the freest men, placed in the happiest circumstances that the world affords ; it seemed to me as if a cloud hung upon their brow, and I thought them serious and almost sad in their pleasure….Endlessly they are going to seize it (happiness), and endlessly it escapes their grasp. They see it from close enough to know its charms, but they never get close enough to enjoy them, and they die before fully tasting its delights. These are the reason for the singular melancholy …. they sometimes experience in the bosom of abundance, and for the disgust with life that often seizes them in the midst of their easy and tranquil existence.
They encounter good fortune nearly everywhere, but not happiness. With them the desire for well-being has become an uneasy burning passion that keeps on growing even while it is being satisfied.” (p. 216)
The pursuit of happiness – to coin a phrase.
Compare that picture with this offered 180 years later:
“The rest are told that, to avoid falling into this soul-destroying ‘precariat,’ they must invest in their own brand every waking hour of every day. Before posting any tweet, watching any movie, sharing any photograph or chat message, they must remain mindful of the networks they please or alienate.
When lucky enough to be granted a job interview, and land the job, the interviewer alludes immediately to their expendability. ‘We want you to be true to yourself, to follow your passions, even if this means we must let you go!’ they are told. So they redouble their efforts to discover ‘passions’ that future employers may appreciate, and to locate that mythical ‘true’ self that people in positions of power tell them is somewhere inside them.
Their quest knows no bounds and respects no limits. They try to work out what average opinion among opinion-makers believes is the most attractive of their own potential ‘true’ selves, and simultaneously struggle to manufacture this ‘true’ self online and offline, at work and at home – indeed, everywhere and always. Entire industries of counselors and coaches, and varied ecosystems of substances and self-help, have emerged to guide them on this quest.” — Yanis Varoufakis “Liberal Totalitarianism,” Project Syndicate, April 30, 2018.
Either could have been composed by George Orwell.
“In a democracy readers are very numerous and very easy to please, due to the absolute need for novelty that they feel. Thus, one can make a fortune by endlessly turning out a mass of new but imperfect books. In this way it’s easy to acquire a modest fame and a big fortune.” (p. 109)
Only the former boon applies to commentaries as well.
NOTE: Most of the Tocqueville quotations are from Democracy In America Translated by Henry Reeve Ed. Henry Steele Commager (Oxford University Press 1955). Page numbers are in parentheses. Also cited is the excellent work of Leo Damrosch: Tocqueville’s Discovery Of America (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2010). The most comprehensive and authoritative study of Tocqueville is Sheldon Wolin’s monumental; Tocqueville Between Two Worlds (Princeton University Press 2001).
Michael Brenner is a professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. [email protected]
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