Tocqueville’s America and Ours

The County Election (1852)

The “democracy” that Tocqueville observed in the United States was a pervasive social condition, not simply a matter of political or legal equality. Indeed, he opened Democracy in America by saying that “[o]f all the novel things which attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, none struck me more forcibly than the equality of social conditions.” The “extraordinary influence” of “this fundamental fact” shaped both “civil society” and “political customs and laws.” Democracy at 11.

Tocqueville is sometimes misrepresented as opposing liberty to equality. The fact is that he was a partisan of both. In the chapter immediately succeeding his analysis of soft despotism (which he called a “Continuation” of the latter), he says unequivocally that “all those who now wish to found or guarantee the independence and dignity of their fellows should show themselves friends of equality.” Preventing democracy from slipping into despotism is a question, he says, of “drawing freedom from within the democracy in which God has placed us.” Id. at 809. True, he acknowledges that “[e]quality introduces into men’s minds several tendencies which are a danger to liberty.” Id. at 813. But he holds the “firm belief” that “the dangers imposed by the principle of equality upon human independence” are “not insurmountable.” Id. at 817. Inequality, no less than equality, may pose a danger to liberty in a democracy.

Democracy and social equality

Tocqueville observed social equality everywhere in America. In a short section of Volume I of Democracy entitled “Remains of the Aristocratic Party in the United States” (Vol. I, Pt. ii, ch. 2), Tocqueville invites his readers to consider the situation of “the wealthy man,” “this opulent citizen.” “Within the four walls of his house he adores luxury; he invites only a few chosen guests.” But in public, “[h]is clothes are simple and his demeanor is modest.” When “he emerges from home to make his way to work . . . everyone is free to accost him. On the way, his shoemaker might pass by and they stop; both then begin to chat. What can they say? These two citizens are concerned with affairs of state and will not part without shaking hands.” True, the rich feel “a deep distaste” for their country’s democratic institutions, and “both fear and despise” the people. But they bow before the force of democratic social conventions. Democracy at 208-09.

Elsewhere Tocqueville describes the manner of Americans towards one another as “natural, open, and unreserved.” “In America, where privileges of birth have never existed and where wealth grants no particular right to its owner, strangers readily congregate in the same places and find neither danger nor advantage in telling each other freely what they think . . . . [T]here is practically nothing that they expect or fear from each other and they make no more effort to reveal than to conceal their social position.” Id. at 656.

Fishtown and Belmont

It would be unrealistic to think of America in such terms nowadays. Consider Charles Murray’s recent work, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (2012). Murray argues that America is “coming apart at the seams – not seams of race or ethnicity, but of class” (id. at 12). The white working class, he contends, has become estranged from the nation’s “founding virtues” of “industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity” (id. at 131). Basing his account of “Fishtown,” a construct modeled on a white, working class neighborhood of Philadelphia, Murray demonstrates the prevalence of childbirth outside of marriage, the infrequency with which children are raised in households in which both natural parents live together, the remarkable rate at which males claim physical disability and the difficulty they experience in holding down jobs, and the decline in regular church attendance.

Moreover, Murray argues, the members of white upper class (the residents of a fictional “Belmont”) have less and less in common with the white working class. The white upper class has become an aristocracy of inherited intelligence, a cognitive élite. Its members attend the same selective colleges and graduate schools, intermarry with one another, and raise children who are likely to follow the same educational and career patterns as themselves. The culture and lifestyles of Belmont are strikingly different from those of Fishtown. Although the inhabitants of Belmont are generally politically liberal, they are more likely to practice the “founding virtues.” On the whole they work more steadily and diligently, hold jobs longer, stay married more often and attend church more regularly than their working class counterparts. The two classes also interact far less often with each other than they did in the past: they are socially and culturally isolated from one another.

Other commentators have also noted that social inequality is increasingly woven into many aspects of ordinary American life. Take the procedures for security checks before boarding an aircraft. It is common to find two passenger lines leading into the Transportation Security Administration checkpoint area. One line is typically filled by people of mixed age, race and class. The other, invariably shorter line is for the use of “priority” passengers – i.e., wealthy travelers. Yet undergoing security checks is a civic duty, like jury service. See Michael Lind, “How the rich took over airport security,” Salon (Mar. 22, 2012), available at http://www.salon.com/2012/03/22/how__the__rich__took__over__airport_-security/.

Economic inequality

Rapidly growing economic inequality has accompanied, and probably underlies, the increasing social stratification, cultural isolation and legalized privilege observable in contemporary America.

One measure of the increase of economic inequality is the extraordinary rise in the ratio of CEO compensation to that of rank-and-file workers. According to the AFL-CIO, the current CEO-to-worker pay ratio in the United States is 354-to-1, as contrasted with (say) 67-to-1 in Japan. Moreover, the trend towards greater inequality is unmistakable. The Economic Policy Institute recently reported that “the CEO-to-worker compensation ratio was 20.1-to-1 in 1965 and 29.0-to-1 in 1978,” but thereafter grew to 122.6-to-1 in 1995, peaking at 383.4-to-1 at the end of the “tech boom” in 2000, and thereafter falling during the “great recession” to 272.9-to-1 in 2012. Using another measurement, CEOs earned 18.3 times more than workers in 1960, 136.8 times in 1995 and 411.3 times in 2000, dropping in to 202.3 times in 2012. CEO compensation also grew more rapidly than that of highly compensated workers: in 2010 CEO compensation was calculated at 4.7 times that of the top 0.1% of wage earners, as against the 3.08 ratio that prevailed in the over thirty years from 1947 to 1979. See Lawrence Mishel & Natalie Sabadish, “CEO Pay in 2012 Was Extraordinarily High Relative to Typical Workers and Other High Earners,” Issue Brief # 367: Economic Policy Institute (June 26, 2013).

The distribution of wealth in America has also become highly skewed. Law professor Ray Madoff reports that the wealthiest 1% own 34% of the nation’s wealth, while 80% of households own only 16% of it, and 40% own less than 1% of it. Madoff notes that such huge inequalities translate readily into differences in political power: the wealthy can donate more to candidates, causes and lobbyists in support of their preferred policy positions, or run self-financed campaigns for political office. Indeed, even their potential for making substantial contributions tilts the political playing field in favor of the wealthy. See Ray D. Madoff, Immortality and the Law: The Rising Power of the American Dead (2010).

Moreover, American law has been retooled to permit great concentrations of wealth to remain indefinitely in the same families. Estate planners are making much increased use of a device called “dynasty trusts,” which enable the wealthy to pass on their property largely free of taxes and the claims of creditors. Because of the so-called “Rule against Perpetuities,” which limited any family trust to a period of about three generations or 90 years, dynasty trusts would not have been possible in most American jurisdictions until relatively recently. The Rule against Perpetuities is usually understood to have expressed the policy of the common law, going back to the Duke of Norfolk’s Case (1682), that the distribution of land – the main asset class of the period – should not be controlled in perpetuity by the decisions of those long dead. As the Lord Chancellor put it in that case, perpetuities “do fight against God, for they pretend to be such a stability in human affairs, as the nature of them admits not of, and they are against the reason and the policy of the law.” Herbert Barry, “The Duke of Norfolk’s Case,” 23 Va. L. Rev. 538, 554-55 (1937). Increasingly since the mid-1990s, however, State legislatures have abolished even simplified, modernized forms of the Rule against Perpetuities, thus making it possible for great dynastic fortunes to exist indefinitely.

There is, of course, much room for debate over how public policy should respond to rising economic inequality. (For a balanced and informed recent discussion of income inequality, see N. Gregory Mankiw, “Defending the One Percent,” 27 Journal of Economic Perspectives 21 (2013). See also Thomas B. Edsall, What If We’re Looking at Inequality the Wrong Way?, in The New York Times (June 26, 2013), available at http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes/2013/06/26 (surveying recent studies)). But I think there is a powerful case that the persistence of great fortunes over generations — as distinct from the existence of such fortunes in itself — poses a grave danger for democracy. Certainly that was Tocqueville’s view. He was “astonished that commentators old and new have not attributed to the laws of inheritance a greater influence on the progress of human affairs. . . . These laws . . . have an unbelievable effect upon the social conditions of people. . . . Through the impact of these laws, man exerts an almost godlike power over the future of his fellow men. . . . When framed in a certain way, . . . [inheritance law] causes the aristocracy, so to speak, to spring out of the ground.” Unless the motions of such laws are offset, they will operate of their own accord “until all you see is a fine and shifting dust which is the foundation of democracy.” Democracy at 60-61.

Democracy and political equality

Tocqueville writes that the “social condition” of equality has “political consequences:” “equality ends up infiltrating the world of politics. . . . It would be impossible to imagine men forever unequal in one respect, yet equal in others; they must, in the end, come to be equal in all.” Democracy at 66. The same logic applies to inequality.

Contemporary American society is marked by deep and pervasive inequalities, not only in terms of wealth, but also in terms of cultural influence, bureaucratic power within the government and corporations, and academic credentials. These inequalities are, however, rarely questioned. Rather, they are presented as the just and necessary outcomes of rational, impersonal criteria: of the workings of the market or the necessities of globalization; of the results of standardized tests and blind grading; of specialized expertise or training; of the requirements of fair and efficient administration. As often in human history, the powerful seek to represent their contingent advantages as “rational” and “natural.”

The nation’s élites thus occupy unchallenged positions on the commanding heights of government and corporate bureaucracies, higher education, the judiciary, and other extremely hierarchical and inegalitarian institutions. From those heights, they can direct a program of eradicating other inequalities based on more traditional criteria, such as family, sex or religion. American élites can, and do, exploit their privileged position to set the country’s political agenda, shape the debate over it, and (nearly always) determine its outcomes, regardless of the interests, needs or wishes of popular majorities. For example, the Supreme Court’s recent opinion on same-sex marriage had barely appeared before the New York Times editorial board announced the opening of a new front in the war for “civil rights,” demanding legal equality for the transgendered. See “The Next Civil Rights Frontier,” in The New York Times (July 31, 2013), available at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/01/opinion/the-next-civil-rights-frontier.html?

Even in the absence of conscious bias, we would expect to find that a political system in which wealth and credentials were dominant would generally serve the interests, reflect the outlook and address the preoccupations of the privileged. We would find members of that class to be relatively indifferent to questions about unemployment, wage rates, working conditions, violent crime or the quality of primary education that gravely concern the less well-off or, if they consider such issues at all, to have consistently different judgments about what public policy in those areas should be. Likewise, we would find affluent, educated voters to be more interested in questions of lifestyle choices, international human rights violations, public subsidies for the arts, or long-term trends in the global environment. Furthermore, since the public agenda is largely defined by media commentators, analysts and editors who share the background and outlook of our élites, topics of concern to those élites will tend to dominate our political discourse. The killing of school children in a prosperous Connecticut suburb will attract more media attention than the routine, but more extensive, killing of children in an urban ghetto; global warming or the threat to marine life will be covered more deeply than structural unemployment or the incidence of personal bankruptcy. Thus, it is not at all strange that America should also be far less democratic politically than it was in Tocqueville’s time, or indeed within living memory.

French politics has recently provided a striking example of the growing disconnect between the obsessions of the élites and the vital interests of the larger society. Last May, a crowd of at least 150,000 marched in Paris to protest new legislation permitting same-sex marriage. Earlier and larger protest marches had occurred in January and March. The demonstrations were said to have been the most passionate political protests France had seen since 1984, when then-President Mitterand claimed the power to regulate religious schools.

Paris Protest Against Same-Sex Marriage in 2013 (CNN)

Surprisingly, many or most of the protesters against same-sex marriage were young, socially liberal, and politically left wing. Moreover, the law against which they were demonstrating had been enacted at the behest of the Socialist President, François Hollande. The explanation appears to be that the protesters saw the legislation as evidence of the French political élite’s prioritization of an issue of little real popular concern, even while it ignored the country’s severe economic crisis and the widespread unemployment that was proving particularly devastating to the working class and the young. In those circumstances, élite-driven social experimentation seemed frivolous. Moreover, the protesters were also seeking to make a point about the encroachment of market rationality on the sphere of personal relationships. They believed that married same-sex couples wanting children would turn to reproductive technologies such as commercialized surrogate motherhood, which they regarded as an immoral commodification of the human person. See Christopher Caldwell, “France is marching against the market, not homosexuality,” in The Financial Times at 7 (June 1, 2013).

Potemkin Democracy

Tocqueville had observed in America a highly participatory politics in which all classes were vigorously engaged. “It is difficult to describe the place political concerns occupy in the life of an American. To have a hand in the government of society, and to talk about it, is the most important business and, so to speak, the only pleasure an American knows.” Democracy at 284. That world, which survived well into the 1940s and indeed into the 1970s, is no longer ours. We live instead in a world in which the principle of popular sovereignty, which Tocqueville said was “acknowledged in custom, celebrated in law” in America has become “a hidden or barren notion,” as it was in most European countries of his time. Democracy at 68. Or as James Kalb put it, our political system has become a “Potemkin Democracy.” James Kalb, The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command 46-51 (2008).

In contemporary America, popular majorities can affect relatively little of our public life. Questions of monetary policy, despite their direct impact on personal wealth, home ownership, the savings rate and the cost of borrowing, are generally determined by central bankers, clothed with formal governmental power in an “independent” Federal Reserve Board that is impervious to Congressional control and even oversight. Questions of social policy regarding marriage, the family, birth, death, or the education of children are largely decided by an unelected judiciary and bureaucracy, relying on the advice of “professional” advisers, counselors, therapists and others bearing appropriate credentials. National security decisions, including massive domestic surveillance, are cloaked in bureaucratic secrecy, committed to the essentially unreviewable discretion of purportedly expert analysts and career bureaucrats who have shown themselves willing to lie to Congress and mislead the courts about their activities. See (the redacted and declassified) Opinion of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (Oct. 3, 2011) (noting repeated “substantial misrepresentation[s]” by the government to the court regarding the scope of the government’s clandestine surveillance). Major foreign policy decisions, including those for war or peace, are often taken with little or no consultation of Congress.

Even where popular majorities still count, as they do in Presidential and Congressional elections, virtually all that is left to debate are questions of taxation and spending. On other contestable issues, such as immigration and affirmative action, the clear preferences of stable majorities have been frustrated by administrative non-enforcement or judicial resistance. (Thus, the federal Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit last year overturned the result of a State-wide popular referendum in Michigan that barred racial preferences in admission to the State’s higher educational system. See Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action vs. Regents (CA 6, 2012). The decision is under review by the Supreme Court). The sphere of politically contestable, democratic decision-making has become severely constricted.

Democracy and Christianity

Tocqueville finds the root of equality, and therefore of democracy, in the Christian gospel. He argues that advent of Christianity, and in fact the coming of Jesus, marked a fundamental reorientation in humanity’s understanding of itself. This new departure, which can rightly be considered revolutionary, gradually unfolds over the centuries to issue in modern democracy. Reflection on Tocqueville’s view leads to the question: can democracy flourish, or even survive, in a de-christianizing world?

Tocqueville notes that the “deepest and most eclectic minds” of pagan antiquity defended slavery as “a feature of nature which would always exist.” These great ancient thinkers “were unable to reach this most general and yet most simple of generalizations, that men were alike and that all of them had equal rights to freedom at birth.” Thus, he says, “Jesus Christ had to come into the world to reveal that all members of the human race were similar and equal by nature.” Democracy at 505-06.

To be sure, the rise of Christianity did not result immediately in social equality and political democracy. On the contrary, modern democracy came about only through the gradual unfolding of the idea of equality over many centuries. But Christian teaching fostered the idea of human equality from the beginning, as we can see in Paul’s Epistle to Philemon, pleading for (or commanding?) the liberation of the slave Onesimus.

Modern democracy rests on the belief in the equal dignity and worth of every human person. And, historically, that belief has in turn rested, in most modern democracies, on Christian teaching. Were Christian belief to wane (as there is substantial evidence it is), would that development threaten to undermine belief in human equality – and, with it, the intellectual foundation of democracy? In particular, in circumstances in which social and economic inequalities were becoming deeper and more entrenched, and political democracy had already become enfeebled, would American democracy, as we have known it, survive? Would it be superseded by a régime that might be democratic in form, but that was, in substance, “soft” despotism?

I do not know the answer and I do not mean to overstate the risk. One must acknowledge the evidence that democracy can survive without Christian – or, indeed, any – metaphysical foundations. Consider the cases of Sweden and Denmark, two Scandinavian countries in which liberal democracy appears to be in good health, but which are among the most radically de-christianized nations in the West. The sociologist Paul Zuckerman spent fourteen months in the two countries, interviewing hundreds of Swedes and Danes. He found in each country “a markedly irreligious society that was, above all, moral, stable, humane and deeply good.” Although most of his interviewees denied the traditional teachings of Christianity, they nonetheless were not anti-religious, demurred at being called atheists, preferred to be called Christians, and had undergone ceremonial rites such as baptism and church marriage. But their inherited or cultural Christianity did not go deep. One Danish pastor told Zuckerman that “In Denmark, the word ‘God’ is one of the most embarrassing words you can say.” Another man recounted that a colleague who confessed, after a few drinks, to believing in God, then begged him not to consider him “a bad person.” Overall, Zuckerman found that Denmark and Sweden were societies in which most people did not fear death or give thought to the meaning of life. Yet by and large the people he encountered were happy, led productive lives, and behaved morally and humanely. See Peter Steinfels, “Scandinavian Nonbelievers, Which Is Not to Say Atheists,” in The New York Times (Feb. 28, 2009), available at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/28/us/28beliefs.html? Zuckerman published his findings as Society Without God (2008).

It may well be, then, that American democracy could survive in the face of radical de-christianization, such as has happened in Denmark and Sweden. It may be our democracy is not in need of “foundations,” or that a vestigial, undoctrinal Christianity can provide whatever foundations were needed. D.H. Lawrence perhaps got it right in his poem Tortoise Shell (1921):

The Cross, the Cross
Goes deeper in than we know,
Deeper into life;
Right into the marrow
And through the bone.

Perhaps Christianity has served its world-historical purposes and can safely depart the scene, leaving behind a society deeply and lastingly permeated with its precepts about humanity.

But one may doubt this, no?

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