Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy, and the End of America?

Boyd D. Cathey — The Unz Review July 21, 2017


Re-reading Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835) can be a sobering experience. The first time I delved into it was back in 1971, when I was assistant to conservative writer and thinker, Dr. Russell Kirk. I had read bits of de Tocqueville as an undergraduate, but had not managed to read the entire Democracy in America until I had more leisure time working with Kirk. And now, refreshing my memory, so much of what the great French observer of American life wrote seems so current.

There are many insights and passages that deserve mention—Russell Kirk cites a number of them in his influential volume, The Conservative Mind. What Kirk attempted to do, in addition to reviving a keen interest in de Tocqueville, is point out that the great Frenchman’s observations about the then-fledgling American nation contained serious warnings about inherent dangers to our republican experiment. In particular, de Tocqueville signaled “red flags,” or what we might call “time bombs” embedded in a form of “democracy” that was uninformed by tradition and law, not grounded in a strong religious faith, and not settled on a shared and rooted faith in basic principles. In fact, pure “democracy” as a simple credo or as a posited goal of across-the-broad equality and one-man-one-vote was dangerous, potentially fatal to the republican idea. It lacked those necessary modifiers and historical limitations that enabled it to actually function organically within society. Thus, in every newly independent state of the American confederation there was a realization that such factors as property and education, age and race, as well as religious belief, must greatly influence how the commonwealth was governed. Above all, it was those citizens who truly had real interests and involvement in the states, and thus in the new confederation of states, who would naturally have a greater voice and more say. Only understanding and accepting that critically important condition enabled the states, as independent commonwealths, to come together freely to fulfill the Founders’ intentions.

Democracy would, of course, exist, but successfully mostly in local communities. But even there respect for tradition, the weight and insight of past generations and their transmitted wealth of experience, and the vital and indispensable role of religious faith would shape it and give it orderly contours. One of Tocqueville’s more notable observations is that: “Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.” This, he noted, must be true absolutely for the new American republic.

The late author, Richard Weaver, identified this, specifically in his beloved Southland, in what he called “communitarian individualism.” And by that he meant that in thousands of communities across the old South (and also in much of the North), there was both a spirit and a reality of individual liberty, but always tempered and circumscribed by familial and community standards, the anchored religious beliefs and customs and mores of the citizens, and a kind of understood deference to those of more standing and experience in the community. Indeed, the success of this kind of democracy depended on what the later writer Paul Elmer More called “the democracy of the dead,” weighing not just the views of those present, but also incorporating the insights and lessons and judgment of past generations that have gone before.

A tension certainly would exist, and change did occur, but it was not apt to be radical or sudden or traumatic. And, notably, it was in communities where such contours existed that more actual and real “liberties” also existed. For, as Kirk once wrote, “pure democracy” is in reality a “democracy of the jungle,” without any amelioration or foundation, which, because of its inherent instability—and the absolute need for order—will lead eventually to tyranny of one sort of another.

De Tocqueville understood this. And he warned of the rise of a democracy of untempered majority rule and the resultant concentration of power, and the growth of an unelected bureaucracy. Thus, while he understood the importance of tradition, custom, strong religious belief, and the existence of a spirit of deference as foundations for the new commonwealths, he also comprehended that a perversion of these elements and the growth of an unfettered Federal power would threaten the very existence of the “American experiment.” Those carefully cultivated and inherited liberties, a legacy of old England that were won by the sacrifices of patriots, would perish if not jealously guarded anew by each generation.

Both James Burnham and Samuel Francis (especially in his final work, Leviathan) have written perceptively about this “managerial” tendency in modern democracy, which when loosened from its moorings and those limitations that make it workable within our republican system, is manipulated and but a short step to totalitarianism.

One of Tocqueville’s observations that has always been a favorite is this: “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.” The French nobleman could not see 180 years into the future, but his observation carries more meaning today than perhaps ever before!

In the name of “democracy” and “equality” we see today the imposition of a kind of “soft” statist totalitarianism: the abolition not only of the rights of the states but of individual liberties, the enforcement of a rigid and dogmatic political correctness, and worship at the altar of an ideology termed cultural Marxism which is, in fact, more ruthless and spiritually disemboweling than anything ever envisaged by the older, bureaucratic form of Communism.

In 1992, at the Republican National Convention, unsuccessful candidate Patrick Buchanan sketched a giant canvas of a raging “culture war” infecting the Christian West, in particular Europe and the United States. He was criticized not just by Democrats and the media, but by many establishment Republicans, for his “dark vision.” But Pat’s view has proven, tragically, to be the correct one.

Last November millions of Americans—most probably not fathoming the deepest reasons why—voted for someone to “take back” their country. In effect, to “make America great again” and “drain the swamp” were the same thing. They understood, if intuitively, that something—something drastic—had to be done if any of the America that they once had known or remembered were to be preserved. The verdict on that campaign promise is still out, and, no doubt, given the lateness of the hour and the hitherto largely successful advances of the “new barbarians”—those forces of the Deep State who wish to sever ties to our past, reject our traditions, and remake this country into a cog in a New World Order—such a task is both monumental and requiring a kind of assistance that only Our Creator can give.