The Eternal Anglo:
Tocqueville’s Prophetic History of the United States, Part 2
Part 2 of 3
The American Nightmare: A Stifling Middlebrow Dictatorship of Political Correctness
The talents of Anglo-Americans and the material wealth of North America predestined that nation for great power. But power is nothing, or worse, without wisdom. This raises the question: What is the character of the American? Is he capable of wisdom? For Tocqueville, the destiny of America was practically foreordained: “I think that nations, like men, almost always indicate, from their youngest age, the main traits of their destiny” (590).
Firstly, one needs to stress the Anglo-Protestant character is expressing itself in a particular democratic setting. Tocqueville sees the emergence of “democracy,” a term he does not perfectly define, as a providential trend. On one level, he seems to mean the decline of the French aristocracy and the rise of a kind of meritocratic individualism and government by majoritarian mob rule, referred to as “equality of conditions” and “popular sovereignty.” These trends are concurrent with modernization, particularly the rise of literacy and mass communication:
[T]he institution of the commons introduces democratic liberty within the feudal monarchy; the discovery of firearms equalizes the commoner and the noble on the battlefield; the printing press offers equal resources to intelligence; the post office drops off enlightenment on the doorstep of the poor man’s cabin as much as at the gates of palaces; Protestantism claims that all men are equally capable of finding the pathway to heaven. (40)
Tocqueville identifies, concurrent with improving material conditions, the rise of the talented bourgeoisie, the loosening of family/class ties, and therefore the rise of a kind of meritocratic individualism. These trends had been at work for centuries. Even in the French Ancien Régime, the poor could rise socially through the Catholic Church and even become government ministers. Furthermore, every individual was endowed with a particular intelligence and character, and was thus more or less able to better his lot. The result is a kind of cognitive sorting over time:
The king ruins himself in great endeavors; the nobles exhaust themselves in private wars; the commoners enrich themselves in commerce. The influence of money begins to be felt over the affairs of the State. Business is a new source which opens itself to power, and the financiers become a political power that one is contemptuous of or flatters. (38-39)
This is the “inevitable meritocracy” of intelligence and character. This seems to be an early expression of cognitive sorting, as famously documented by Charles Murray in The Bell Curve. These pressures are naturally still at work today: people of intelligence and ability across the world wish to rise in the most influential and rewarding institutions, which today are still Western, so as to benefit from the concomitant power and perks. Given that national and racial barriers have been torn down, especially since the 1960s, now the entire world is swarming into our countries and elite institutions. The rise of intelligent non-Europeans, generally not solidary with our people and having their own ethnic biases, among our ruling elites will be, I believe, in some respects a more intractable problem than more obviously low-quality displacement level mass immigration. We are observing a global cognitive sorting and plutocratic concentration, embodied in the staggering rise of property prices in the West’s “global cities” and in organizations such as Google or Singapore. Is the rise of this global super-elite such a providential trend?
Tocqueville’s attitude towards the rise of democracy evolved over time. In 1836, upon publication of the first volume, he wrote:
The entire book which you are about to read has been written under the influence of a sort of religious terror produced in the author’s soul by the sight of this irresistible revolution which has marched for so many centuries through all obstacles, and which we today still see advance amidst the ruins it made. (42)
However, already Tocqueville was advocating enlightened adaptation rather than futile frontal resistance:
The most powerful, intelligent, and moral classes of the [French] nation did not try to seize it, in order to lead it. [. . .] [L]egislators conceived the imprudent project of destroying it instead of seeking to instruct and correct it, and not wanting to teach it how to govern, they thought only to expel it from government. (43)
In the 1848 preface, no doubt reflecting precisely the rise of democracy in France, Tocqueville is much more positive, taking the United States as the model: “this problem [of democratic tyranny or democratic liberty] which we have only just posed, America resolved it more than sixty years ago” (34).
Bourgeois democracy is inevitably mediocre and middlebrow. How is the average American? Already, Tocqueville has identified the Judaizing Protestantism which had resulted in Americans being anti-communist shekel-chasers: “I know of no country where the love of money has such a large place in the hearts of men, and where one professes a stronger contempt for the theory of the permanent equality of goods” (101). The American is fundamentally unthoughtful and conformist: “I don’t think there is a country in the world where, in proportion to the population, there are as few ignoramuses and as few learned men as in America” (101-02). Science is purely pragmatic. Americans are rootless virtual nomads: “to flee the paternal home and the fields where their forefathers lie; to abandon the living and the dead to pursue riches, there is nothing in their eyes which merits greater praise” (422).
Tocqueville has much else to say about the negative effects of democracy. Among the worst for Tocqueville is perhaps the kind of people who thrive in a democracy, the politicians whose profession it is to pander to the people. They are wholly without moral character or intellectual independence: “Among the immense crowd which, in the United States, rushes for a political career, I have seen very few men who show this virile candor, this manly independence of thought, which often characterized Americans in former times” (385). In fact, American politicians are mere office-holders, typically without power: “in republics [. . .] the favor of parties is the first of powers, and [. . .] one is often all the stronger insofar as one legally exercises no power” (177).
In a democracy, “the spirit of the court” infects the entire people, as politicians flatter the masses and appeal to that which is low in them. With biting sarcasm, Tocqueville compares democratic politicians to prostitutes in their pandering to people:
I have encountered genuine patriotism in the people; I have often sought it in vain among those who lead [. . .]. It is true that courtiers, in America, do not say: Sire and Your Majesty, a great and capital difference; but they speak endlessly of the natural enlightenment of their master [the people]; they do not discuss the question of which of the prince’s virtues merits the most admiration, for they assure that he has all the virtues, without having earned them, and so to speak without wanting them; they do not give it their women and their daughters so that it would deign to elevate them to the rank of mistresses; but, by sacrificing to it their opinions, they prostitute themselves. (386)
For Tocqueville “General Jackson [the then-president] is the slave of the majority” (571).
Perhaps worse still is the stifling conformism of America, this democracy being in effect a kind of smothering middlebrow popular dictatorship: not only are governments slave to the people electing them but, worse than this, the mob ostracizes and persecutes dissident thinkers into oblivion. The First Amendment protects only from governmental, not social, censorship, and sometimes not even that. Tocqueville relates the story of how during the War of 1812 the people of Baltimore, where the war was popular, smashed the presses and attacked the homes of anti-war journalists (378). The militia were unable to protect the journalists, these were effectively lynched, and a democratic jury found the perpetrators non-guilty.
Indeed, Tocqueville claims that American conformism is such that, unlike in Europe, freedom of association can be safely allowed, because Americans all have the same opinions! “In a country like the United States, where opinions only differ by nuances, the right of association can remain so to speak limitless” (294).
More generally, Tocqueville finds that the forces of social conformism — which we might deem to be the underlying basis of political correctness — are more powerful in a democracy than in an unpopular dictatorship:
Nowadays, the most absolute sovereigns of Europe do not dare prevent some thoughts hostile to their authority to be secretly circulated in their states and right up to the court. It is not the same in America: so long as the majority is uncertain, one speaks; but as soon as it has come to an irrevocable verdict, each becomes quiet, and friends as much as enemies seem to latch on to its chariot. (381)
Tocqueville’s description of the majority’s ability in bourgeois and democratic America to stifle unpopular opinions, through social stigma and professional penalty, is worth quoting at length:
In America, the majority traces an astonishing circle around thought. Within these limits, the writer is free: but woe to he who dares to go beyond them. It is not that he has to fear an auto-da-fé, but he comes against all kinds of aversions and everyday persecutions. The political career is closed to him: he has offended the only power that is able to open it. He is refused everything, even fame. Before publishing his opinions, he thought he had supporters; it now seems to him that he has none, now that he has revealed himself to all; because those who condemn him express themselves loudly, and those who think like him, without having his courage, remain quiet and distance themselves. He gives way, and finally breaks under the effort of each day, and returns to silence, as though he felt remorse for having told the truth. (381)
As ever, society is stronger than the government. As a result, Tocqueville reaches the damning conclusion: “I know of no country where reigns, in general, less independence of spirit and less genuine freedom of discussion than in America” (381). And he goes on to add: “If America has not yet had great writers, we must not seek the reasons elsewhere: there is no literary genius without freedom of thought, and there is no freedom of thought in America” (383).
In America, we have the distinct impression that intellectual and moral quality peaked exactly with the Founding Fathers, and has been, on the whole, on a downward slope ever since, towards the self-ignorance and conceit of ever-more individualism and egalitarianism. Incidentally, Tocqueville considers the Federal Constitution to be superior to the state constitutions and in particular the newer ones, which were ever more democratic (236).
Interestingly, Tocqueville identifies women as the enforcers of political correctness, insofar as they were imposing “puritan” harshness in social mores: “I do not doubt for an instant that the great severity of mores in the United States has its original source in beliefs. Religion [. . .] reigns in sovereignty upon the soul of woman, and it is woman who makes the customs” (432). Not coincidentally, pious women were the driver behind the later institution of Prohibition. Today still, one can hear White American women nagging their menfolk the most about the horrors of “racism.” All this makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: women, staying behind in the tribe’s home, are responsible for maintaining group cohesion by enforcing ideological orthodoxy (embodied in the old gossiping bigot). In a healthy society, this is a powerful and positive factor for social unity. If a society’s (civil-)religious beliefs are subverted however, this becomes a force for evil.
The only check on democracy in America, Tocqueville says, is the lawyers: an educated class, with a group identity, and with a powerful role to play up and down the Republic. Indeed, the Supreme Court’s ability to review the constitutionality of legislation was virtually unheard of anywhere else. Lawyers, of all people, are the “American aristocracy” (399). Tocqueville cautions however that the Supreme Court ultimately has no power of enforcement and thus is also slave to opinion: “Their power is immense; but it is a power of opinion. They are all powerful so long as the people consents to obey its law; they can do nothing as soon as it holds it in contempt” (234).
America then was fated to follow its original Anglo-Protestant programming, by the democratic system, this tended to reinforce itself over time. I would add however that there has been a marked evolution in the life and character of the average White American since the nineteenth century. He had a difficult life and was relatively economically independent through hard work, a lifestyle which informed an attitude which was ruthlessly self-interested and relatively enlightened by the standards of today.
What would happen however, if Americans were shielded from the harsh facts of life by comfort? Disaster, for as Tocqueville notes: “Genuine enlightenment comes principally from experience, and if Americans were not gradually used to governing themselves, the literary knowledge they possess would not be of great help to their succeeding” (449). Americans then, I would argue, became naturally more ignorant and less enlightened, more prone to follow their mere sentimental inclinations, as they inevitably became more comfortable and materially prosperous. They were, as so often for European Man, victims of their own success.
Tocqueville sees the United States as essentially egalitarian and middle class. He does not speak on oligarchic power in America much, though he does mention the mass media. The press is immensely important: “Freedom of the press does not only make its power felt over political opinions, but also over men’s opinions. It not only modifies the laws, but customs” (275). Already, Tocqueville considered the press’ power to be second only to the people itself:
When a large number of press organs manage to march along the same path, their influence in the long run becomes almost irresistible, and public opinion, always struck upon the same side, ends up giving way under their blows.
In the United States, each newspaper has little power individually; but the periodical press is still, after the people, the first of powers. (283-84)
Tocqueville believes freedom of the press to be integral to what it means to be a free people (290). And yet, he is not without misgivings, especially concerning libel: “I admit that I do not have for freedom of the press that complete and instantaneous love one has for things which are supremely good by their nature. I love it by consideration of the ills it prevents far more than by the goods it procures” (275).
Tocqueville’s system for understanding the American regime perfectly fits in with William Luther Pierce’s later critique: anyone with media and cultural power in the United States naturally attains political power as a result. The power of the media to control the mob, for that is what we are talking about, only increases with modernization: the people become more comfortable and lose their own life experiences, while the power of audiovisual media over the masses (television and Hollywood) is infinitely greater than the dead letter of newspapers, which already had considerable influence. If a hostile ethno-plutocratic mafia were to seize the media-cultural system, then indeed, the awesome power of the American nation-state would be hijacked, and the people’s mob-like conformism could be turned to any purpose, including towards it own destruction. Tocqueville incidentally has a few ungenerous comments about Jews in Democracy in America, but in no way predicts their astonishing rise in twentieth century America.
1. Tocqueville elsewhere insightfully explains why America is a nation of lawyers. There is no centralized bureaucracy to enforce uniformity of policy through the reward and sanction of civil servants. Instead, policy is implemented by elected officials (e.g. governors, sheriffs . . .) who at each level benefit from their own independent democratic legitimacy. Thus, enforcement can only be achieved through the lengthy and conflictual process of the courts. This inefficient system can only work in a society characterized by security and high trust, where each official can be relied upon to independently deliver a relatively high quality of service and defer when appropriate.
2. Arthur Schopenhauer wrote in a similar vein: “the arrogance of men [would] expand, if not to the point of bursting then to that of the most unbridled folly, indeed madness, if the pressure of want, toil, calamity, and frustration were removed from their life.” Quoted in Guillaume Durocher, “Schopenhauer & Hitler,” North American New Right, March 9, 2016 (part 2).
Update: Added quote on America’s “astonishing circle” of political correctness (June 25, 2017).
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