Friday, November 04, 2016

Aristocracy or Despotism?

Barring some very extraordinary event in the next three days--that is, before next Tuesday--this will be my last post before the most dramatic and potentially consequential American presidential election since 1860.  I undertook my reading of Tocqueville's Democracy in America in the hope of gaining some new insights into what we have been going through, and in the belief that Tocqueville, like Clausewitz, is one of those thinkers whose perspective is so broad that they will always provide valuable insights, even in a new and evidently different age.  I have not been disappointed.  Tocqueville not only described the functioning democracy that he found in the United States and identified its short- and medium-term problems--including the threatened dissolution of the union, and the terrible problem of slavery--but he also discussed the ways in which our system might evolve.  I have finished volume I, which deals mainly with political as opposed to social questions, and I do indeed think that he defined our problem and the choices that we face quite well.

As I tried to point out in the first post in this series, Tocqueville believed democracy as he understood it to be the wave of the future, but he did not idealize it.  Democracy meant to him the leveling of all distinctions among men, the end of aristocracy and special privileges, and he expected it to sweep at least through all the western world.  Yet he felt that its ability to create sound and stable government depended very much on specific historical and geographical circumstances, and above all, on mores (moeurs in French.)  Both our circumstances and our mores have changed beyond recognition in the 180 years since he wrote, and as a result, we no longer live in the kind of democracy that he described.  We now face, I think, a new choice.

I cannot take the time and space to enumerate all the features of American life and culture which in Tocqueville's opinion contributed to the functioning of our democracy in the early 1830s, but I can certainly mention the most important.  Chief among them, I think, was the relative economic equality he discovered, and the lack, in most of the nation at least, of anything resembling a hereditary European aristocracy.  While there were unusually rich men and even a few great estates, particularly in the mid-Atlantic region and the South, he found that they generally stayed away from politics and did not try to make their views prevail.  Most Americans held some property, and thus,. he remarked, socialism, which was already on the march in Europe, had no appeal in the United States.  Their government--local,. state, and even national--was in the hands of men of moderate means and moderate educational endowments, They were less skilled at the arts of politics and government, he felt, than aristocrats might be, but they truly spoke for the people, they had had practical experience of government all their lives, and they could act quickly and decisively, even though they frequently reversed themselves very rapidly.  Above all, they spoke for the majority of Americans, because they were drawn from it.

Tocqueville returns again and again to the influence of the majority on affairs, which he regarded as overwhelming.  This in part reflected the precise moment at which he did his research.   As he noted--and he was very well versed in the 1774-1800 period, as well as more recent times--the Federalists had been an aristocratic party, but after helping institute the Constitution, they had disappeared as a political force.  The supremacy of the Democratic Party had been as yet unchallenged  when he wrote--he never even mentions the Whigs.  The President, Andrew Jackson, while himself a plantation owner, was the first US President to base his Administration on a direct appeal to the masses and claimed to stand with them against the moneyed interests.  The majority believed in a weak federal government, in westward expansion, in free primary education for all, and in an effective postal service.  The tariff and the related nullification crisis were the most heated issues before the nation, and they had recently been settled, Tocqueville explained, by a compromise which gave President Jackson the issue in principle while conceding something to the South in substance.

Tocqueville also noted that Americans loved to form associations dedicated to specific causes, including temperance and the abolition of slavery.  (The "second wave" abolitionist movement was just getting started when he visited the US in the early 1830s, and he surely would have paid it more attention had he visited ten years later.)  But the associations, he noted, clearly stood outside the majority, since if the majority actually shared their views, they would not be necessary.  And here, for me, occurred one of the first of several moments of clarity that I experienced while making my way through the book.  Associations have contineud to play a key role in our political life from his day to ours, without interruption.  Leading associations in influence today including the AARP, the NRA, and AIPAC, the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee.  Those associations, however, unlike those of the 1830s, have  become more powerful than the majority.  The NRA and AIPAC in particular take positions which the mass of the American people do not support, but such is their power over our elected officials that they have determined key questions of national policy for decades.  They are not alone.  What has changed?

To begin with, of course, the United States has had, for at least 80 years, a much stronger central government, with far greater power at home and abroad, and a centralized authority in Washington which no Americans in Tocqueville's time even dreamed of.  Our powerful associations work their will in Washington, and our representatives live in terror of them in the same way that in the 1830s they lived in terror of the opinion of the majority.  Why is it that opinion has become weaker?

It seems to me that opinion still rules much of our politics today--but the differences is that we have really become two countries, with two completely different sets of values.  In the same way that politicians in my home state of Massachusetts have carefully limited the rights of gun owners and protected the right to abortion, legislators in the red states would never dream of doing either.  The red and blue sections of the country have entirely different values and different governments.  As I write, the outcome of Tuesday's election, according to Nate Silver's models,. is in serious doubt in only 7 of the 51 jurisdictions that will decide it.

The cultural cleavage also reflects something Tocqueville did not anticipate--a real regional split about religion.  Now Tocqueville was very struck by the great variety of religious sects in the United States, but he noted that atheists appeared to be very unusual, and that they tended to keep to themselves.  Moreover, virtually every religion concentrated on maintaining its religious rights while disclaiming any desire to influence the political world--a difference from Europe that he much admired.  All this has changed too. We are divided into an irreligious party in the blue states on the one hand, and a militantly religious one that argues for the supremacy of religion in politics on the other.  That too has deprived us of the kind of majority opinion Tocqueville found.

But more importantly, perhaps, we suffer from two of the obstacles to effective democratic government that Tocqueville identified, and which he envied the United States for having escaped.  The first, of course, is economic inequality, which in the last 40 years has increased rapidly and has now reached literally unprecedented heights, with no end in sight.  I shall return to this point in a moment.  And the second is that the US has been, for about a century, one of the leading--if not the leading--world power, exercising military force and diplomatic influence in every corner of the globe.  In the 1830s Tocqueville argued that the US combined the advantages of large and small nations, since our isolation from the great powers allowed us to do without large armies or navies, and the ambition for glory among our leading men which foreign adventures tends to stimulate.  Today we are stuck with a bipartisan foreign policy establishment absolutely committed to the idea that the United States has both a right and a duty to impose its will all over the world.  And that has corrupted our democracy in a thousand ways since the time of the Cold War, just as many isolationists warned that it would when the United States first stepped onto the world stage around 1900.

The kind of democracy Tocqueville describes requires a sense of national community that we have lost for other reasons.  He saw the nation as an Anglo-American nation in the 1830s, when that was beginning to change.  It changed much more, of course, as a result of new waves of immigration in the 1840s, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the late twentieth century.  The great national enterprises of the Civil War and the Second World War recreated new national communities and integrated many of the immigrants into our political body. They also created new consensus on critical issues.  But we have not gone through anything similar in my lifetime, and it does not look as if we are about to do so.

What kind of government, then, do we have today, and what are the stakes of Tuesday's election?

In my opinion, a new kind of aristocracy has increasingly dominated the United States for a little over 100 years, and our politics are now dominated by competing aristocracies.  The political aristocracy that arose during the Progressive era and generally ruled the US, I would argue, from the New Deal through the 1970s or so, was largely an intellectual one.  While it certainly came from the and upper strata of our society, it was not primarily interested in money, and it rose to power and stayed in power in alliance with the working classes. Its leaders were the two Roosevelts, Woodrow Wilson, the elements of the east coast establishment that gave us our foreign policy elite.  It allied itself with labor unions and farmers, and eventually with the civil rights movement.  It was an open aristocracy, with room for descendants of Catholic and Jewish immigrants and for striving poor young men like Richard Nixon.  The Goldwater candidacy of 1964 represented the first overt revolt against its power, and Ronald Reagan brought that revolt to power in 1980.

Since around 1980, it seems to me, our politics have been a battle between competing aristocracies.  One one side are the highly educated professionals and our educational elite, who have become much richer, much less interested in the lives of poorer Americans, and increasingly focused on the rights of women, gays, and minorities.  (That has not prevented the Democratic elite, however, from collaborating enthusiastically in the mass incarceration of poor minorities, including poor women.)  On the other side are powerful rebels against the whole course of mid-twentieth century American life, who are particularly strong among the barons of the energy industry, but who include many other economic interests as well.  In a truly terrifying development, these two aristocracies, one Democratic and one Republican, have divided up the electorate largely based upon race and gender.  We still do not know what consequences this will have,. but I am afraid that they will be dire.

Now Tocqueville did not believe that the United States would become an aristocratic nation--but he was afraid that it might fall under a tyranny.  That, he felt, was the danger that came from the leveling of social distinctions--that there would be no intermediate powers to stand in the way of a despot, particularly if he were backed by the will of the majority.  Now the accusation of despotism was hurled in Tocqueville's day against Andrew Jackson, and it arose again in much sharper form against Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, and now against Barack Obama.  But I believe that on Tuesday we will face for the first time the real possibility of electing a despot--and largely because a large portion of our population has turned against our new aristocracies.

No one knows what Donald Trump would actually do as President, but he has certainly been speaking the language of despotism.  Only he, he tells us, can fix the problems that afflict us.  Our whole aristocracy, he says--headquartered in Washington--is hopelessly corrupt, as he knows from his own dealings with it.  And his promise to cleanse the stables and do whatever is necessary has earned him the support of about 40% of our population , at least, and there is a non-trivial chance that he could be elected on Tuesday.  A very large portion of our citizenry is willing to surrender authority to an irresponsible, overwhelmingly ambitious leader ,and most of the Republican aristocracy--with the interesting exception of the Republican foreign policy elite--is clearly willing to to try to cooperate with him.

Given the economic and demographic changes that the United States has gone through since Tocqueville's time, I think it was inevitable that we would develop a ruling class--albeit one open to people of all backgrounds--with many of the elements of an aristocracy.  We were fortunate in the last century to produce several generations of aristocrats who felt a real obligation to the common people and a real sense of  how the United States could defend and promote freedom in the world.   Some of them, led by FDR, were the subject of my last book.  Yet we are in terrible trouble today because we have no comparable ruling group, and the American people know it.  Trump has been the result, and he will not be the last one.  We face a choice between the first real despot we have ever had in the United States, and a representative of an aristocracy that has lost touch with much of the nation and will not have much chance of enacting it ideas into law.  In a few days we shall know a lot more about where we stand.  I shall have more to say about Tocqueville's insights and their implications for our time in weeks to come. 


Bozon said...


Wonderful, and very insightful, essay.

Thank you

ed boyle said...

Now you're getting the big picture. Reread a history of Rome up until takeover by leftwing rabble rouser aristocrat julius gaus caesar or the greek political maxim that democracy, plutocray and dictatorship naturally switch places, flow from one to another. Interest groups influence politics in single policies because they are interested. The populace is disinterested. General interest subjects really do not exist if you think about it. Pensions, health care, military spending all have inteest groups which are very powerful. As to blue red divide based on rise of secularism vs. religiosity, this is a fundamental product of enlightenment ideology, i.e. rationalism and of this stage in ur civilization, i.e. sophisticated urbanist empire. Greeks and Romans had similar development. For rural small town low educated people religion and simple moral codes are a given. Such seems naive in a burgeoning multiracial metropolitan global imperial center such as NYC -Boston-Washington corridor. Historical trajectories are like those in a forest biome. Stasis is disturbed by a new species or a forest fire. A new balance is found as the trees and animals come back. The trees grow old and undergrowth becomes thick, animal relations encrusted, then inferno rages sweeping all away once again. Mark Twain and his ilk warned of empire, phillipines you may note is returning rto its Asian roots. One might justifiably question the legitimate interest interest of a Des Moines native in controlling the spratlies or Donbass region with troops and armaments while denying a Chinese or Russian the right to influence mexican and canadian politics and to fund NGOs in USA. The educated elite have developed an ideology that looks more like an internet conspiracy from illuminati proportion, i.e. global governance by the few, IMF, NATO, etc. while denying local yokels of religious bent and foreigners with own sovereignty concept(non-enlightenment based type populations - Western europeans). As American elite loses its grip on its own population, see FBI revolt, Trump and Sanders candidacy, they will lose control of satellite states in Europe and Asia much a Soviet satellites broke away under gorbachev. Obama is already gorbachev. Trump is Yeltsin, an idiot of sorts. Putin will be a hard type focusing on stabilizing a collapsed economic, banking and social reality. You notice that banks ars living on oxygen, like in hospital. This is like under Gorbie at end of Soviet Union, unsustainable. 100 millione0 adults are unemployed. A corrupt elite ignores reality, shoveling into their pockets and reigning over an empire of 1000 bases abroad by threat of dollar hegemony outmoded and nypertechnical military equipment served by avwar weary impoverished minority underclass. Cassandra was an optimist. So am I.

Patricia Mathews said...

As in Rome, we became an empire while still a republic, and that corrupted the republic beyond repair.

JRW said...

A lot of good historical points by Kaiser as usual. But I wonder whether Trump would have such a hold if we had had a president with the same policies as Obama for the last eight years but had been white? The Tea party Republicans and the NRA fear campaign would not have had as much traction, which has also ambushed what part of Republican Party that still had some belief in compromise which is necessary in a "democracy".

David Kaiser said...

Hi, Pat, how are you?

To JRW: the obvious white alternative in 2008 was Hillary Rodham Clinton, and yes, I think we would be in the same shape today if she had won instead. The battle is ore cultural than racial.

Unknown said...

This is such a good column. Scary, too. One wonders if the Second Amendment followers of Trump will act out in the manner he has encouraged by his campaign comments, and if so, where that will lead.

We do have an aristocracy I think. It is resident in a Congress of professional politicians who are not representatives of the country, but owe their status to their constituents in gerrymandered "safe" electoral districts, one modern equivalent of landed gentry. Their foremost obligation is to keep their jobs in a profession that requires support of those who have the money for campaign contributions; hence, the divide between rich and not rich. Like robbing banks, that's where the money is. The non-rich lose out.

What is missing in American politics today, it having devolve from democratic to aristocratic, is the balancing effect of a king (or queen, as the case may be). The best to hope for now is the veto power of a Democratic President who can serve as a brake on the further erosion of economic equality. As for a "sense of national community", wars, as they are currently conducted, provide no such sense. Barely 1% of the population is engaged in meaningful way in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Perhaps if by act of Congress the nation was required to "pay as you go", that is, raise taxes to meet the obligation of foreign wars, rather than borrow, at least some of the weight of overseas military adventures could be felt by the country at large. This may well be a choice of negatively affecting the economy in real time rather than after the fact, as has happened post-Vietnam and post-Iraq/Afghanistan. If so, the benefit could be unification of the country, either in support or in opposition to that war.

That said, what a terrible price must be paid if we must rely on wars, or national or global crisis, to unify this country.

Karl Walling said...

Nice piece. Ironically, the same civil associations that David Kaiser has suggested got out of control as lobbies may now be the best hope of mitigating the damage of Tuesday's electoral disaster. They enable dispersed people with overlapping interests and opinions to organize and unite their efforts in a common cause.