“And what is most repugnant to me in America is not the extreme freedom that reigns there, it is the lack of a guarantee against tyranny.”
“I have found genuine patriotism in the people; I have often sought it in vain in those who direct it.”
So observed the 19th century French observer of American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, when commenting on how juries strengthen democracy in America. Yet last week, Tom Klingenstein, the magnanimous patriot and chairman of the board of the Claremont Institute, recounted recent American trials and concluded from those observations that America may yet become a “totalitarian police state,” in the grips of “woke communism.”
In apparent contrast, Tocqueville thought juries (assisted by judges and lawyers) would educate themselves and other citizens in the republican virtues necessary to combat the weaknesses of democracy. They would bring reason and the good sense of the Anglo-American legal tradition to tame the passions that might overwhelm the deliberation in trials. In this way they would combat the chief weakness of democracy, as Tocqueville saw it: its tendency to produce tyrannical majorities.
Although they at first appear to be at odds, it turns out that Tocqueville and Klingenstein have far more in common than not. Tocqueville’s description of the tyranny of the majority resembles what Klingenstein and other astute observers understand in our time as “woke communism.” Comparing the two tyrannies forces us to consider the depth of the challenges we face.
Over 180 years ago, Tocqueville described legitimate democratic majority rule as “the moral empire of the majority.” He does not dwell on the term following its introduction, but he makes it clear that such a “moral empire” is the goal of his book. This “empire” would oppose both the tyranny of the majority and the rule of administrative centralization (a.k.a. bureaucracy)—something he concludes, with great foresight, is the likely fate of modern nations. By guaranteeing security and the material conditions of life,Tocqueville fears, the government of the future would enervate the lives of its former citizens, rendering them mere subjects.
The depth of that depressing conclusion is made all the more intense by the preceding 600 pages of vivid sketches of American types, such as the adventurous sea captain, the preacher, the frontiersman, and the pioneer woman. He had depicted Americans as a new race of people, both moral and independent, bold and adventurous, energetic and practical, spirited citizens—if slaveholders, romantics; if Yankees, hardworking. With administrative centralization, all of this character would be gone—dissolved into clerks, shopkeepers, and the disgusting courtiers of administration.
This rich tableaux of democratic types and the persistence of older resources from the age of aristocracy justified a fight against democratic pulverization of manly virtue. For example,Tocqueville compares America to a jury (that is, an institution capable of educating fellow citizens). At its best, American civic life might resemble a seminar in self-awareness, free men (and women) who draw on those learned in the Anglo-American legal traditions to tame their passions.
Yet when Americans have been trained to become subjects who crave security rather than justice, we can no longer depend on juries to teach republican virtues to fellow citizens, as Tocqueville hoped. Of course it can still happen, but those same juries can just as likely reinforce the tyranny of the majority of “woke communism.” Those whom democratic peoples ought to be able to honor, such as judges—and, yes, even attorneys—have in many cases now become agents of bureaucratic routine or the administrative state. (Of course Tocqueville knew lawyer jokes. He and the brilliant caricaturist Daumier were friends.)
Thus, in democratic practice, Tocqueville asserts, there is “a lack of a guarantee against tyranny,” which may prove fatal to its existence. Moreover, this can be the ultimate tyranny, as it “goes straight for the soul,” unlike previous tyrannies that were about control of actions. This would be a form of government as demanding as any biblical religion. And in the age of Enlightenment it would be scientific, too. With the assistance of a Marxist adversary, the political philosopher Leo Strauss convincingly sketched such a tyranny in the mid-20th century.
In Democracy in America Tocqueville describes a maturing America at war with radical modernity and all its self-aggrandizing powers—on the American side are common citizens, proud patriots, who maintain their freedom, against an all-powerful tyrant. This is the situation he described at the very end of the first volume of Democracy, where individualistic America and despotic Russia would split the world between them.
But this struggle against tyranny of the majority is a type of civil war still being fought within America. It is a particularly insidious war, for it is waged against one’s fellow Americans, and it is fought not primarily on a battlefield but over how one speaks in public, regards the law, and treats fellow citizens. (There is a kind of contrast here with the civil war that did take place over slavery, a war Tocqueville did not anticipate; that is a long story I will tell elsewhere.)
Unlike the patriots of 1776, the rebels against the tyranny of the majority may never enjoy recognition. And Tocqueville appears to despair that a tyranny of the majority can be overthrown.
Whatever his doubts, Tocqueville outlines a strategy for turning the majority into a freedom-loving one—based on a refinement of self-interest—but our American strategy today will have to differ, for we no longer have the mores that Tocqueville thought contributed to American freedom, and even he at that time saw them crumbling under the blows of individualizing skepticism.
Here Klingenstein’s portrayal of contemporary America calls up resources (and challenges) Tocquevile missed. Tocqueville rejects the theory of the Declaration of Independence, that individuals seek to preserve their natural rights, including the pursuit of happiness, and a recognition that legitimate governments exist to preserve those rights and therefore must be constrained by the consent of the governed and the natural right to revolution.
Today skepticism and moral autonomy are far more powerful than in Tocqueville’s day. Those attitudes are encouraged by the administrative state. We may be too weak to fight the anti-woke communism war in which Klingenstein urges us to enlist. But it’s a war we must prepare ourselves for, as the enemy is ourselves. Tocqueville saw this, Lincoln knew it, and others in the Claremont orbit also realize what time it is.