Americans, now a subservient people (listen to the Founders sigh in disappointment)
Why is the Constitution — that is, the political regime based on this document — dying? It has not changed. Perhaps we have changed. For a perspective on this, read this letter to Harper’s Magazine by Fred Nollan, August 2008 — Subscribers only (Harper’s is well-worth the cost of subscribing):
In his June Notebook, “Democracy and Deference,” Mark Slouka describes the degree to which Americans have become comfortable with the seemingly undemocratic qualities of deference and subservience – what Slouka calls our “loyalty to power, rather than to what one believes to be true or right.”
I agree with his conclusion that “this tilt toward deference, this willingness to hold our tongues and sit on our principles … [is what] truly threatens us,” and I too have questioned how this could be. Why is it that we – the originators and exemplars of free democracy-have not noticed this alarming slouch toward tyranny?
Slouka, with some reference to Alexis de Tocqueville, provides several possible answers: it may be that we are too busy, or too stupid, or too confused, to have noticed. Tocqueville, however, might have seen it differently, remarking that our failure to open our eyes is not so surprising, given that the very nature of democracy, though always possessing some tendency toward anarchy, “conducts by a longer, more secret, but surer path toward servitude.”
Tocqueville finds his way to this conclusion through his discovery of that odd contradiction in l830s democratic America whereby “men who so uneasily tolerate superiors patiently suffer a master, and show themselves proud and servile at the same time.”
How these two contradictory inclinations, pride and servility, can coexist, Tocqueville explains as a function of the democratic urge itself, observing that in democracies, where equality prevails, “no one is obliged to lend his force to those like him and no one has the right to expect great support from those like him.” Consequently, he argues, “each one is at once independent and weak.” The result is that, despairing of any assistance from their fellow democrats, men naturally turn to the central government as the only power available capable of supporting them in their weak and isolated state.
In other words, the very independence and freedom a democratic society creates for individuals also ensures the growth of a central power, a “master” to which free and independent individuals feel a “common dependence.” Or, to put it less adroitly, as long as I don’t have to defer to you, and you don’t have to defer to me, we can both defer to a central power without losing our independence — or so we think.
It is this very deference to power, arising from our liberties, that Tocqueville believes presents such an insidious threat to liberty. As Slouka makes clear, that threat no longer lies somewhere farther along the democratic path; we have stumbled straight into it.
Do you believe he is exaggerating the dangers? Read this: “Learned Helplessness“, posted at Amygdala, 15 July 2008. Preferably while waiting in a long line at the airport to undergo pointless and intrusive searches. This is excellent training, for serfs.
Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).
Other posts in this series about America, how we got here and how we can recover it
- Forecast: Death of the American Constitution, 4 July 2006
- Diagnosing the Eagle, Chapter III – reclaiming the Constitution, 3 January 2008
- A report card for the Republic: are we still capable of self-government?, 3 July 2008
- Americans, now a subservient people (listen to the Founders sigh in disappointment), 20 July 2008
- de Tocqueville warns us not to become weak and servile, 21 July 2008
- A soft despotism for America?, 22 July 2008
- The American spirit speaks: “Baa, Baa, Baa”, 5 August 2008
- We’re Americans, hear us yell: “baa, baa, baa”, 6 August 2008
- Obama describes the first step to America’s renewal, 8 August 2008
- Let’s look at America in the mirror, the first step to reform, 14 August 2008
- Fixing America: elections, revolt, or passivity?, 16 August 2008
- Fixing American: taking responsibility is the first step, 17 August 2008
- Fixing America: solutions — elections, revolt, passivity, 18 August 2008
- The intelligentsia takes easy steps to abandoning America, 19 August 2008
For all posts on this subject see America – how can we reform it?.