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

  1. Forecast: Death of the American Constitution, 4 July 2006
  2. Diagnosing the Eagle, Chapter III – reclaiming the Constitution, 3 January 2008
  3. A report card for the Republic: are we still capable of self-government?, 3 July 2008
  4. Americans, now a subservient people (listen to the Founders sigh in disappointment), 20 July 2008
  5. de Tocqueville warns us not to become weak and servile, 21 July 2008
  6. A soft despotism for America?, 22 July 2008
  7. The American spirit speaks: “Baa, Baa, Baa”, 5 August 2008
  8. We’re Americans, hear us yell: “baa, baa, baa”, 6 August 2008
  9. Obama describes the first step to America’s renewal, 8 August 2008
  10. Let’s look at America in the mirror, the first step to reform, 14 August 2008
  11. Fixing America: elections, revolt, or passivity?, 16 August 2008
  12. Fixing American: taking responsibility is the first step, 17 August 2008
  13. Fixing America: solutions — elections, revolt, passivity, 18 August 2008
  14. The intelligentsia takes easy steps to abandoning America, 19 August 2008 

For all posts on this subject see America – how can we reform it?.

12 thoughts on “Americans, now a subservient people (listen to the Founders sigh in disappointment)”

  1. Recall that the Founders said that the Constitution would only work for a religious population.

    Consider the state of American religion, marriage, and family culture in 1776 and 2008.

    Consider also that the Fabian socialists said that if they were allowed to reform laws, they could hollow out the Constitutions of their victims but leave a non-functioning shell in place to provide an appearance of legitimacy.

    Neither of these factors are amenable to quick change by positive-thinking, proactive individuals. They are systemic problems that took a long time to happen, and I don’t think they will be fixed quickly.

  2. “This is excellent training, for serfs.”

    Americans have a cultural black hole that does not allow them to see their own society in relationship to any other except in the simplest terms. So you read article after article written by Americans bemoaning the symptoms without any clue to the root causes.

    Having lived in a wide range of countries including the US it’s fairly obvious as an outsider to see what is happening to the US. – It is becoming a third world country. This is not because of economic decline but because it’s culture and society increasingly looks like that of a third world country.

    Any citizen has a hierarchy of loyalties and interests from the international community to the nation and it’s society to their local communities and families.

    The key to what makes a third world country so is it’s lack of social cohesion above the family. These are societies where the people do not believe in “a society” and do not feel responsible for people outside their family group. At the same time they may feel loyalty to a nation or tribe, but what is missing is responsibility for the society in between – the unknown neighbor, the person on the street, and acting and voting for the good of that group.

    Without social cohesion all sorts of problems arise from crime to corruption to economic exploitation. Most of the problems that the US faces are problems that require a level of social cohesion that the US does not have.

    This lack of social cohesion is often mistaken for lack of education – if only the peasant knew better – but people are not motivated to understand issues concerning groups that they feel no connection too even if they are a subset of the group. This is makes divide and conquer tactics so effective.

    Unlike Tocqueville I don’t think democracy and the culture of individualism are the same thing. There are plenty of examples now of highly cohesive societies that are democratic.

    Economically cohesion is becoming more and more important. And speaking as someone who does business in several countries, including the US the lack of cohesion is making the US economically inefficient and unable to face the economic changes that are coming with the rise of China. In every country I visited last year across North America, Europe and Asia people can tell you want their society will do in response to China, only in the US did people have no idea.

    It may well be that the US never reached a very high level of cohesion and that the economic conditions driven more by availability of natural resources and mass just didn’t require it. But along-side the cultural individualism of the US – where freedom of speech really means freedom to believe it whatever you choose and the right not to be contradicted by peers or reality – There is the stultifying effect of the cold war.

    But the major unspoken cause is that the US is still locked into a very damaging cold war ideology that prevents self-examination of the basic values of American culture. Amusingly it has got to the point where some Americans have claimed to me that there is no American culture. What they mean to say is that they can see none because they see no American society either.

    The cold war was primarily a war of ideologies where the easiest way to lose was to through self doubt. Having ‘won’, Americans feel that their ideology is not only the best but universal. These are the key memes that are required to win an ideological battle.
    One wonders with the never ending war on terror which will slowly drive the US insane and economic decline the Russians didn’t get the better deal in the long run by losing.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I believe the US has shown a high degree of social cohesion in the US. For example, the US had higher cohesion during WWII than the UK by many measures (e.g., fewer strikes) — despite the UK being a front-line state, which allowed a higher degree of mobilization.

    We may be losing this, esp. by comparison with small, mono-ethnic states. After all, the US is rapidly becoming a multi-ethnic society — and these seldom show high degrees of cohesion. This is a well-established fact in the social science literature.

  3. “this very deference to power, arising from our liberties. . .”

    Does this mean we were less deferent to power when we were serfs? The comment really doesnt make any sense. We defer to power because it is power, not because of any weakness in our political nature.

    Hobbes — the first theorist of government by consent of the governed — said that we give up our liberty to the state in order to be protected in the pursuit of our private well-being. We want to “defer” to power. Fabius, and perhaps de Toqueville, lament the primawcy of the acquisitive drives in our makeup. But in a condition of scarcity, what else could you expect?

  4. Robert Petersen

    I once read an anecdote – and I can’t find the source – of an officer in the American revolutionary army asking for pay for his soldiers. The man in charge of the money sat behind a desk and asked “how many men do you command?” The answer from the officer: “None, but I got 145 men in charge of me.”

    Something strange has happened to liberal societies like the United States and even Britain. I can’t figure it out. Today Britain is the most surveillanced society in Europe, yet somehow it goes hand in hand with Britain’s liberal traditions. Or perhaps political liberalism simply doesn’t mean a damn thing today. It is no longer a secret that the CIA tortures, but does it mean that the U.S. Constitution – which prohibits cruel and unusual punishments – is dead?

    What worries me is where we will have to turn for help if new totalitarian forces arise? In the past it was Britain and the United States? But today?

  5. Those interested in a more direct response to the problem posed by Fabius should consider the phenomenon of slave resistance to repression.

    Of course, there is much material about the African American experience in the South – and Faulkner’s Lucas Beauchamp is someone we should study deeply.

    Nevertheless,. less well known and perhaps even more interesting is the Caribbean experience. In particular, for 4th Generation Warfare students, the Maroons of Jamaica conducted a successful guerrilla war against the British in the 1700’s.

  6. S’s s to me that Nic has identified a major part of the problem. I’m not well-travelled but I am well-read and I see much the same sort of problem.

    Another part of the problem is the increasing use of government to maintain the status quo for an economic and political oligarchy. The farcical attempt to prevent a wind farm from being built off Cape Cod in the name of national security is an example of this. The day that the common citizen sees the government primarily as a way to keep certain families in power or wealthy is the day we finish becoming a third world power.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Perhaps so, but I suspect most of this is seeing things in the US that are in fact common in republic, or even generally in human societies.

    The opposition of elites to construction of public infrastructure in the US is nothing new. This specific incident is similar to one of the first great environmental battles, the early 1960’s attempt to build a pumped-storage hydroelectric facility at Storm King Mountain on the lower Hudson river. Rich folks living neary defeated it a combination of expensive legal work, a well-funded publicity campaign, and a mountain of lies.

  7. In a place with a tradition of freedom, I think the thought is always in the back of the American mind that, “It can’t happen here.”

    We forget that the relative freedoms we enjoy today are short-lived and hard won. Further, when American Idol is on, don’t bother. Sadly, Sinclair Lewis probably said it best, “When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross.” The average American will never know the difference.

  8. Fascism will come to the US, and on college campuses it is already here, thru ‘hate speech’ laws and ‘human rights councils’ that forbid opposition to political correctness.

    It is the Liberal Fascism that believes in gov’t power to solve problems, and thus gives gov’t more power, that has been steadily leading the US down the fascist path. Always for ‘good reasons’.

  9. Mountainshout and Tom Grey have two sides of the totalitarian problem.

    Fascism *did* come with crosses and flags, and Cultural Marxism *did* come with Leftie P.C. thoughtcrime regulations. But both Fascism and Cultural Marxism are two sides of statist totalitarianism.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Calling the US fascist, marxist, or totalitarianism seems way overstated. We may have aspects of these things, or some tendencies — at most.

  10. It appears that the American people have become to obsessed with quick and easy rewards. A good observation of it: “Instant Gratification Nation: Can We Still Sacrifice for the Future?“, by Charles Wheelan, writing as “The Naked Economist”, 18 July 2008.

    We have seperated cause and effect. Long term benefits are better and more permanent than short term ones but that means we must wait for the rewards and in todays society thats not going to happen.

    I noticed that people around the world really don’t care what kind of government they have as long a they are comfortable and can make money. We have almost reached that point now in US. I try not to despair, for it is a sin, but it’s sure not easy.

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