de Tocqueville warns us not to become weak and servile

In “Americans, the subservient” I speculated that our regime — with the Constitution as its foundation — may be dying because of changes in the character of the American people.  In his letter to Harper’s Magazine (August 2008, subscribers only) Fred Nollan, elaborated on Mark Slouka’s June 2008 article, “Democracy and Deference,”  describing how “Americans have become comfortable with the undemocratic qualities of deference and subservience — what Slouka calls our ‘loyalty to power, rather than to what one believes to be true or right.’”

Nollan supports with quotations from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1840).  This post gives the full context of those quotes.  De Tocquiville saw with extraordinary clarity the dangers to which we have fallen into.  Reading his words gives us perspective on where we are — and insights as to a better path forward.  Bold emphasis is added.

Volume II, section 2, chapter 5:  How religion supports democracy

When the religion of a people is destroyed, doubt gets hold of the higher powers of the intellect and half paralyzes all the others.  Every man accustoms himself to having only confused and changing notions on the subjects most interesting to his fellow creatures and himself.  His opinions are ill-defended and easily abandoned; and, in despair of ever solving by himself the hard problems respecting the destiny of man, he ignobly submits to think no more about them.

Such a condition cannot but enervate the soul, relax the springs of the will, and prepare a people for servitude. Not only does it happen in such a case that they allow their freedom to be taken from them; they frequently surrender it themselves. When there is no longer any principle of authority in religion any more than in politics, men are speedily frightened at the aspect of this unbounded independence. The constant agitation of all surrounding things alarms and exhausts them. As everything is at sea in the sphere of the mind, they determine at least that the mechanism of society shall be firm and fixed; and as they cannot resume their ancient belief, they assume a master.

Volume II, section 4, chapter 1:  on equality

For the principle of equality begets two tendencies: the one leads men straight to independence and may suddenly drive them into anarchy; the other conducts them by a longer, more secret, but more certain road to servitude.  Nations readily discern the former tendency and are prepared to resist it.  They are led away by the latter, without perceiving its drift; hence it is peculiarly important to point it out.

Volume II, section 4, chapter 3:  how political power concentrates in the government (become master instead of servant)

I have also had occasion to show how the increasing love of well-being and the fluctuating character of property cause democratic nations to dread all violent disturbances.  The love of public tranquillity is frequently the only passion which these nations retain, and it becomes more active and powerful among them in proportion as all other passions droop and die.  This naturally disposes the members of the community constantly to give or to surrender additional rights to the central power, which alone seems to be interested in defending them by the same means that it uses to defend itself.

As in periods of equality no man is compelled to lend his assistance to his fellow men, and none has any right to expect much support from them, everyone is at once independent and powerless.  These two conditions, which must never be either separately considered or confounded together, inspire the citizen of a democratic country with very contrary propensities.  His independence fills him with self-reliance and pride among his equals.  His debility makes him feel from time to time the want of some outward assistance, which he cannot expect from any of them, because they are all impotent and unsympathizing.  In this predicament he naturally turns his eyes to that imposing power which alone rises above the level of universal depression. Of that power his wants and especially his desires continually remind him, until he ultimately views it as the sole and necessary support of his own weakness.

… Thus a democratic government increases its power simply by the fact of its permanence. Time is on its side, every incident befriends it, the passions of individuals unconsciously promote it; and it may be asserted that the older a democratic community is, the more centralized will its government become.

This may more completely explain what frequently takes place in democratic countries, where the very men who are so impatient of superiors patiently submit to a master, exhibiting at once their pride and their servility.

The hatred that men bear to privilege increases in proportion as privileges become fewer and less considerable, so that democratic passions would seem to burn most fiercely just when they have least fuel. I have already given the reason for this phenomenon. When all conditions are unequal, no inequality is so great as to offend the eye, whereas the slightest dissimilarity is odious in the midst of general uniformity; the more complete this uniformity is, the more insupportable the sight of such a difference becomes. Hence it is natural that the love of equality should constantly increase together with equality itself, and that it should grow by what it feeds on.

This never dying, ever kindling hatred which sets a democratic people against the smallest privileges is peculiarly favorable to the gradual concentration of all political rights in the hands of the representative of the state alone.  The sovereign, being necessarily and incontestably above all the citizens, does not excite their envy, and each of them thinks that he strips his equals of the prerogative that he concedes to the crown.  The man of a democratic age is extremely reluctant to obey his neighbor, who is his equal.  He refuses to acknowledge superior ability in such a person; he mistrusts his justice and is jealous of his power; he fears and he despises him; and he loves continually to remind him of the common dependence in which both of them stand to the same master.

Every central power, which follows its natural tendencies, courts and encourages the principle of equality; for equality singularly facilitates, extends, and secures the influence of a central power.  In like manner it may be said that every central government worships uniformity; uniformity relieves it from inquiry into an infinity of details, which must be attended to if rules have to be adapted to different men, instead of indiscriminately subjecting all men to the same rule. Thus the government likes what the citizens like and naturally hates what they hate. These common sentiments, which in democratic nations constantly unite the sovereign and every member of the community in one and the same conviction, establish a secret and lasting sympathy between them. The faults of the government are pardoned for the sake of its inclinations; public confidence is only reluctantly withdrawn in the midst even of its excesses and its errors, and it is restored at the first call.  Democratic nations often hate those in whose hands the central power is vested, but they always love that power itself.

Thus by two separate paths I have reached the same conclusion.  I have shown that the principle of equality suggests to men the notion of a sole, uniform, and strong government.  I have now shown that the principle of equality imparts to them a taste for it.  To governments of this kind the nations of our age are therefore tending. T hey are drawn thither by the natural inclination of mind and heart; and in order to reach that result, it is enough that they do not check themselves in their course.

I am of the opinion that, in the democratic ages which are opening upon us, individual independence and local liberties will ever be the products of art; that centralization will be the natural government.

Appendix Z:  another tendency that drives power to the center

Why both politicos of both parties love big government, even when the power expands in their opponent’s Administration.

Not only is a democratic people led by its own taste to centralize its government, but the passions of all the men by whom it is governed constantly urge it in the same direction.  It may easily be foreseen that almost all the able and ambitious members of a democratic community will labor unceasingly to extend the powers of government, because they all hope at some time or other to wield those powers themselves. It would be a waste of time to attempt to prove to them that extreme centralization may be injurious to the state, since they are centralizing it for their own benefit. Among the public men of democracies, there are hardly any but men of great disinterestedness or extreme mediocrity who seek to oppose the centralization of government; the former are scarce, the latter powerless.

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?.

2 thoughts on “de Tocqueville warns us not to become weak and servile”

  1. I don’t think Ron Paul was either disinterested, nor mediocre — but he was successfully portrayed by a power-loving 4th estate press as a crackpot. The elites in the press are happy to criticize almost all actual use of gov’t power — but only to suggest that some other, better user of the power should have it, rather than have it return to the people. Big Press, too, even especially, loves Big Gov’t.

  2. And if it dies then a light goes out. I’ve been long critical of the US but also a long admirer. The capacity to reinvent itself is amazing, but also its capacity to inspire. To take a recent example, when Iraqis demonstrated, peacefully long before the “insurgency” got going. They were following the example of the US and the amazing civil rights marches that gave an example to the rest of the world. Basically the message was “yes we are not perfect, but our system enables us to voice that inperfection and deal with it”. Truely revoluntionary. It created a wave around the world from Northern Ireland to the eventual fall of the USSR.”.”Freedom and rights”.

    Not the US military, not even the econonomic strength. The ideal was overwhleming.

    Then when the US responded with, as every country (yes the UK, Oz, Canada, China, Japan, et al) has ever done, with bullets .. then an ideal died around the world. And it just became another country on the make .. and we all move back into the dark days of the 1890’s to 1900’s.
    Fabius Maximus replies: To what are you referring to with “the US responded with bullets”?

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