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Democracy in America, Revisited

by MORRIS BERMAN

Since American democracy is in the process of disintegrating, it might be worthwhile to reflect on the nature of the phenomenon, and the sources of its dialectical death.  In 1982 the eminent French scholar, Pierre Manent, published a study of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, the two volumes of which came out in 1835/40.  Manent’s work was subsequently translated into English under the title Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy; Harvey Mansfield of Harvard University contributed a Foreword to it.  Mansfield writes:

Democracy produces a sense of independence in its citizens, a sentiment  that each is a whole because he depends on no one else; and the democratic   dogma [sic] states that every citizen is competent to govern his own life.  Hence democracy is not merely, perhaps not primarily, a form of  government; or it is [a] form of government that almost denies the need for  government.  And as a society, democracy is antisocial; it severs individuals  from one another by pronouncing each of them equally free.  All the traditional relationships are broken or weakened….Above all, democracy does not know where it tends and where it should go.

The blurb on the back cover of the book states that “Pierre Manent’s analysis concludes that the growth of state power and the homogenization of society are two primary consequences of equalizing conditions.”  We are, of course, living with these consequences nearly 180 years after Tocqueville’s first volume.

Professor Mansfield is, as one would expect, a proponent of democracy; most Americans are.  Yet one wonders what he thinks of his own critique; the characteristics he identifies are hardly minor drawbacks in the system.  I couldn’t help trying to look at it through the lens of Islamic societies (to the extent that I am able to do such a thing).  Truth be told, I’m not a big fan of Allah’s, nor of stoning adulterers to death, nor of intellectual stultification, and etc., and I suspect it will be a while before I put down a deposit on a condo in Tehran.  But their problems don’t do anything to improve our own, and it seems to me that their revulsion toward the United States is not all that puzzling, if one considers the following points:

* “each is a whole because he depends on no one else”

* “a form of government that almost denies the need for government”

* “democracy is antisocial; it severs individuals from one another”

* “all the traditional relationships are broken or weakened”

* “democracy does not know…where it should go”

Clearly, with friends like these (Mansfield), democracy needs no enemies; this is a fairly good description of a “psychological slum,” as the sociologist Philip Slater once called the United States.  And speaking of enemies, I couldn’t help thinking of the message to the American people delivered by Osama bin Laden on the eve of the 2004 presidential election.  I don’t have the text in front of me, but I remember his saying, “You have no Guide, no Helper.”  He understood that America was a ship without a rudder—something that the two candidates, G.W. Bush and John Kerry, were unable to grasp.  They both condemned the address without any substantive comment, to show they were “tough on terrorism”—thereby losing the opportunity to reflect, publicly, on what had gone wrong with American democracy (which of course wouldn’t have gone over well with a basically stupefied electorate—and indeed, one of Tocqueville’s major points is that democracy ultimately wouldn’t work if the population wasn’t too bright.)

Mansfield’s critique also meshes well with the recent book by his Harvard colleagues Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz, The Lonely American, which documents the lives of quiet desperation that Americans lead.  Nationwide, 25% of all habitations are single-person dwellings, and the figure for New York City is nearly 50%.  In recent years the number of people who say they don’t have a single person they can confide in has jumped to 33%.  It’s a sad, if honest, book—an obituary, really, for a bold and brilliant experiment that finally didn’t work out.  For suicide takes place on two levels: the macrolevel, of public institutions and domestic and foreign policy; and the microlevel, i.e. in the hearts and minds of individual citizens. Both of these processes are well underway, and have been for some time now.

Finally: I have always been a great admirer of Isaiah Berlin, the Russian-Jewish-British political scientist who spent his life cautioning the West about the dangers of coercive systems such as that of the former Soviet Union.  In his famous Oxford University inaugural lecture of 1958, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” Berlin defined “negative freedom” as freedom from; it is the freedom to do whatever the heck you please as long as you don’t infringe on anyone else.  “Positive freedom,” on the other hand, is freedom to;it is the freedom of a directive ideal, one that holds up a vision of the good life (whatever that might be) and encourages—or forces—people to conform to that image.  Going back to at least the seventeenth century, negative freedom is the Anglo-Saxon conception of what it means to be free; and as far as Berlin was concerned (as a good British subject—he became Sir Isaiah the year before his inaugural lecture), that was the only real freedom around. The other variety, he argued, was inevitably dangerous.  The only problem is, without a positive vision of the good life, the good society, what are we?  How could we be anything else except a ship without a rudder?  This, to me, is the Achilles heel in the Berlinian edifice, for negative freedom finally affirms nothing—as the example of contemporary America clearly demonstrates.  George H.W. Bush, that great intellectual, was fond of using the word “vision” sarcastically; he was proud of the fact that he had none.  (What a shock, that his son became an alcoholic, a Christian fundamentalist, and a war criminal.)  He was a synecdoche for the nation, and ironically, he confirmed what Osama bin Laden said about the United States a dozen or so years later.

There is no doubt, of course, that “vision” can get out of hand; this was Berlin’s whole point.  But what he failed to understand was that lack of vision can also get out of hand, as Harvey Mansfield makes abundantly clear.  And that has happened to the United States, which accounts for the odd combination of hysteria plus inertia in our contemporary political life. It also means that there is no way of reversing the trajectory; I mean, where do you start?  You can’t just assign the country “vision,” and think that’s going to work (this was in fact the idea of the communitarian movement of the nineties, led by Amitai Etzioni, and it was an embarrassing failure).  The dialectical part of this is that the strengths of American democracy are precisely its weaknesses; the whole thing is a package deal.  Or to put it another way, the ideology of negative freedom, of no-vision, cannot evolve into anything else but the negative, visionless society that we now have, and the seeds of this were planted a long time ago.

So here we are, wrote T.S. Eliot in the Four Quartets, “in the middle way…years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres” (obviously more than deux, in the case of the United States),

And so each venture                                                                                                                                                                              Is…a raid on the inarticulate                                                                                                                                              With shabby equipment always deteriorating….”

The Four Quartets is about many things, but I believe Eliot’s major theme here is the acceptance of death.  Wouldn’t it make sense, at this point, for America to “resign” with dignity, instead of pursuing endless, meaningless, genocidal wars, and a hollow American Dream?  To come to terms with the dynamics of its collapse, and just accept it?  To finally (to paraphrase another famous poet) “go gentle into that good night”?  I expect that kind of maturity is completely beyond our grasp, but it would be, at long last, a vision of sorts.

Morris Berman’s latest book is Why America Failed.

 

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