Tocqueville and Us

Tocqueville and Us

Eric Clifford Graf
Eric Clifford Graf
8 min read

Racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism.
~Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness

Come around to my way of thinking. Don’t you want to, want to get along?
~Urge Overkill, “Sister Havana”

The University of Michigan just signaled its plan to fight racism: “Over the next three years, the university will hire at least 20 faculty members with expertise in racial inequality and structural racism.” The key words here are “at least”; count on more than 20. Corporations like Microsoft, Disney, and Genentech now routinely browbeat managers and employees into moral conformity by way of “diversity training.” The Biden administration has reactivated “racial justice” and “equity” programs across federal agencies and at the unit level of the armed forces. The self-flagellation in such powerful American institutions only perplexes those who love their country for all it has overcome and still see it as a beacon of freedom and prosperity.

A few brave souls have decried these academic, corporate, and federal policies to the detriment of their careers. But, in response, the agents of what I call “ego-based factionalism” will simply shift the terms of the debate, change the titles of their appointees, and invade new arenas like churches, hospitals, fire departments, day-care centers, and others we’ve yet to imagine. The rot will intensify and spread. For every state like Florida that outlaws critical race theory, a state like Washington mandates it.

We’ll need political action but also discourse and pedagogy to combat ego-based factionalism’s destructive waste; and in order to engage the opposition consistently and constructively, we must recognize its contours. Nobody convinces fanatics, but if we articulate reasoned responses to their resentful ideology, it’s possible to slow the cultural revolution in ways that might save this great nation from itself. Patriotism and respect for traditions are valuable but insufficient without dialogue and education; and labeling opponents Marxists, socialists, racists, un-American, duplicitous, or insane has little effect.

We should begin with—and constantly return to—an understanding of the psychosocial nature of factionalism. People joining a political movement don’t usually consider its logic or consequences; they react to an injustice or grievance. Ergo, the crude irony of Monty Python’s declaration, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” In retrospect and from without, the religiously orthodox logic of the Holy Office appears absurd. At the time, however, and from within, it was regarded as a righteous response to rebellious Protestants, as well as Jews and Muslims who had converted to Catholicism but were suspected of maintaining allegiances to Spain’s enemies. Such is the essence of a fanatical mass movement. Before it overwhelms human decency, it has a basis in reality—something offends us, and we organize against it.

Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835–39) remains the most important book that Americans, immigrant or native-born, should read before adopting a political posture. There’s no more enduring or insightful assessment of the peculiarities of American society, history, and government. Don’t ask a Frenchman to clarify the French Revolution, he’s too proud of it; read Edmund Burke. Don’t ask a Spaniard to explain Latin America, he’s still reeling from its loss; read Carlos Rangel. Don’t ask Americans about democracy, it beguiles us; read Tocqueville. Even in the rare moments he gets off track, Tocqueville forces us to learn by grappling with why he’s wrong. If somebody says they understand America, ask them what they think of Tocqueville. If they haven’t read him, suggest they do so and go about your business.

José Ortega y Gasset’s and Eric Hoffer’s respective analyses of populist uprisings in The Revolt of the Masses (1930) and The True Believer (1951), Aldous Huxley’s and Friedrich Hayek’s respective visions of the stupor of materialism in Brave New World (1932) and The Road to Serfdom (1944), George Orwell’s dystopias devoid of free thought in Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Raymond Aron’s replies to educated radicals in The Opium of the Intellectuals (1955), Robert Higgs’s disclosures of the administrative ratchet effect in Crisis and Leviathan (1987), and Shelby Steele’s disrobing of the race hustle in White Guilt (2006)—Tocqueville’s masterpiece contains the core elements of all these later critiques of liberal excess.

Why does ego-based factionalism occur and why is it so particular to America? Tocqueville skips over its ultimate origins because, unlike today, a classically educated liberal knew that humanity’s urge to divide into destructive opponents needed no explanation. Plato, Thucydides, Apuleius, Augustine, Dante, Montaigne, and Cervantes had shown how hatred, resentment, and cruelty are always at the ready to dash a civilization’s greatest achievements. When Romantics like Burke, Tocqueville, and Poe pause to ponder the sublimity of nature, this is what they want us to understand.

But Tocqueville does clarify why America is a specific engine for the extremes of narcissistic collectivism. For starters, Democracy in America previews the main aspects of Steele’s argument (a lesson partly transmitted to Tocqueville by my own state’s national hero, American general Sam Houston). Race-based slavery in the context of the greatest explosion of wealth in history created a psychosocial excuse whereby the racial minority most excluded from that prosperity rejected its values. White people’s zealous acceptance of responsibility for this inequity set in motion poor solutions, the secondary enslavements of moral extortion and dependency. Lastly, confidence in the angelic status of elected rulers paved a seductive road of entitlements for the descendants of slaves.

Even if we grasp the roles played in ego-based factionalism by the legacy of slavery, government largesse, fawning elites and intellectuals, and mass hysteria and guilt, we’ll not have developed a strategy to combat it. Moreover, we’ll not yet see how the rest of the grievance industry follows the same pattern. And most importantly, we’ll not appreciate how the mechanisms of a democratic republic represent the best protections against its future manifestations. How do we press Tocqueville’s insights into a defense of the principles expressed in the Federalist Papers and enshrined in the US Constitution? We note the astounding frequency with which these documents address factionalism, and we show how asymmetrical and divided democracy resists the tyrannical extremes of pure democracy which risks one faction assuming too much power.

Three unrelenting psychosocial factors underwrite ego-based factionalism in the United States: (1) people always form factions; (2) the most basic mode of faction is shared egotism; (3) the equality wrought by democracy and free markets leaves many without ways of distinguishing themselves from others, which inclines them to project their ego as a faction. As Mark Twain later put it, in a hyper-democracy, our hollow selves take to factions like fashions.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859)

This last counterintuitive point makes Tocqueville history’s greatest theorist of democracy. It enables him to accept Houston’s vision of the debilitating legacy of slavery, and then go on to explain why factionalism not only can’t be overcome but is bound to intensify as America progresses toward greater equality. A French aristocrat could more easily see that the social conditions of equality reinvigorate the paradox of nations within nations; and also, that the extremes of equality in the United States would only amplify the problem. Anyone who says they can eliminate ego-based factionalism in America is either a deluded member of a cult (the ultimate faction) or else wants to sell you snake oil, usually both. There’s no escaping the manifold ways our society produces mobs of zombies. The best we can do is manage them. Commerce, divided government, and a judicial system help, so do individual rights.

In his brilliant comparison of Nazism and Counter-Reformation Spain, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi saw that the racially inflected persecutions of 16th-century Iberia had a different cause than those of Germany in the 1930s. Spain’s case is counterintuitive: the success of assimilation triggered a desperate desire for re-differentiation. In his most important book, Violence and the Sacred (1972), René Girard explained this psychosocial paradox as a response to the disorienting effects of equality. It turns out that humans will seek scapegoats even and perhaps most especially when we find ourselves adrift in a vacuum of distinctions. It’s very hard for cosmopolitan elites to understand, but Girard and Yerushalmi indicate a kind of violence that looms precisely where limits, attachments, and variances are fading.

Applied to the United States, ego-based factionalism caused by equality—a lesson taught by Tocqueville and stressed by Yerushalmi and Girard—means that to demonize Democrats as the party of Jim Crow and the post-Reconstruction South is inaccurate and counterproductive. There’s nothing innately racist about a Democrat any more than there’s anything innately racist about a white person. Today’s peculiarly puritanical racism stems from a different mechanism, one that leverages white guilt to fill the meaningless chasm left by postmodern equality. Anti-racist racism is a frantic attempt to create a religion out of nothingness.

So, a more productive point is that parties and values change polarities in free societies. A new faction of Republicans criticizes racism, big businesses, foreign wars, and abusive tactics by agencies like the FBI, CIA, and DOJ. This was not always the case; many Republicans criticized the Civil Rights movement and supported the Vietnam War and the Cold War, and a fading faction of Republicans still supports wealthy interests over common voters. By contrast, Democrats once hated segregation, colonialism, corporations, spooks, and G-men. What happened? Factionalism. In a free society, citizens reform or abandon their political allegiances when values get tarnished or mechanisms for liberation become mechanisms for tyranny. But factionalism also means we can occasionally find ourselves supporting outmoded, corrupt causes. Hence the Civil Rights movement on industrial-strength steroids, which is only about signaling personal virtue not making society better. Nobody expects to become the Spanish Inquisition. But we all do. Only fanatics seeking power claim they’re forever “on the right side of history.” Go about your business, but keep an eye on them. Recall the words of the Roman poet Juvenal: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (“Who watches the watchmen?”)

To make the case for freedom is to be prepared to adjust one’s political views. At this point in time, a certain faction makes more sense than others. But the truer reason we should all support liberty and resist Maoist conformism is that, at some contingent point in the future, we’re all bound to be wrong. When parties stop attracting members of the opposition, then we should worry that a dangerous majority has taken power and that political dialogue has ended. One thing most of the American Founders agreed upon was that people are less likely to thrive in an illiberal atmosphere dominated by a single faction.

At the end of Democracy in America, Tocqueville reiterates that equality is vital but not sufficient to preserve liberty. Instead, he highlights the agonizing paradox that liberty requires the medieval European aristocracy’s aggressive defense of their privileges. Although they often arrogantly abused their serfs, their willingness to fight for their own dignity models an attitudinal antidote to democracy’s overdoses of equality. Puritans and plantation owners need each other to check the worst aspects of our respective natures. To be a classical liberal is to be a realist about humanity’s revolving capacities for ignorance and violence, and to admit that majority rule sometimes threatens individual freedom, and vice versa.

Tocqueville’s final point is that for democracy to function, the masses must take up an energetic lesson from the same elites we’re now accustomed to view as domineering, antiquated, and insane: respect yourself, stand for something, and resist those tyrants who want to turn you into grist for their revolutionary mill.

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Eric Clifford Graf

Eric Clifford Graf studies early modern Spain. He is author of Anatomy of Liberty (2021), De Reyes a Lobos (2009), and Cervantes and Modernity (2007).