Democracy (still) in America?

I’ve been slowly working my way through Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World for the first time in ten years, and I’m wondering if this should be a once-per-decade read so as to take the pulse of American culture. Ten years ago, it was provocative theoretically, but seemingly futuristic. Today, while the brave new world Huxley describes isn’t actually here, the dystopic future it describes seems, in some senses, not all that far off, either. What has happened?

For one thing, yes, I’ve matured ten years, and that has quite a bit to do with the matter. But a recent discussion on Tocqueville’s Democracy in America pricked my brain in a spot that perhaps needed pricking, and I’m wondering if perhaps what else has happened is that our American democracy has done precisely what Tocqueville warned against. We’ve expanded the realm of contingency to, well, just about everything.

I should back up. Tocqueville saw most of American life as contingent rather than fixed, and he took this to be a mark of the new era unfolding in America – a democratic age without the fixed roles determined by heredity and class of the passing aristocratic era of his native France. Americans, he observed, act as individuals, not as the class-bound members of an aristocratic society. They are bootstrappers, self-made men, they believe in hard work and social mobility. In short, where we are born – and who we are born to – doesn’t determine who we are. We do. (For more, see Ray Charles.)

But Tocqueville saw two aspects of American culture that didn’t – and, importantly, shouldn’t – fit this mold of total freedom and flexibility. Church and family were not contingent; rather, these were the source of the very mores that stabilized and undergirded the otherwise constantly in-flux nature of American life. (Even Tocqueville’s famed voluntary associations, which partisans of civil society often tout as the cure to our American social ills, are also contingent – we can join or leave and we are free to change the nature of the associations.) For Tocqueville’s America, “liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.” He insisted that “men cannot do without dogmatic belief, and even that it is much to be desired that such belief should exist among them. I now add that, of all the kinds of dogmatic belief, the most desirable appears to me to be dogmatic belief in matters of religion…” Religion, Tocqueville observed, restrained Americans from allowing liberty to devolve into license as this people, freed from the aristocratic tethers of family name and fixed classes, built a new nation under the audacious claim that “all men are created equal.” The “main business of religion,” he wrote, “is to purify, control and restrain that excessive and exclusive taste for well-being which men acquire during times of equality.”

The family, furthermore – for Tocqueville, particularly the role of women in the family – preserved a zone of safety, stability, and nurturing in a democratic society otherwise driven by delinked individuals pursuing their own ends. That zone, though, had to remain fixed in its basic form – i.e., one man, one woman, and children – rather than join the list of up-for-grab elements of democracy, in order for America to preserve her democracy. While I’m far from advocating a return to his fairly rigid role for women, it is worth considering how much time Tocqueville spent in emphasizing the dangers of extending the drive to equality-as-sameness to the category of the sexes. Men and women are different, and that difference is the basis of the family, and the family is, with religion, the foundation of American democracy.

So why should Americans care about the decline of religion, or about the latest attempts to change the meaning of marriage? Because in dissolving these institutions, or attempting to render them as contingent as all other aspects of life, we remove the last natural safe havens for human life from society, in an ostensible effort to render all aspects of life as zones of ‘liberty’ and ‘equality.’ But as Tocqueville cautioned us, not everything can be contingent if liberty is to survive. The Americans he met were free from class strictures, but firmly tied to the “controls” and “restraints” that it is the “main business of religion” to provide.

It is naïve to believe, however, that if we remove these restraints we will simply be more free. Humans will dogmatize something, Tocqueville reminds us, and Huxley reminds us that the state is all too happy to step in and provide a replacement when we have thrown off the yoke of religion and gender difference.

1 Thought.

  1. Huxley wrote a collection of essays later in life called Brave New World Revisited. My main takeaway from it was that Huxley had become a bitter and jealous man; George Orwell’s vision of the future got all the attention while events increasingly vindicated his own vision more than Orwell’s.

    The need for permanence in institutions is an important theme. Only permanent institutional structures can create the boundaries to safeguard the liberty of the individual. You are free to select your rulers and hold them accountable for their performance – only because the electoral institutions of the U.S. Constitution are relatively fixed. You are free to follow your calling in your work by taking any job you wish – only because the rules governing ownership, exchange, employment, investment, etc. in the free enterprise economy are relatively fixed. Et cetera. Freedom always means freedom within a larger structure of unfreedom; there is no other kind. If the rules of chess were subject to arbitrary change at any time, you would no longer be free to play chess.

    I would add, though, that in my view what must remain fixed is not always the institutions themselves; sometmies what matters is the “forms” to which the particular institutions conform, or of which they are particular cases or manifestations. The economy is the clearest example; if a business becomes a truly permanent institution (e.g. by insulating itself from competition) it quickly ceases to serve customers and becomes expolitative. This is why we outlaw monopolies and so forth. Businesses are supposed to be under constant threat of extinction; what remains relatively fixed is the basic outline of what a business is and does (i.e. the rules governing ownership, exchange, employment, investment, etc.).

    This point applies in differnet degrees to different cases. The government is the paradigmatic case of an institution that ought to be relatively immune from competition and instability. Yet even here, the threat of instability can play a salutary role. Locke argues that teaching people they have a right to rebellion, far from encouraging more rebellions, is actually “the best fence against rebellion” because in a society where people believe in the right to rebellion, government will behave itself and the injustices that provoke rebellion will be rare.

    This point speaks to the case of voluntary associations. The particular associations are subject to instability for the reasons you describe. But the larger reality of being the kind of society where we solve our problems through voluntary associations, what Charles Murray calls “neighborliness,” needs to remain relatively fixed. And it isn’t, which is a problem. The vexing difficulty is, while keeping the rules of the economy relatively fixed is a policy issue and therefore we know where the levers are, there is no policy lever for keeping America a neighborly place (except to refrain from enacting policies that undermine neighborliness, but it’s not clear that’s enough).

    This also speaks to the case of religion. In the context of religious freedom, it is not clear that it’s possible for particular churches to have the kind of institutional permanence Tocqueville desires them to have. We can, however, be the kind of society where people attend worship – where it’s valued and even expected that people belong to and support an institution of worship. Yet, as with voluntary associations, there is no policy lever for this (unless we’re prepared to give up religious freedom).

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