Leave it to Alexis de Tocqueville to provide answers for what’s happening in the country right now. I am always amazed at the prescience of the nineteenth century, French observer of American society. But he was not just an observer. He also admired the new republic, which is why he put such hope in her future. However, he was not blind to her flaws, the most pernicious of which was the potential for despotism.
Tocqueville believed that despotism might come from an administrative state that suppressed opposing voices by undermining the social contract between Americans and their government. Imagine a “tyranny of the majority” reinforced by a powerful, centralized bureaucracy with legislation to lend legitimacy to the tyranny. That’s not exactly a stretch. Tocqueville feared that this would succeed because the “flock of timid and industrious” citizenry would be fooled into calling such tyranny “liberty.”
After having thus taken each individual one by one into its powerful hands, and having molded him as it pleases, the sovereign power…covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated, minute, and uniform rules, which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot break through to go beyond the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them and directs them….from Democracy in America, vol. 2 (1840)
This warning came nearly two hundred years ago. Obviously, much has changed since then regarding the social contract and Americans’ attitudes toward government. Now, some welcome more government in the lives of citizens and cannot imagine how anyone would oppose it. Think of AOC on the floor of the House wondering aloud who wouldn’t want government to do more? Others cling to the letter of the Constitution as if it were a life raft as the nation sinks beneath the waves just as the Titanic sank to the bottom of the North Atlantic. They do not realize that the raft itself is falling apart in the frigid water.
Perhaps the greatest change since Tocqueville strode the White House grounds with Andrew Jackson is the nature of the Fourth Estate. Actually, you don’t have to go back that far. Just within my lifetime the press has transmogrified from its traditional, adversarial role vis-à-vis government in which it checked, challenged, and kept leaders honest (not including LBJ, of course), to a propaganda and censorship arm of the administrative state. Revelations by Matt Taibbi and Michael Shellenberger before Congress concerning Twitter were the proverbial tip of the Titanic iceberg. There is much more, from fanatical support for the war in Ukraine to the next round of Covid. Object or step out of line and you’ll get the equivalent of Stalin’s airbrush treatment along with prison.
The astonishing thing is that progressives have no problem skewering former darlings if they fail to support the party line. And that party looks ever more revolutionary and unhinged with Biden stumbling around the stage like a brain-addled Don Quixote. Meanwhile, his party’s latest attempt at administrative overreach in Georgia has backfired yet again with Trump personifying that schoolyard barb, “I’m rubber and you’re glue…” Already, “the mugshot” has shown up on barns, lapel pins, and nearly everything in between. Whether that translates into him getting the independent or undecided vote that he needs to be reelected in 2024 is yet to be seen.
As part of Tocqueville’s observations of the new republic, he included Americans’ restlessness, our ambition, our constant drive to move forward and improve ourselves no matter the risk or obstacles. But he did not quite grasp the thing that might save us from tyranny. That is our collective sense of humor. It does exist. It tends to be irreverent, sometimes coarse, occasionally goofy. Regardless, it takes a shot at the status quo, the given, the presumed. American humor is like throwing a rock. It may be small and smooth, lobbed rather than chucked, but it is a rock nevertheless. As Mark Twain said, “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.”
It may be an effective way, as Tocqueville urged, to “stand up and be ready” to stop the administrative state from “sacrificing lightly the particular rights of some individuals to the general execution of its designs.” It’s time to be a stand-up patriot.
Image credits: feature by Christopher Burns; portrait by Théodore Chassériau, Public Domain. For historical sources and quotes, see “Tocqueville Warns How Administrative Despotism Might Come to a Democracy like America (1840),“ Online Library of Liberty; and James Wood, “Tocqueville in America: The Grand Journey, Retraced and Reimagined,” The New Yorker (May 10, 2010).
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