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After Tocqueville: The Promise and Failure of Democracy

After Tocqueville: The Promise and Failure of Democracy

by Chilton Williamson Jr.

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The End of Democracy? 

The fall of the Berlin Wall. The collapse of the Iron Curtain. The Orange Revolution. The Arab Spring.

The rush of events in recent decades seems to confirm that Alexis de Tocqueville was right: the future belongs to democracy. But take a closer look. The history of democracy since the 1830s, when Tocqueville


The End of Democracy? 

The fall of the Berlin Wall. The collapse of the Iron Curtain. The Orange Revolution. The Arab Spring.

The rush of events in recent decades seems to confirm that Alexis de Tocqueville was right: the future belongs to democracy. But take a closer look. The history of democracy since the 1830s, when Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America, reveals a far more complicated picture. And the future, author Chilton Williamson Jr. demonstrates, appears rather unpromising for democratic institutions around the world.

The fall of communism sparked the popular notion that the spread of democracy was inevitable. After Tocqueville challenges this sunny notion. Various aspects of twenty-first-century life that Tocqueville could scarcely have imagined—political, economic, social, religious, intellectual, technological, environmental—militate against democracy, both in developing societies and in the supposedly democratic West.

This piercing, elegantly written book raises crucial questions about the future of democracy.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

With this book, Chilton Williamson advances to the top rank of American political and social thinkers. This is an extraordinary performance of a versatile novelist, political analyst, art critic, etc. His main thesis may be arguable, but only by people whose mental equipment and scholarship are at least close to the qualities Williamson demonstrates.” —JOHN LUKACS, author of Five Days in London and Democracy and Populism

Chilton Williamson has written the best book on democracy in the past hundred years. Capturing Tocqueville has developed into an intellectual sport, sides taken less on the merits of the French aristo’s prophecy that equality and democracy were everywhere gaining ground in the nineteenth century than on when and in what form the process will be completed. Williamson, in this learned and elegantly written book, has changed the rules of the game.” —JOHN WILLSON, professor emeritus of history, Hillsdale College

“Is democracy good for people? Or nations? Can it survive George W. Bush’s ‘global democratic revolution’ or the ‘Arab Spring’? What, in any case, does democracy mean in an age of mass politics, mass culture, mass communications, not to say mass hysteria? Chilton Williamson tackles the horrors, contradictions, and absurdities of life after Tocqueville (and Fukuyama) in a book that is both immensely civilized and a cracking good read.” —STUART REID, former deputy editor of the Spectator (London)

“At last a book that actually thinks about democracy—i.e., courageously dares address the Deity of our times. While referring to just about everything that has been written about democracy in modern times—his culture seems as limitless as his modesty—Williamson adroitly nudges the democratic reader to wonder whether he has ever been taught the right things about democracy. This book is a thought-provoking meditation one feels urged to take an active part in.” —CLAUDE POLIN, professor emeritus, University of Paris-Sorbonne

A comprehensive and continually stimulating study of how we have entered a postdemocratic age which has subverted nearly everything that was valuable in American democracy as understood by Tocqueville.” —DONALD W. LIVINGSTON, professor emeritus of philosophy, Emory University

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The Promise and Failure of Democracy
By Chilton Williamson Jr.


Copyright © 2012 Chilton Williamson Jr.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61017-022-2

Chapter One

From Tocqueville to Fukuyama

* * *

Historians have debated for nearly two centuries whether Alexis de Tocqueville's political sympathies were fundamentally liberal or essentially conservative. Hugh Brogan, Tocqueville's most recent biographer, maintains that the youthful enthusiast of Democracy in America was not the same man who wrote the Recollections or the final work, The Old Regime and the French Revolution, left unfinished at the time of Tocqueville's death (at age fifty-four), from consumption. No one, on the other hand, has challenged the French aristocrat's reputation as a political prophet. "A great democratic revolution," he wrote in Democracy in America, "is taking place in our midst; everybody sees it, but by no means everybody judges it in the same way. Some think it a new thing and, supposing it an accident, hope that they can still check it; others think it irresistible, because it seems to them the most continuous, ancient, and permanent tendency known to history." Tocqueville belonged, unequivocally, to the latter party. The future of western Europe and North America, he insisted, belonged, for good or ill, to democracy. And that future, he believed, was sanctioned by the blessing of God.

Alexis de Tocqueville was no hidebound aristocrat, but an aristo he was born and an aristo he remained until the end of his life. It is true that he departed from family tradition in religion (he lost his Catholic faith before he reached adulthood and remained a deist until his death), in marriage (his wife was an English Protestant, of middleclass origins, and a commoner), and in politics (he refused to adhere to legitimist principles). Even so, "When I talk to a gentilhomme," he once remarked, "though we have not two ideas in common, though all his opinions, wishes, and thoughts are opposed to mine, yet I feel at once that we belong to the same family, that we speak the same language, that we understand one another. I may like the bourgeois better, but he is a stranger." Really, the sentiment does Tocqueville credit. Had he felt otherwise, he might have been, like so many of his republican contemporaries, a mere ideologue rather than the liberal-minded man he was, a savant of true understanding, of prophetic genius. For Tocqueville, a republican world would be an altered, certainly, yet still a familiar world, replete with familiar things, institutions, people, and relationships—not an unrecognizable, unprecedented, and threatening false utopia, the old world turned upside down and inside out.

* * *

Alexis de Tocqueville was descended on both the paternal and maternal sides from aristocratic families. The Clérels (later the Tocquevilles) were an old Norman family, ennobled since 1452 or perhaps earlier, whose manor house is situated in the Cotentin, not many miles east of Cherbourg. Alexis's grandfather Bernard, the second comte de Tocqueville, married into the Damas family and in this way acquired the funds sufficient to make the house over into a cháteau. Hervé, Tocqueville's tither, wed Louise de Rosanbo, a granddaughter of Chrétien-Guillaume Lamoignon des Malesherbes, scion of one of the greatest families of the noblesse de robe and a reform-minded minister of Louis XVI's who later offered his services to the monarch as the king's chief counsel during his trial by the Convention and was himself executed, together with numerous members of his family. Hervé and Louise were imprisoned in Port-Libre for ten months and released only after the execution of Robespierre. Among Alexis's earliest memories was of an incident that occurred in his fourth year, when the Tocquevilles and their near relations the Rosanbos and the Chateaubriands gathered before the fire to sing a royalist song about the suffering and death of Louis XVI.

Brogan claims that it was not until Tocqueville, as a young man, read Adolphe Thiers's History of the Revolution that he began to understand the French Revolution as having been something more than the work of Freemasons or of the Duke of Orléans. He also credits a series of lectures delivered by François Guizot in Paris in the months before the July Revolution with having drawn Tocqueville's attention to the fact that a process of democratization had been in train for centuries, and leading him eventually to the conclusion that democracy was the future of his civilization. The following year, in early April 1831, Tocqueville and his friend Gustave de Beaumont, who like Tocqueville was a legal apprentice at the parquet at Versailles, from which the two men had been granted leave to research a report on prison reform in the United States, sailed from Le Havre for Newport, Rhode Island.

It would be an exaggeration to say that Alexis de Tocqueville arrived in America prepared, even predisposed, to admire its democratic system of government and its relatively egalitarian society. Brogan speculates that he was encouraged in his political attitudes (as well as in his decision to visit America in the first place) by his uncle François-René de Chateaubriand, the celebrated author of Atala, The Natchez, and Voyage to America. As a young man during the early stages of the Revolution, Chateaubriand had traveled in North America, where for a time he managed to evade the contradiction between his liberal politics and his loyalty to the old France. Tocqueville, who had taken the oath to support the new monarch (thus renouncing his allegiance to the Bourbons), might plausibly have taken a cue from his illustrious relative. Brogan suggests that germs of Democracy in America are perceptible in Voyage to America. However that may be, by the time he and Beaumont left New York City, Tocqueville had his theme. "We are traveling," he wrote, "towards unlimited democracy, I don't say that this is a good thing, what I see in this country convinces me on the contrary that it won't suit France; but we are driven by an irresistible force. No effort made to stop this movement will do more than bring about brief halts."

"It won't suit France." Tocqueville was ever at pains to remind himself, as well as readers of Democracy in America, that the subject of his book was American democracy, not democracy as a generalized system of government and society. (Rather surprisingly, he draws few, if any, comparisons with the supposedly democratic states of the ancient world.) Early in his sojourn in the United States, he learned, from a conversation with John Quincy Adams, the enormous importance of the country's point de départ, its formative circumstances and particularities. The formal statement of this understanding is found in volume 1, part 2, chapter 9 of Democracy in America, titled "The Main Causes Tending to Maintain a Democratic Republic in the United States."

Alexis de Tocqueville was a prophet—perhaps the foremost prophet—of democracy in his time. But in predicting democracy to be the future, Tocqueville seems to have regarded the future, in this respect, as open-ended. For how long did he suppose democracy would, or could, last? Did he expect democracy to represent, in Francis Fukuyama's famous phrase, "the end of history"? After nearly two centuries, Tocqueville's future is our historical past. Yet democracy still exists. Or does it? If so, how much future remains to a system based on free societies and institutions of popular government developed over two and a half millennia of speculative political and social theory?

* * *

Most Americans would be surprised to learn that democratic government, whether actual or potential, was widely disparaged by the majority of philosophers and political thinkers before World War II. That changed after the defeat of the Axis powers, when democratic governments appeared to have been vindicated everywhere in the world. And yet, as early as the 1950s many liberals, even in America, scorned Western "democracy," denying that any such thing had been achieved; a decade later, it was popular to denounce democracy as essentially fascistic by writers like Herbert Marcuse of the Frankfurt School and their followers in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and other left-wing student organizations. People forget, but "democracy," whether considered in its domestic or in its international application, did not begin to acquire its present mystique until Ronald Reagan's forcefully pro-"democratic" administrations and the collapse of the Soviet Union. At that, the mystique prevailed mainly in the United States: in France, the inheritor of the revolutionary tradition and the universal rights of man, an antidemocratic (though certainly not authoritarian) school was already forming on the Left Bank, as we shall see. Even so, during the past two decades democracy has been appraised far more enthusiastically than at any other time in its history, owing, significantly, to the efforts of those literary and political activists known as the neoconservatives, of whom Francis Fukuyama is among the most influential.

In 1992, Fukuyama published The End of History and the Last Man, a book whose claims for a democratic future make those of Democracy in America appear like an exercise in intellectual timidity. Democracy, Fukuyama declared, is the "end point of mankind's ideological evolution," the "final form of human government"—the "end of history." "While some present-day countries might fail to achieve stable liberal democracy, and others might lapse back into other, more primitive forms of rule like theocracy or military dictatorship, the ideal of democracy [can]not be improved on."

In the two decades since The End of History's appearance, Francis Fukuyama has had to defend his thesis against misinterpretation, in particular objections raised by obviously dense readers that substantial historical events, such as the Iraq war or the rise of Vladimir Putin, continue to unfold. His meaning, Fukuyama patiently replied, was that what had come to an end was not "the occurrence of events" but rather "History: that is, history understood as a single, coherent, evolutionary process, when taking into account the experience of all people in all times"—history as Hegel and Marx had understood the term, ending, respectively, with the liberal democratic state and communist society. This process does not move in a straight line or operate, perhaps, to man's ultimate benefit or pleasure, Fukuyama reiterated, but it is neither random nor unintelligible.

Fukuyama explained his historical process by referencing the development of technology made possible by modern science, which in turn opens up a "uniform horizon of economic production possibilities," facilitating the accumulation of "limitless" wealth and the expansion of unbounded human desires. In this way, history at once requires and guarantees the eventual homogenization of all human societies, no matter their histories and inherited cultural differences. Still, neither scientific and technological advance nor economic development, by itself or in combination with the other, ensures the creation of liberal democracy. An added third element, Hegel's historical principle of the "struggle for recognition" has helped to set an end to history. Men's insistence that they should be recognized as human beings, endowed with all of the rights that human status entails, including the right of "universal and reciprocal recognition" (that is, equality), combined with scientific and economic tendencies, has lifted human history to its culminating point—and its close. Of all the political and social systems devised (or, rather, evolved) by men, liberal democracy comes closest to compounding the humanly liberating benefits of technique, modern economics, and democratic politics in the nearest thing to utopia of which humanity is capable. The process is equivalent with that of modernization itself. Liberal democracy is fully satisfying not only to the citizens of a particular state but also to liberal democratic states in their mutual relationships with one another.

It was Francis Fukuyama who popularized the neoconservative mantra that democracies do not make war on one another and that universal peace has consequently become, for the first time in history, something more than a wishful vision. True, Fukuyama conceded, modern democracies suffer from many problems, including homelessness, drug abuse, environmental destruction, and "frivolous" consumerism. Yet none of these faults, he contended, signals a "contradiction" in liberal democracy comparable to the fatal contradictions that brought about the collapse of communist societies toward the end of the twentieth century. For Fukuyama, history as it remains to be experienced by the human race may be summed up by the familiar, but timelessly elegant, Gallic aphorism Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, to which his theory seems to give universal meaning.

Decades before Fukuyama's book, in the 1950s, another Hegelian, Alexandre Kojève, had argued substantially the same thesis in predicting the end of art and philosophy. True to his own vision, Kojève ceased to write books and give lectures and took a job as a bureaucrat in the European Economic Community, which he hailed as the very model of the End of History.

* * *

Unlike Francis Fukuyama and Alexandre Kojève, Alexis de Tocqueville was not a theorist but an empiricist and a historian who based his predictions for the future of democratic government in Europe on what seemed to him the undeniable will of the majority of the Western peoples for representative government, and, in the case of the United States, on a boundless enthusiasm for democracy as well as conditions that were particularly conducive to maintaining and advancing it. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville arranges these conditions according to three general categories: "the peculiar and accidental situation in which Providence has placed the Americans," American laws, and American mores (moeurs) and habits.

The first category includes America's geographic isolation (ensuring freedom from proximate enemies), territorial extent, and natural bounty. Tocqueville writes: "It was God who, by handing a limitless continent over to [the Americans], gave them the means of long remaining equal and free." The second pertains to the federal form of government, "which allows the union to enjoy the power of a great republic and the security of a small one"; communal (that is, secondary) institutions that restrain majoritarian despotism while developing the skills necessary for self-government; and the organization of the nation's judicial power to check democratic excess. The third points not only to "the habits of the heart" but also to what Tocqueville described as "the various notions possessed by men, the various opinions current among them, and the sum of ideas that shape mental habits"—in short, "the whole moral and intellectual state of a people," the point de départ that allowed the French visitor to "see the whole destiny of America contained in the first Puritan who landed on these shores, as that of the whole human race in the first man."

Although Tocqueville considered the geographical situation of the United States to be of less consequence than its laws to a democratic future, and the laws in turn less important than its mores, this last category effectively comprises the first two. ("In the United States not legislation alone is democratic, for Nature herself seems to work for the people.") At any rate, it is interesting, from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, to see what struck Tocqueville as those American characteristics most likely to perpetuate the American republic.

Among the first to attract Tocqueville's notice was the fact that the United States has no great capital city. This may strike the modern reader as odd, but for Tocqueville, who feared and deplored the process of centralization in France that had located all significant powers in Paris, "the preponderance of capitals" posed a serious threat to representative government. It had, he believed, destroyed the republics of antiquity.

Next, he lists the Americans' religious faith, which Tocqueville considered essential to democratic government. "From the start, politics and religion [in America] agreed, and they have not ceased to do so.... One can say that there is not a single religious doctrine in the United States hostile to democratic and republican institutions"—very much including, he believed, Catholic doctrine. Although religion in America did not directly influence the laws and political system of the United States, it did shape and direct American mores and so, by regulating the lives of individual families, helped to order the larger family, American society itself. Tocqueville considered religion "the first of [the Americans'] political institutions."


Excerpted from AFTER TOCQUEVILLE by Chilton Williamson Jr. Copyright © 2012 by Chilton Williamson Jr.. Excerpted by permission of ISI BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Chilton Williamson Jr. is the author of The Conservative Bookshelf and several other books. A senior editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, he has contributed to Harper’s, the New Republic, the American Spectator, the American Conservative, and many other publications.


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