The Social State

As the American History class reads through some excerpts from De Tocqueville, questions about the nature of equality have arisen consistently, especially in regards to the recent Supreme Court decision on marriage.  The students (and to a somewhat lesser extent, myself) seem plowed over by the speed of how things have changed.  In 2004, some argued that the issue of homosexual marriage helped mobilize conservatives to defeat John Kerry.  Ten years later many acted as if the high Court’s decision was an inevitable byproduct of the times.  The shift came swift and sure, and in some ways out of nowhere.

What happened, and why?

One could advance many reasons and theories.  An extended treatment of the topic would involve an in depth look at theological and cultural shifts, and so forth.  Pierre Manent’s De Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy helped me see one piece of the puzzle in stark clarity.  In discussing De Tocqueville’s general political theory, he writes,

Tocqueville draws distinctions between three types of regimes: those where power is external to society (absolute monarchies), those where it is both internal and external to society (aristocracies, who reside outside the people, but reside there due to custom and tradition, thus from within the culture), and finally, the United States, where the society “acts by itself on itself,” because “there is no power except that which emanates from within.”  He paints the picture of regime where the social bond is immediately political.

Aha!  Here we have it, as he asserts that democratic governments have no guidance from “the state,” rather, it comes from everyone, or no one in particular.  This is why we don’t always see these changes coming.

Manent continues to enumerate two main characteristics of such regimes.

  • Invisibility — De Tocqueville writes, “In America the laws are seen, their daily execution is perceived, everything is in movement around you, but the motor is discovered nowhere.”
  • Omnipresence — This invisible power is present and active.  “In the New England states, the legislative power extends to more objects than are among us.” “In the United States, government centralization is at a high point.  It would be easy to prove that national power there is more concentrated than it has been in any of the ancient monarchies of Europe.”  De Tocqueville referred, of course, to the 1830’s — not today.

This means that, among other things, we cannot blame the courts, the media, Hollywood, or any other particular entity in society.  If we don’t like something we have only two choices: blame everyone, or no one at all.

Tocqueville thought in the 1830’s that this power still mainly operated through legislative bodies and elections.  Today, I can’t think of a strong legislative body in any particular state, let alone Congress itself.  Change now, even more so than Tocqueville’s day, comes from the mist of the air.  It concentrates quickly and becomes universal.  “The social bond is immediately political.”  One can debate whether or not the Supreme Court’s decision truly reflected the “average American.”  But we cannot deny that the “spirit of the age” gave the Court’s decision that feeling of inevitability.  We didn’t see it coming because American politics truly operate from the people, not even from our elected officials — hence the enormous power  of this force.  We can elect new leaders.  Even kings die eventually.  The people will always remain.  Our institutions. then, even our guaranteed rights, should not be seen as natural byproducts of democratic government, but foreign agents sent to sabotage this unseen motor.  Tocqueville believed that the insertion of the Bill of Rights checked democratic feeling, and proved the wisdom of the founders.*  In general, he predicted that the massive power of the people would run through every possible crack in the Constitution and widen it immeasurably.  One only has to see how we have used the commerce clause** for good and ill as yet another exhibit of Tocqueville’s keen perception.

As we might imagine, this “motor” must derive its primary source of energy from a passion for equality, not liberty.  Tocqueville pointed out often that at some point these two governing principles become mutually exclusive and cancel each other out.  “Liberty” might produce more individual works of great genius, but equality will give us “immediate pleasures” and a more equitable foundation for democracy.  He predicted that equality would rise in prominence as the years went by and he predicted accurately.

We might think that the idea of “marriage equality” shows that we have reached the apotheosis of this democratic idea, but if we look at the culture at large I have my doubts.  Movies like “Elysium” and “Snowpiercer,” tv shows like “Mr. Robot,” broader trends like the “Occupy” movement — all show that we may not be done with “Equality” just yet.  This in turn made me think about a comment A.J. Toynbee made about a link between capitalism and communism.  He writes in Volume Five of his A Study of History,

However that may be, the modern Western World seems to have broken virgin soil in extending the empire of Necessity into the economic field — which is indeed a sphere of social life that has been overlooked or ignored by almost all the minds that have directed the thoughts of other societies.  The classic exposition of Economic Determinism is of course Karl Marx; but in the western world of today the number of souls who testify by their acts to a conviction that Economic Necessity is Queen of All is vastly greater than the number of professing Marxists, and would be found to include a phalanx of arch-capitalists who would repudiate with horror any suggestion that were fundamentally at one, in the faith by which they lived, with the execrable prophet of communism.

Many of us grew up with Democracy and Communism as bitter enemies.  But Tocqueville and Manent have made me wonder, if in communism we simply have democracy’s final and untenable form.



*Though the Bill of Rights was not in the original Constitution, we can agree with Tocqueville if we interpret “founders” more broadly.

**Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution, which gives Congress the power “to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.”  We have used the commerce clause as the basis for labor laws, farm subsidies, gun control, etc., etc. in ways I’m sure the framers of the Constitution never imagined.