Book excerpt

Tocqueville on American Character

Why Tocqueville's Brilliant Exploration of the American Spirit is as Vital and Important Today as It Was Nearly Two Hundred Years Ago

Michael A. Ledeen

St. Martin's Press

  Tocqueville on American Character
CHAPTER 1DYNAMIC PEOPLE DRIVEN BY INTERNAL CONFLICTSAll the tensions of the world have been imported by the United States.— RAOUL ROMOLI-VENTURI
 
 
 “Nothing struck me more forcibly,” Tocqueville tells us right at the beginning of his great work, “than the general equality of condition among the people.”1If two Americans meet on the street, they treat one another as equals, regardless of differences in wealth, physical beauty or strength, or intellectual or artistic talent. Not that there are no differences; he’s a practicing Catholic, and insists that we are differently endowed by God, and he is well aware that those differences will be recognized and either help us or hurt (and of course he knew all about black slavery). Nonetheless, he’s amazed to discover that Americans value one another equally, deal with each other in the same way, and give everyone—all else being equal—the same opportunities. There’s none of that bowing and scraping that goes on in the Old World, where a person is automatically assigned a certain status depending upon his parentage alone. Americans don’t like that sort of thing. When Ben Franklin was sent to France they asked him for his title. He replied, “Mr.,” insisting that no greater honorific could be given a man. Americans don’t kneel to kings or queens; we salute men and women worthy of our respect.We know that some men are more gifted than others, but we believe that all men are entitled to equal treatment. “The gifts of the intellect proceed directly from God, and man cannot prevent their unequal distribution” he reminds us, but “the means that Americans find for putting them to use are equal.”2 Equality of condition, not equality of endowment.This passion for equality among Americans has, in Tocqueville’s words, a “prodigious influence … it gives a peculiar direction to public opinion and a peculiar tenor to the laws; it imparts new maxims to the growing authorities and peculiar habits to the governed.” And this prodigious influence doesn’t stop with politics and law; it is the universal solvent of our lives, it affects everything and “modifies whatever it does not produce.” Equality is “the fundamental fact” of American life, and Tocqueville was certain it would eventually become the fundamental fact of life everywhere, the driving force of a global democratic revolution. And if you doubt his prescience, ask Mikhail Gorbachev.No one is automatically entitled to high status or even respect because of birth. Respect has to be earned; it doesn’t come merely because you have a famous name. And it isn’t hard to discover how Americans decide who is top dog: whoever gets the most money wins the game. Equality of condition produces an endless turmoil in which each tries to distinguish himself from the others by outdoing them in the basic American competition for wealth. Americans are always trying to get rich or even richer, and they are constantly on the move. Like the Donners and the Reeds, Americans are ready to pack up and go when opportunity or challenge beckons. And even when they get rich, they still don’t stop, because getting even richer is a constant challenge and a neverending thrill. Business, not baseball, is the great American sport. “The desire of prosperity has become an ardent and restless passion … and it soon becomes a sort of game of chance, which they pursue for the emotions it excites as much as for the gain it procures.”3Many contemporary commentators think they see a growing materialism in American society, as if, in some more austere earlier time, we were more idealistic and less attracted to money and the things money buys. But there is no such age of innocence in our past; we’ve been after the golden ring from the very beginning. Tocqueville has it doubly right: it’s part of our national DNA, and we’re in it both for the money and for the thrill of winning the contest. The critics call it a rat race; the winners, and most Americans, love the competition and wouldn’t have it any other way.American tycoons give away a substantial amount of their fortune, even as they work long hours to keep the money pouring in. Andrew Carnegie was afraid that he might corrupt his children by leaving them lots of money, so he gave away almost all of it before the kids were ruined. Bill Gates and Michael Milken routinely give away billions (the Milken family funds dozens of activities from medical research to educational and religious undertakings) as do numerous Wall Street millionaires who don’t want it publicized. They’ve got all the money they need, indeed they have so much they have to hire people to figure out how to give it away. But they work feverishly to make even more, because the game’s the thing. Americans are like the troops Henry V surveyed on the eve of battle:
I see you stand like Greyhounds in the slips, Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot …
To win the game, you have to work, and Americans work harder and longer than anyone else in the modern world. “Everybody works,” Tocqueville ruefully observes, “and work opens a way to everything; this has changed the point of honor quite around and has turned it against wealth.”4 He sadly remarks that there are plenty of Americans with enough money to be able to permit themselves a life of leisure, but “public opinion forbade it, too imperiously to be disobeyed.” They work anyway, and join the general competition.It’s tough. It’s not for everybody; even those raised in it sometimes find it too tough. Some try to change the rules. The Massachusetts Youth Soccer Association invented “nonresult-oriented competition” for kids ten and under, and is itching to extend it to 12-year-olds. “We’re trying to take away that ‘you’ve-gotta-win-the-trophy’ feeling,” the registrar of the association told the Associated Press in the summer of 1998.5 The anonymous AP reporter called it “soccer without the kick,” and one of the players remarked “It’s dumb and stupid. It’s fun to win.” In the 1960s university students demanded an end to “the concept of failure” in their classwork, and even today there are schools and colleges that do not give grades, preferring personalized essays describing each student’s progress. The Pojoaque Elementary School in Santa Fe, New Mexico, decided to abolish letter grades in 1997, and two years later there was a scheme to dilute the competition for college entry by reinterpreting SAT scores in accordance with, among other factors, how many electrical and electronic devices were in students’ homes.These may be noble efforts, but they’re doomed so long as Americans remain American. As General George Patton says in the opening scene of his movie, “the American people hate a loser.”In this wide open competition, the society is constantly churned from top to bottom. A man can come from nowhere to become president of the nation or CEO of a great corporation of his own creation. Dreamers like Jefferson might muse about a “natural aristocracy” that could lead America to glory, but Tocqueville is no such dreamer. He sees that Americans, both within the society and on the continent, are surging up and sinking down. There is no enduring aristocracy, natural or otherwise; there’s a frantic competition. Each generation creates its own leaders, and the son of yesterday’s famous family is tomorrow’s average Joe.To be sure, the winners aren’t always the best. Tocqueville gets a good look at American political leaders, from John Quincy Adams to Sam Houston, and is not only unimpressed, but, like us, is often depressed by the spectacle. He and Beaumont were underwhelmed by a conversation with President Andrew Jackson:
General Jackson … is a man of violent temper and very moderate talents; nothing in his whole career ever proved him qualified to govern a free people; and, indeed, the majority of the enlightened classes of the Union has always opposed him. But he was raised to the Presidency, and has been maintained there, solely by the recollection of a victory which he gained … a victory which was, however, a very ordinary achievement and which could only be remembered in a country where battles are rare.6
Military victory has carried many American presidential candidates to the White House, from George Washington to Dwight Eisenhower, and probably would have enabled General Colin Powell to win the presidency. In our own day, the White House has become home to men whose credentials were more modest still: peanut farming (Jimmy Carter), movie acting (Ronald Reagan), Kansas City politics (Harry Truman), and wheeling-and-dealing in Arkansas (Bill Clinton) or California and Washington, D.C. (Richard Nixon). State and local leaders are often even less impressive.Tocqueville observes that the most talented Americans rarely go into politics, because political power is limited by an elaborate network of checks and balances that frustrates ambition and imagination. “I was surprised to find so much distinguished talent among the citizens and so little among the heads of the government,”7 he muses, but it makes perfect sense. Business is far more challenging, more remunerative, and places fewer restrictions on the top people. Most CEOs have more power than most government officials, they get better perks, and they have higher prestige in society. No wonder that our best and brightest are more easily found in board rooms than in legislative chambers or executive branch offices. Would you rather be Warren Buffett or Bill Clinton? Do you think it’s better to run American Airlines or be secretary of the air force? Do you think there’s a higher talent level in the House of Representatives or in the top corporate boardrooms?Tocqueville dryly remarks that it sometimes appears that you have to fail in business in order to undertake a career in politics. The business successes aren’t often tempted to run for high office, and when they do, they usually lose prestige. Ask Ross Perot, Steve Forbes, or Donald Trump.As Tocqueville found, America is wide open. There is no other country in which almost any child can legitimately dream of becoming … anything. No other people find it perfectly normal when a college dropout named Bill Gates becomes the richest man in the world virtually overnight, or when an immigrant named Kwok Li sells his eight-year-old company to Lucent Technologies for a billion dollars in cash, when immigrants named Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright are entrusted with the foreign policy of the United States, or a member of the Georgian black underclass named Clarence Thomas becomes a Supreme Court justice. Seventy percent of our current millionaires achieved their status during their lifetimes. Americans, Tocqueville concludes, “are there seen on a greater equality in point of fortune and intellect, or, in other words, more equal in their strength, than [are people] in any other country of the world, or in any age of which history has preserved the remembrance.”8This is the “equality of condition” that so impresses Tocqueville. While wealth is indeed unevenly divided at any given moment, there are no permanent classes. From time to time there are anguished cries about a growing gap between rich and poor in America, as if this were terribly unfair, particularly when a small percentage of the population makes enormous sums of money. But Americans themselves, including those at the bottom of the pile, don’t agree with the critics. Americans overwhelmingly believe that equality of condition exists, and that they can benefit from it. Two-thirds of Americans polled in 1993 (just after a brief economic recession) answered “yes” to the question, “do you think people should be allowed to accumulate as much wealth as they can even if some make millions while others live in poverty?”9 Three years later, an astounding 80 percent agreed that it is possible to “start out poor, work hard, and become rich.” This conviction spans social categories and ethnic groups, from top to bottom. When The Washington Post asked African American teenagers in 1995 whether blacks or whites had a better chance to succeed in life, 60 percent said the chances were equal.10To be sure, as in George Orwell’s memorable phrase, some people are more equal than others. Rockefellers and Kennedys, and now Buffetts and Gateses, have more opportunity than people born at the bottom of the feeding chain. There are many people who, through no fault of their own, are not going to succeed. Tocqueville knows this, but he also knows that the chances for success are greater here than anywhere else, and that our belief in our unique opportunities drives us, in a powerful self-fulfilling prophecy, to break down barriers to social mobility.For Tocqueville, the most revolutionary thing about America is the constant dynamic change up and down the social ramp: poor people get rich, and rich guys become impoverished. This means that categories such as “rich” and “poor” contain constantly changing faces; America is not divided into fixed classes the same way as other societies. In the Old World, with rare exceptions that prove the general rule, political power is retained and transmitted by political parties or family dynasties, and wealth either flows from the coffers of the state or is passed on from wealthy parents to their fortunate children. That is why young and ambitious Europeans and Asians, brandishing their new MBAs or certificates of proficiency in computer programming, or acceptance letters from American universities, are headed for the United States in record numbers. At last count there were more than half a million foreign students in our colleges and universities, with the numbers growing every year.In the rest of the world, those who are born in the wrong neighborhood learn early on that they’re not destined for wealth or glory. In England or Italy, the wrong accent can close most of Fortune’s doors. If non-Americans want to move up, they must generally choose among the traditional channels of limited upward mobility: the church, the military, or organized crime. Most Americans, whatever their origins, think they can become millionaires and live the good life. A recent book title, of which hundreds of similar examples can easily be found, proclaims: Getting Rich in America: Eight Simple Rules for Building a Fortune and a Satisfying Life. Luigi Barzini, another keen-eyed European visitor to America, mused on this uniquely American phenomenon almost exactly a century after Tocqueville’s trip.
Only the fools, the lazy, the inept, the irresponsible, and the egotists refused to face the challenge. They had no excuse. Cheap handbooks, as simple to follow as cookbooks for new brides, taught everybody in simple language how to develop their dormant talents and the tricks necessary to make a packet quickly, possibly in their youth, in order to spend the rest of their life fishing. One could learn for a few dollars how to speak masterfully in public, be irresistible, dominate a meeting, mesmerize superiors or opponents, make friends, sell everything to everybody, and, in the end, with the first million in the bank, spot prodigious investment opportunities, investments that multiplied themselves like amoebas … People hopefully bought these books by the millions, as true believers buy sacred relics or bottles of miraculous water at a sanctuary.11
Sometimes Americans become millionaires without even trying. A young employee of America Online, hired to put data into the on-line sports reports, had accumulated a bundle of AOL stock options without knowing their significance. One happy day in the summer of 1999 a colleague told him that the shares were now “vested,” and were worth more than two million dollars. It was better than winning the lottery, even though it was hardly won by merit. Sometimes you just get lucky.But the basic rule is that if you work hard, you’ll make it. To quote Ron Jones, the co-owner of Handy Andy Janitorial Services in Piano, Texas: “If you want your prayers answered, get off your knees and hustle.”12 And Marcus Garvey, the celebrated black leader of the early twentieth century, said it all: “Wealth is power, wealth is justice, wealth is real human rights … The opportunity is yours, you can lift yourselves to any height …”13That is why our greatest heroes do it on their own. “There is a new glorification of the risk-taking businessman,” The Wall Street Journal tells us in its “Overview of World Business” in late 1999. “According to one recent survey, more than 90% of Americans consider the entrepreneur a figure of respect … In the U.K … . the figure was just 38%. And in Japan, only 8% of adults believe it is prestigious to start a company.”14Tocqueville knows how avidly we glorify risk-taking pioneers. Today, Jim Clyman would be an Internet tycoon or an astronaut. Those 1999 poll results were just another reflection of one of the basic components of American character. The lone figure challenging the frontier—whether the actual wilderness of our first two hundred and fifty years; or the frontiers of industry, sports, and space; or the frontiers of the mind—is the quintessential American hero. We have always been moving west, and when the real west became too civilized we moved on to conquer other worlds.He chooses his words carefully: We were conquerors long before the world wars of the twentieth century. You have only to look, as Tocqueville does, at the fate of the Indian tribes that fell before our western march. He describes us in terms that conjure up visions of Roman legions:
… a restless, reasoning, adventurous race which does coldly what only the ardour of passion can explain … nation of conquerors who submit themselves to the savage life without ever allowing themselves to be seduced by it … A people which, like all great peoples, has but one thought, and which is advancing toward the acquisition of riches, sole goal of its efforts, with a perseverance and a scorn for life that one might call heroic, if that name fitted other than virtuous things.15
Shades of Jim Clyman’s meditation at the gravesite of Reed’s mother! If the legendary mountain man—the exemplar of Tocqueville’s description—had had Tocqueville’s gift of language, and the time to think it through, he’d have said the same.All we ask for is a level playing field. Give us a fair chance, don’t give the other guys any advantage, and we think we’ll make it. That is why that most un-American practice, the quota system of favoring one group over another, is cut down time after time, whether it is applied to Catholics, Jews, Blacks, Latinos, or women. We do not wish to give or receive special treatment.In our rough-and-tumble society, there are no guarantees. Equality cuts both ways. You can rise from squalor to Beverly Hills, and you can fall from the heights of Wall Street and take your place amidst the Bowery bums. Nobody bats an eye when yesterday’s tycoon slides down into the yaw of the struggling masses. It can happen to the greatest of us, even to Superman’s wife. Margot Kidder, who played Lois Lane in the movie version of the superhero’s life, was found wandering the streets of southern California, her fortune spent, her clothes in tatters, and her mind befuddled. Joe Lewis, the great heavyweight boxing champion, was reduced to penury, as are countless former stars of professional sports. Once they were among the richest of us.We know that the bigger they are, the harder they fall. It’s all part of the American game, an almost daily occurrence. The Dart Group, once a booming empire that owned major interests in Dart Drug Stores, Crown Books, Trak Auto, Total Beverage, and Shoppers Food Warehouse, was torn apart by generational conflict, which not only paralyzed the enterprise but generated enormous legal costs as father and sons sued and countersued each other. Boston Chicken, one of the hottest new stocks in the country in 1993, filed for bankruptcy barely five years later. Woolworth, the very symbol of the American department store, has vanished, along with former business giants like Eastern and Western Airlines. Pan Am used to be the greatest airline in the world; today it is a regional shadow of its former glory.We may mourn their passing, but we welcome the opportunity to rise to their former heights, and then surpass them.THE PERFECTIBILITY OF MANWhen an entire people demonstrates a unique passion for achievement, they must be motivated by some basic cause, such as an underlying belief, a blessing of fortune, a powerful new development, or perhaps a profound internal conflict. If it were just a matter of a lucky location on good land with nonthreatening neighbors, then the Canadians and the Mexicans would be just like us. If it were just a matter of our British heritage, we’d be just like the Australians. Tocqueville has met ambitious individuals before, and he knows that ambition is a basic human trait. But this is something quite different from the usual man-on-the-make: he’s found an entire people racing full speed ahead, and we’ve kept on racing for more than three hundred years.Tocqueville lays it at the altar of Equality. In traditional societies, where a man’s status is determined at birth, individuals can improve themselves but it is inconceivable to improve everyone. That would undo the entire social fabric. In America, where all are deemed equal, where no one is fixed in place, and where you can go from the bottom to the top in a single lifetime, everyone can improve, or be improved.It also means that nothing is forever; if we’re going to make everything, and everybody better, the old models have to be thrown away. We call it “creative destruction,” and it was part and parcel of the American character long before it became a slogan for business visionaries like “Neutron Jack” Welsh of General Electric, who has created more shareholder wealth than any chief executive in history, and earned his nickname by firing nearly a quarter of his employees: “ … the radical messages he began preaching 20 years ago now seem like clichés … Conference speakers the world over assert that you have to destroy your own business to survive.”16 Creative destruction has always been a fundamental component of our DNA, because we have always been perfecting our enterprises … and ourselves. No one knows it better than Welsh, who, according to Business Week magazine, has a “near spiritual belief in the promise of the individual.” Welsh could have been quoting Tocqueville when he said “The idea flow from the human spirit is absolutely unlimited … All you have to do is tap into that well. I don’t like to use the word efficiency. It’s creativity. It’s a belief that every person counts.”17The belief in the perfectibility of mankind was an Enlightenment conceit, but in Europe it was embraced by a mere handful of philosophers (the ones famously spoofed by Voltaire in Candide). Over here it became an article of national faith. Americans hold a truly revolutionary, even messianic belief in the perfectibility of mankind. Tocqueville looks deeply into the American soul, and finds, in the midst of our frenetic activity,
[T]he image of an ideal but always fugitive perfection … Continual changes are then every instant occurring … the position of some is rendered worse, and he learns but too well that no people and no individual, however enlightened they may be, can lay claim to infallibility; the condition of others is improved, whence he infers that man is endowed with an indefinite faculty for improvement. His reverses teach him that none have discovered absolute good; his success stimulates him to the neverending pursuit of it. Thus, forever seeking, forever falling to rise again, often disappointed, but not discouraged, he tends unceasingly towards that unmeasured greatness so indistinctly visible at the end of the long track which humanity has yet to tread.18
That madcap pursuit of happiness for all men, one of those basic human rights that Jefferson laid down in the Declaration of Independence, isn’t an abstract philosophical ideal; it’s our core principle. It infuses our every activity, from physical workouts designed to give us perfect bodies, to varieties of religious and mystical experience that promise us perfect souls, and scientific research that promises triumph over disease, birth defects, and perhaps even death itself. We believe that we all have “an indefinite faculty for improvement.”Tocqueville’s compact description of our outlook on life is deadly accurate. Americans consider failure temporary; what matters, as our mothers taught us, is how much you learn from it, and whether or not you grow stronger thereafter. Thomas Alva Edison had over six thousand failed attempts to find the right filament for his electric light bulb, and he proudly insisted that he learned something each time. We love comebacks, whether by a team that falls behind in the first half or by a defeated man who tries again and again until he finally wins. Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky,” an archetypal American hero, never has an easy fight. He always gets bashed in the early rounds, and has to pick himself up from the mat, and come back to win.As so often in American life, there is a religious underpinning to our fundamental optimism. Americans love repentant sinners, the moral equivalents of losers who find the wherewithal to come back and win. No wonder Bill Clinton’s most affectionate nickname is “the Comeback Kid.” Consider also the spectacle of the “Ninth 1st Annual IG Nobel Prize” ceremony in Cambridge Massachusetts, honoring achievements that “cannot or should not be reproduced.” As awards were bestowed on such breakthrough creations as “a device to aid women giving birth: a circular table that rotates at high speed,” and a study of why cereal gets soggy, a live Internet feed was managed by one Robert T. Morris.
Morris teaches computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is an Internet millionaire, and serves on the … editorial board. He’s also a convicted felon who was sentenced to community service and three years’ probation by a federal judge after a computer “worm” program he wrote clogged operating systems around the world and brought much of the Internet to its knees in 1989. The New York Times called it “the largest assault ever on America’s computers.” He has since earned a doctorate in computer science from Harvard, and an estimated $9 million from the sale of an Internet start-up company he co-founded.”19
Even convicted felons can make it in America, provided they repent and start anew on the road to perfection.Human perfectibility is one of the most radical ideas in human history, and a society that embraces it is both revolutionary and intensely frustrated. America is a truly revolutionary society, and ours is the one successful revolution in modern history, as Tocqueville repeatedly reminds us. The French Revolution produced massive bloodshed, a world war, and then failure. The Russian Revolution produced bloodshed, then organized terror for three quarters of a century, then failure. The fascist revolutions in Italy and Germany produced a world war, the Holocaust, and then humiliating defeat. The Chinese Revolution killed more people than all the others combined, and China is still looking for a workable solution to its enormous problems. The American Revolution produced a great success, and we are still succeeding more than two centuries later.As Tocqueville foresaw, America is a global revolutionary force, threatening tyrants everywhere, as their subjects learn that the most successful country in the world is also the freest. The citizens of the old Soviet Empire knew all along that they’d be better off living in a free society than under communist dictatorship, and they knew that America was the best model of what they wanted. But Americans are frustrated because, despite all our best efforts, we never quite get there.Sometimes we even lapse back into nostalgia for the (generally imaginary) good old days when men were born to a position, and just stayed there. Examples range from the charming to the pathetic, as American adults play dress-up and pretend to be aristocrats. There is a current boomlet in formal shooting clubs, whose members
come out of their closets monthly in tweed jackets, waistcoats, breeches, stockings, knee flashes and other sartorial accessories of turn-of-the-century lords. Along with their ladies (usually wives) in ankle-length skirts, fluffy high-neck blouses and feathered hats, they gather to ape the elegance, lavishness and style of English shooting parties in their vintage years from 1880 to the beginning of World War I.20
One of the members, the security chief of a watch company in New York, goes right to the heart of the matter: “We want to Americanize the whole concept of elitism.” It’s a cozy refuge from the endless ordeal of perfecting mankind.On the other hand, we’re sure we will get there, once we find the right combination of leaders and laws. And we’re also sure that we’re making constant progress. We are better off than our parents, and our children will do better than we have. Step by glorious step, we’re moving forward. Things are getting better all the time, and if they’re not, we’ll fix it.That is why Americans invented the concept of planned obsolescence, which takes for granted that today’s technological breakthrough will be tomorrow’s collector’s item, just as the first big computer, the Univac, is now a museum piece. Tocqueville greatly admired American know-how, and was quite taken with the elegant design of our sailing ships, but he could not refrain from commenting to an American ship builder that the materials weren’t as durable as those used in European ships. The American immediately agreed, and gave a typically American explanation: Why should we use the best materials when we know that the next generation of ships will be even better, and in just a few years we will want to use the newer models? Ralph Nader was furious when he discovered that American automobile manufacturers still used the same strategy a century and a half later. If he’d read Tocqueville more carefully, he’d have understood that it’s a logical consequence of our belief that everything and everyone can and will be made better and better.Nonetheless, life remains stubbornly imperfect and inequalities continue to abound, even in the midst of American abundance. Barzini recognizes that this is the stuff of the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus, doomed to push a rock up a steep mountain, but never reaching the summit. Whenever he gets near the peak, the rock eludes him and rolls back to the bottom. It is a metaphor for the endless pursuit of the American dream.
Americans, men engaged in their unending Sisyphean labor without rest … had always been tormented by the perennial discovery that their achievements were always late and inferior to the dream, that every gain had to be paid for with heartbreaking and irremediable losses. From the beginning their expectations had always been so high that the results, no matter how spectacular, were bound to be disappointing. Impatience and a feeling of frustration were the two faces of America.21
Tocqueville’s exploration of American character has uncovered a basic tension: We believe in the perfectibility of man, but we are clear-eyed enough to recognize our failures. We know that the fault, as Shakespeare put it, lies not with our stars but with ourselves, and each failed generation leaves its successor with a heavier messianic burden.This is the kind of psychological conflict that explains our frenetic nature, and Tocqueville knows that it is only one of many.It doesn’t bother us, mind you; but it does drive us to try even harder. It’s what makes us so dynamic. It’s why we, with 5 percent of the world’s population, generate half of the world’s venture capital. We intend to build that glorious “city on the hill” of which John Winthrop spoke in Puritan Massachusetts.Maybe the game’s not the main thing. Maybe the stakes are higher.A TORTURED AND REVOLUTIONARY PEOPLEBy the time Tocqueville meets us, we’ve been through a lot: the original immigration and the first harsh years in the New England woods and the disease-ridden Chesapeake Bay, then several wars, first with the Indians and then with the French, and of course the long Revolutionary War with the English. The tough century and a half between the arrival of the Pilgrims and the defeat of the British army weeded out those who weren’t up to the challenge, or who simply wanted a less stressful life. Sometimes it was voluntary: people did go back to the Old Country, and others migrated to Canada, where the crown still held sway. On other occasions it was a forced emigration, or a choice made under desperate circumstances. The American Revolution produced a far higher percentage of émigrés than the French Revolution—something approaching 100,000 royalists out of the 2.5 million living here at the time—and, with exceptions so rare they can be counted on the fingers of one mutilated hand, they never came back. After the French Revolution, the royalists returned and restored the monarchy, but not in America. Our royalist émigrés gave quaint and wistful names to tiny towns and villages on the Bahamian islands where they settled (and where their descendants still live), awaiting the defeat of the revolutionaries and the restoration of British rule: Hope, Patience, and so forth.Those who went to Canada remained tied to the Old World and its mores, as Tocqueville neatly shows us in his comparison between the two towns on different sides of the border. They are still inclined to follow the European lead, rather than, as we prefer, to thumb our noses at foreign methods. Nearly a quarter-century ago, the United States and Canada agreed to adopt the metric system. Both countries decided to move in unison. In order to avoid confusion, joint labeling was introduced years in advance: liquid containers were marked in quarts, gallons and liters, while items on grocery store shelves were weighed in pounds, ounces, grams, and kilos. When the appointed day arrived, Canada saluted briskly and switched over. In America … nothing happened. The Canadians now use kilometers, kilograms, and the centigrade scale; we stuck with miles, gallons, and Fahrenheit. Americans just weren’t interested in conforming to international practice.22The great historian of the Revolutionary period, R. R. Palmer, concluded that our national consensus, which is to say our national character, “rests in some degree on the elimination from the national consciousness, as well as from the country, of a once important and relatively numerous element of dissent.”23The royalists are gone; the revolutionaries are us.This rigorous selection process left us with a clear and unique national character, but, as Tocqueville quietly admits in his less effervescent moments, certainly not a monolithic one. Had the entire country been subjected to the harsh rigors of New England Puritanism, it might have been too constricting. Had the country instead adopted the more self-indulgent and aristocratic style of the Chesapeake Bay Colony—morality was more lax in the South from the very beginning—it might have excessively diluted our national Calvinist ethic.For one thing, our passion for equality is closely linked to two other components: freedom and individualism (a word coined by Tocqueville). Most Americans think that freedom and equality are essentially the same thing, or two sides of the same coin: We think that freedom and equality have been granted to each individual, in order that he can pursue happiness and success as he sees fit.But most Americans are wrong. In one of the darkest sections of Democracy in America,24 Tocqueville erects a temporary firewall between freedom and equality, a second tension in the American character. “A man may be the equal of all his countrymen save one, who is the master of all …” In a dictatorship, everyone except the ruler is equal, but none but the dictator is free. And although we can’t be absolutely equal unless we’re entirely free, “the taste which men have for liberty and that which they feel for equality are, in fact, two different things; and … among democratic nations they are two unequal things.” Americans are more passionately devoted to the pursuit of happiness—to be sure, happiness pursued by equally free individuals—than to defending liberty, even though you can’t achieve ultimate happiness without maximum freedom. Tocqueville will drag us back to that thought again and again. Good aristocrat that he is, he values liberty more than equality, and he’s afraid that, in our headlong and sometimes unreasoned embrace of equality, we may someday lose our freedom.“Freedom” also turns out to be more complicated than you might imagine. As David Hackett Fischer has painstakingly recounted,25 there were four variations on the theme, as one would have expected, from four distinct groups of immigrants, from four English regions during the seventeenth century. All came in search of greater freedom, but there were differences, sometimes substantial ones, which the settlers brought with them.• New England developed an “ordered freedom,” stressing obligation and discipline in a strict religious context;• Virginia translated the aristocratic traditions of its founder into a “hegemonic freedom,” and stressed notions of collective honor and dignity (in a direct line to Jefferson’s natural aristocracy);• The Pennsylvania Quakers insisted on “reciprocal freedom” verging on modern libertarianism;• The back country frontiersmen were advocates of “natural freedom,” and produced the lion’s share of the great explorers and mountain men, from Daniel Boone forward.While our four versions of freedom varied from region to region (as they do even today), they blended into an American consensus. “This diversity of libertarian ideas,” Fischer reminds us, “has created a culture of freedom which is more open and expansive than any unitary tradition alone could possibly be.”So there is turmoil even over this, our political and social bedrock. We are committed to freedom, like no people before us, but we are not united in our understanding of exactly what freedom means, or what a free society should be like. On occasion we’ve had some very nasty ruckuses about freedom. We fought the bloody Civil War over whether or not the Southern states could freely secede from a union into which they had freely entered. Earlier, we argued furiously over how to organize a constitution for a free country. Our contemporary political debates are models of tranquility compared to those arguments in Philadelphia, let alone to the battlefields of the 1860s.The American ferment is not limited to competition among us; it goes on within us as well. A people constantly on the move is not tranquil, and our constant motion bespeaks an intense inner turmoil. Tocqueville spots it right away, and he marvels that it is not the result of the desperation of the poor, or even the zealousness of those on the make, but a basic component of the American character, leading him to suspect that there is a higher rate of insanity in America than in the Old World. He finds an unexpected tension even within the souls of the most successful. Tocqueville marvels that while he has encountered “the freest and most enlightened men placed in the happiest circumstances that the world affords; it seemed to me as if a cloud habitually hung upon their brow, and I thought them serious and almost sad, even in their pleasures.” The constant quest for unlimited happiness and unending success obsesses Americans, driving them in a near frenzy toward ever-greater accomplishments: “ … It is strange to see with what feverish ardor the Americans pursue their own welfare, and to watch the vague dread that constantly torments them lest they should not have chosen the shortest path which may lead to it …”26 Two centuries later, Barzini remarked upon the same phenomenon:
Most unhappy of all … were many successful people, who should theoretically have been the happiest, because every one of them thought he had not really gone as far as he deserved, and felt cheated, or because, with success, his new problems had multiplied and become unendurable.27
Our belief in individualism creates a third tension, because the American enterprise is also collective. We are all striving to build that city on the hill, and we hope and expect that our individual efforts will eventually bring freedom and happiness to everyone. Ralph Barton Perry, following in Tocqueville’s footsteps, has called this particular tension a collective individualism:
American self-reliance is a plural, collective, self-reliance—not “I can,” but “we can.” But it is still individualistic—a togetherness of several and not the isolation of one, or the absorption of all into a higher unity. The appropriate term is not “organism” but “organization”; ad hoc organization, extemporized to meet emergencies, and multiple organization in which the same individuals join many and surrender themselves to none.28
A collective individualism was precisely what the Donners and the Reeds exemplified, but their example shows the perils of a society that admires the individual above all else (which is why Tocqueville believed individualism to be a vice). There are tasks that can only be accomplished if individuals forget their personal interests and sacrifice for the group or community or nation. And there are times when all the individuals will be wiped out unless the group cohesion holds. Marine trainees are not permitted to use the word “I,” because they must submerge their egos in the interests of the mission. Marine drill sergeants dread the breakdown of the group, because once soldiers start thinking about their personal interests, they will not fight effectively. The military is the extreme example of the desperate need for collective enterprise, but it is far from the only one; even before the terrible snows in the Truckee Valley, the Donner Party had broken under the strain of the long trek across the continent.The Donners did not lose their individualism. They lost their lives.American individualism begins in the cradle. American parents deliberately set out to raise young men and women who will think for themselves, and grow up to be successful individuals. And it works: 69 percent of Americans polled in 1989 agreed that “it is boring to live like other people,” compared, for example, with only a quarter of Japanese. We love daring individuals, and our heroes do not blend in with the crowd. We hail the Lone Ranger and Superman, and we do not like it when they are tamed. When Superman proposed to Lois Lane in Superman II, a groan went through a New York City audience, and one spectator screamed, “Don’t do it Supe!” Luke Skywalker has to fight Darth Vader by himself; not even his gurus can help him. Rambo has to fight the elite forces of the Red Army virtually alone, and Tom Clancy’s CIA hero fights by himself, against bad guys at home and abroad. When Ronald Reagan taunted his political enemies by quoting Dirty Harry’s immortal words: “Go ahead. Make my day,” he knew what he was doing.THE TYRANNY OF THE MAJORITYThe most fundamental and the most dangerous of these internal tensions is the “collective” part of “collective individualism.” The French philosopher Jacques Maritain described it as a perpetually varying tension “between the sense of the community and the sense of individual freedom.”29 It’s a creative tension, so long as there is a reasonable balance between the two. But we have a tendency to go overboard, either toward anarchy or what Tocqueville ominously calls the “tyranny of the majority.”This dark side of American character is the product of democracy itself, which places the government under the sovereignty of the people, expressed in the election of our representatives. Tocqueville fears that the power of the majority will squash our individualism, blunt our creativity, and produce a mindless conformity throughout our society. He compares the power of the American majority with that of the absolute monarchs of Europe:
The French … held it for a maxim that the king could do no wrong; and if he did do wrong, the blame was imputed to his advisers. This notion made obedience very easy; it enabled the subject to complain of the law without ceasing to love and honor the lawgiver. The Americans entertain the same opinion with respect to the majority.30
We may not hold our individual fellow citizens in great esteem, but we adulate them when they express themselves collectively, believing with the ancient Romans that “the voice of the people is the voice of God.” Tocqueville is not surprised (even though he is deeply disappointed) when politicians make important decisions on the basis of public opinion polls, muttering that “with the exception of the tumult, this comes to the same thing as if the majority itself held its deliberations in the market-place.” He much prefers leaders who present their own ideas, reach their own conclusions, and then invite their electors to evaluate the results.Since we think the desires of the majority are superior to those of any minority, there is always the risk that minorities will be trampled, even in the normal course of day-to-day life. In an excess of anxiety, Tocqueville goes so far as to despair of any true freedom of expression. “I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America … there is but one authority, one element of strength and success, with nothing beyond it.”31 An oppressive conformity, in other words, that denies to a maverick thinker the courtesy of an open hearing.Tocqueville paints a nightmare vision of what happens to someone who sets himself against the conventional American wisdom. Such a man, he says, can say or write whatever he wishes, but he will be scorned. “Every sort of compensation, even … celebrity, is refused to him.” He is abandoned by all, even those who used to encourage him.“He yields at length, overcome by the daily effort he has to make, and subsides into silence, as if he felt remorse for having spoken the truth.” Tocqueville considers this worse than the oppressive censorship of the absolute monarchies, in which “the body was attacked in order to subdue the soul; but the soul escaped the blows … and rose proudly superior.” Under the democratic tyranny he sees rising in America, the body is left intact, but the mind and the soul are suffocated.
The [democratic master] says: “You are free to think differently from me and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but you are henceforth a stranger among your people. You may retain your civil rights, but they will be useless to you, for you will never be chosen by your fellow citizens if you solicit their votes; and they will affect to scorn you if you ask for their esteem … . Your fellow creatures will shun you like an impure being … Go in peace! I have given you your life, but it is an existence worse than death.”32
Our belief in the wisdom of the majority leads to contempt for the politically incorrect, whatever the current version of political correctness, because our faith in public opinion is a kind of civic religion, “and the majority its ministering prophet.”33 That is why our leaders wrap themselves in the mantle of “the people,” and even if they advance unpopular ideas they claim the support of a “silent majority.” Tocqueville fears that our worship of the collective wisdom of the American people may one day replace the old forms of oppression with a new one, and he issues a stern warning: “When I feel the hand of power lie heavy on my brow, I care but little to know who oppresses me; and I am not the more disposed to pass beneath the yoke because it is held out to me by the arms of a million men.”34Tocqueville foresees a terrible leveling of talent, from politics to science, art and literature, all due to the tyranny of the majority. Forgetting his earlier insight that the most talented people will stay out of politics, he intones that the mediocre quality of American leaders is due to the despotism of the majority. In like manner, since he sees no great writers in America, he blames it on the usual suspect: “There can be no literary genius without freedom of opinion, and freedom of opinion does not exist in America.”He is certainly right about our touching faith in the wisdom of the majority, and he is at least half-right about our proclivity to impose group standards on individuals who try to swim against the mainstream. We have gone through many moments when it appeared that Tocqueville’s nightmare was on the verge of establishing the rules of daily life. Those of us who grew up in the 1950s and grimly read such best-sellers as David Reisman’s The Lonely Crowd, or novels like The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, dreaded graduation, when we feared we would be recruited by a faceless corporation that would dress us in the standard suit and force us to conform to their mindless rules of speech and decorum while manufacturing superfluous products for the masses.But the heirs of Jim Clyman, Jedediah Smith, and Kit Carson are hard to organize into a homogeneous mass, and Tocqueville underestimated the stubbornly anticonformist individualism imbedded in American character, even though he was the first to give it its proper name. He paid too much attention to that proper Bostonian, former President John Quincy Adams, who lamented that the wrong sort of person was populating the new States (“people for the most part without principles or morality, who have been driven out of the old States by misery or bad conduct or who know only the passion to get rich),”35 while his own New England was populated by “enlightened and profoundly religious men.” The people on the frontier are the real American heroes.He also underestimated our creative talent. He would have had greater confidence in us, and avoided the embarrassment of announcing a dearth of literary talent in America, if only he’d read Whitman:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Americans are defined by the struggle between individualism and a dominant majority, and by many other tensions: we are “a society of laws, not men,” but we adore flamboyant lawbreakers, from Jesse James and Dillinger to Bonnie and Clyde and the Godfather, from Thelma and Louise to Bill and Hillary Clinton. We echo Harrison Ford’s words to Carrie Fisher in Star Wars when she calls him a scoundrel: “Scoundrel. I like that.” We resent government intrusion, but we want government to do many things for us. We think it is wrong to meddle in other countries’ affairs, but we want to support democracy and fight tyranny all over the world. Time and time again, Americans passionately hold conflicting ideals.No wonder we’re so busy all the time; we’ve got a lot of internal stress to work off. Notice that this national stress is precisely the opposite of the sort you hear about in the popular press, the kind of stress that comes from work. This is the sort of stress that drives you to work, because you must meet a very high standard, perhaps the highest standard ever demanded of a man. The Englishman Auberon Waugh put it in Tocquevillian terms:
… equality is not some crude fairy tale about all men being equally tall or equally tricky; which we not only cannot believe but cannot believe in anybody believing. It is an absolute of morals by which all men have a value invariable and indestructible and a dignity as intangible as death.36
It’s a spiritual stress, another of the fundamental tensions that define us. It has to do with religion, with Americans’ relationship with God.TOCQUEVILLE ON AMERICAN CHARACTER. Copyright © 2000 by Michael A. Ledeen. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, Michael A. Ledeen, a noted political analyst, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of Machiavelli on Modern Leadership and is a contributor to The Wall Street Journal. He lives and works in Washington D.C.