August 13, 2016


Our Friendly Visitors : A new book examines foreign observations of American democracy. (Daniel J. Mahoney, August 12, 2016, City Journal)

Nolan points out the common themes that connect these visitors to America over a period of 100 years (Tocqueville traveled to America in 1831-32, Weber in 1904, and Chesterton in 1921 and 1930-31). But many of their themes and concerns were shared by an almost uniformly critical observer of America, the Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb (who spent time in America from 1948 to 1950). The first three visitors "were simultaneously impressed with and disquieted by what they saw in America." Qutb saw only shadows and the dissolution of the human spirit. In his view, Americans lived for the almighty dollar, had no sense of beauty, and were fundamentally estranged from nature and religion. Moreover, the happiness they pursued constantly eluded them. He saw in America only conformity and a tendency to form an agitated "herd." Much of this is undoubtedly overwrought. But Nolan is struck by the fact that many of the same criticisms were made in a more balanced way by the friendly critics of America and American democracy. One doesn't have to indulge Qutb's penchant for political extremism, his one-sided hostility to Western democracy, his hatred of Zionism and Jews (which Nolan understates), or his fanciful belief that Islam will solve all the problems of modern civilization to recognize that he, too, has something to say about the limits of modern democracy.       

Alexis de Tocqueville was "the first to identify the paradoxical tendencies of individualism, conformism, and voluntarism in American society." A self-declared friend of America and democracy, Tocqueville nonetheless described Americans' "conformist habits and acute sensitivities to the opinion of others." Americans always wanted praise from foreigners, as if they were searching for confirmation of their own superiority. Tocqueville worried about the "tyranny of the majority" (excessively assertive majorities) as well as the passivity that could accompany democratic conformism. The later visitors to America repeated these themes and concerns, in somewhat different form. Tocqueville and Chesterton were both sensitive to the paradox that excessive individualism, and disengagement from the larger society, undermined authentic individuality--the ability to withstand public opinion and the pressures of the crowd. They feared the rise of what later came to be called "mass society." 

Tocqueville was the first to praise the American propensity to "associate" with others--to overcome pernicious individualism through voluntarism and collective efforts that didn't entail intervention by an obtrusive central government. This "art of association," as Tocqueville called it, went hand in hand with a vigorous system of local self-government. Tocqueville admired Americans' capacity to take charge of their own lives in a way that avoided the twin extremes of individualism and collectivism. Chesterton, too, praised "the pro-democracy" force of voluntary associations and saw in American habits "of social organization" a "power that is the soul and success of democracy." 

As for political economy, Tocqueville, Weber, and Chesterton all admired the energy and industriousness of the American people. At the same time, they criticized the excesses of what Tocqueville called the "mercantile spirit." Long before Weber articulated his famous thesis on "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism," Tocqueville noted the multiple ways Americans brought together Puritanism and the mercantile spirit. Americans, he noted, affirmed the value of religion, even as they redefined virtue in utilitarian terms (virtue was increasingly tied to self-interest and worldly success). 

It is our extreme conformity that enables the Republic to function so smoothly and makes it so easy to assimilate immigrants of all backgrounds. And globalization is nothing more than the exportation of our conformity to the ideas of democracy, capitalism and protestantism.

Posted by at August 13, 2016 9:43 AM