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American Greatness
American Greatness
11 Feb 2023
Joshua Mitchell


NextImg:Tocqueville in Arabia: The Anxieties of the Democratic Age

The American mood, giddy and triumphal after the 1991 Gulf War, darkened into intermixed rage and despair after the ghastly live-broadcast death spectacle in New York and Washington, D.C., on that sun-lit morning of September 11, 2001. What followed in the way of primitive, not to say unjustified, retribution in the distant mountains and high plateaus of Afghanistan soon transformed and metastasized. 

Thin is the line between commensurate response and pride. On April 9, 2003, less than 19 months later, Baghdad fell to American forces who were now at war with two nations, markedly different from one another, each an inscrutable mystery to our military, to our intelligence agencies, and to all but a few remaining academics who had been trained before gaming and simulations came to constitute due diligence. They do not. 

Tocqueville is well-known for having invented the idea of American exceptionalism. There, in the author’s introduction to his 1835 masterpiece, Democracy in America, he announced that the term does not mean America is special. It means that America is the exception to the rule. What is the rule? The rule is that all the world now has, or once had, aristocratic social conditions. Not least, the Middle East, I add. America is the exception. 

America was born into democratic social conditions, more or less. This difference has momentous implications we must understand if we wish our nation to act wisely in the world. The vast swath of the world that retains its aristocratic social conditions, or is in some transitional phase away from them, will see in America both a rosy promise of liberation from the burden of its own aristocratic past and the haunting prospect of a disorderly, lonely, decadent, Godless future. 

America for citizens of these nations is not America; she is a Rorschach image welling up from the primordial aristocratic psychic depth, about which Americans, without long training, have little understanding. This means that many, indeed most, of the nations around the world will respond to America by oscillating between reverence and repulsion. As Americans, we should not be surprised when we encounter these fraternal twins. As Americans, too, we must be mindful that our initial judgments about the rest of the world are probably wrong, not because we lack intelligence, but because we lack understanding of a type of humanity—aristocratic man, as Tocqueville called him—that precedes us, and still dwells among us. 

I do not doubt that the burden of empire still falls on American shoulders. Since the end of World War II, it has largely rested on us to keep the sea lanes open, to be the de facto enforcer of international law. I do doubt that we can perform that task well without first understanding that the rest of the world is not like us. We talk endlessly in America today about diversity and inclusion, but harbor an egalitarian prejudice about what these terms must mean.

When citizens from other nations hear us declare on the international stage that we respect, encourage, and demand diversity and inclusion on a global scale, and then discover that precisely what they themselves believe—about shame, honor, decorum, remembrance, ritual, men, women, family, government, religion, etc.—is shameful and dishonorable and has no place in the civilized world, they do not conclude that American self understanding is capacious, but rather that it is impaired by a prejudice it does not grasp that it imposes, that its purportedly universal values are parochial rather than universal. 

“Man’s idea of unity,” Tocqueville wrote, “is always small and sterile; only God’s is grand and fertile.” This must especially be true when a nation with a democratic soul is surrounded by a vast sea of aristocratic-souled nations, and does not even recognize it. 

Chapter 1 of Tocqueville in Arabia, “Colliding and Converging Worlds,” offers an account, more personal than historical, of the long journey—from the Yemen and Kuwait of my youth, to teaching for Georgetown in Washington, to brief stints in Buenos Aires and Lisbon, and finally to my time in Doha—that brought me to understand the peculiar standing of democratic America in a world that is, for all intents and purposes, very aristocratic. 

How should Americans proceed with this knowledge that the rest of the world is aristocratic, unlike us? The whole of Tocqueville in Arabia was intended to begin to answer that question. I say begin to answer it, because the new subtitle, “the anxieties of the Democratic Age,” indicates more emphatically than I let on a decade ago that there can be no unequivocal, formulaic answer. Recognizing that this new, democratic age that lay ahead was one without principled answers to the questions it posed, Tocqueville wrote, “the entirety of Democracy in America has been written with a kind of religious dread.” 

As the aristocratic age came to an end, the venerated wisdom of the fathers would be abandoned, along with long inherited social relations that anchored such wisdom in lived practices; in its place, novelty would succeed novelty, and the democratic mind and heart would find no stable place of rest. It would be free—but free as a truant is free, without constraint, wandering through the world, homeless, Godless, and alone. For that disease, an antidote would be needed, which would be difficult to accept, and more difficult still to administer, because no one would have the authority to administer it. 

Democratic man would need to be gathered together with others; yet centripetal inclinations within, and social breakdown without, would drive him into his own thoughts and sentiments, there to judge the world alone. Every social arrangement would seem artificial, held fast with the illegitimate adhesive of power, and therefore in need of contestation and deconstruction, so that every person ensnared by it might be liberated from unbearable bondage. 

Chapter 2, “Man, the Lonely Animal,” seemed to me then, as now, the best way to address the arc of this historical development, which produces such anxiety, and provides no easy answers—both here and in the Middle East. By way of summary of the problem, from the vantage point of the aristocratic soul, the truant’s freedom offered by the Democratic Age is initially both temptation and horror. Once past a certain point in the transition to the Democratic Age, however, attraction to aristocratic social conditions no longer holds the heart and mind firm; now repulsion to aristocratic social conditions overrides the attraction. The unambiguous desire to destroy any and all vestiges of the old order, so as to be “free,” captivates the heart and mind. 

To make matters worse, the impulse to destroy increases in proportion as there is less of the aristocratic social order left to destroy. Here is the French Revolutionary—and later the Marxist, and in our own day, the identity politics zealot who also seems intent, to invoke Marx’s apt phrase, to “abolish the current state of things,” and yet who seems unaware of the immense destruction that his movement already has caused. 

Delinked in a manner that is historically unimaginable, here is a soul who is only momentarily rescued from the loneliness that is its lot, by the fugitive hope that if just a bit more debris from the old aristocratic social order can be blasted out of the way, the path home to The Universal Brotherhood of Man, or The End of Alienation, or in our own day, The End of Whiteness, will emerge into view.

As the reader will discover, my conclusion was that my Middle Eastern students generally locate themselves in the aristocratic configuration of being both attracted and repulsed by the truant’s freedom Tocqueville thought so dangerous. My general conclusion was that many of my American students back in 2012 had already started to make the turn, so to speak, and were heading toward the revolutionary frame of mind we now call identity politics, which seeks to undo anything that remains of our American inheritance. 

Anxiety was the common denominator for both groups of students; the unworkable answer to which my Middle Eastern students capitulated involved oscillating back and forth between aristocratic longings to return to an only-imagined past, and then rushing headlong into a hyper-modern future; the unworkable answer my American students held dear involved completing the deconstruction that was already well underway. If careful readers of that chapter discern a greater sympathy for the still somewhat embodied lives my Middle Eastern students possessed, they will not be off the mark. 

In this regard, I confess that what sometimes appeared as a description of my students in the Middle East was, in fact, more of a prescription for my American students at home. Not all of my American students wished deconstruction, of course. America today is, in fact, split down the middle between those who long for the release from the historical inheritances that would make them citizens of this nation, with this history, with this sort of family, with this religion, etc., and those who want to preserve and revitalize just those inheritances—not because they are pure, but because they are theirs. Here, I suppose, are the populists, though I think this a needlessly condescending term for the sort of life—namely, an embodied life—Tocqueville thought without which we would perish. 

The fateful struggle today is between those who wish for embodiment, and those who wish to flee from it. In the intervening 10 years, a great deal has happened in America, much of it involving the further working out of the longing for the disembodied cosmopolitan life about which Tocqueville so worried. The most important flash point for that longing today involves the escalating battle, which I suspect will be the most formidable issue of the 2024 presidential campaign, over whether the categories of “man” and “woman” are natural or artificial social constructions. 

Tocqueville predicted that in the Democratic Age, we would become quite confused about these two categories—a development whose outlines I traced in the chapter on loneliness. He thought the heretofore uncontested natural differences between men and women would be subject first to doubt and then to vitriolic attack. Democratic man wants equality, and nothing, not even obdurate nature, will be permitted to stand in the way. The natural difference captured by the term “sex” would become an embarrassment, and be eagerly replaced by the fancy that the distinction is a merely socially constituted difference. In our own day we have invented a term that expresses that fancy, namely, “gender,” which I think we would do well to jettison altogether. 

We probably should have understood at the time when the term “gender” came along, that it would not be the end of the matter. In a “gendered” world, not only are man and woman interchangeable categories, they are categories that can be remade, even rejected altogether, as they now increasingly are by a younger generation that has been taught that mankind is a cancer for which sexual regeneration is the accelerant, and for which neutering, death, or transhumanism, for some or all, is the cure. 

Tocqueville did not directly predict what we confront today, but what he did predict was the impending Great Democratic Exhaustion. Transgenderism, transhumanism—and let us add, the purported impending collapse of the “climate” unless we stop drilling for oil and start strip-mining for lithium and rare earth minerals—are all instances of this democratic exhaustion, which seeks purity or annihilation . . . anything except living in the coarse but workable world of people and things that actually surrounds us. These developments, needless to say, are unthinkable for aristocratic, embodied man. I suspect the chasm between the two self-understandings—that embodiment is to be rejected and that embodiment is to be embraced—will only further widen in the near future. 

The near future, it seems to me, is going to involve skirmishes and overt, clarifying battles over this fateful question, whose root cause is man’s inability to contend with his experience of loneliness. Anyone who tells you otherwise is not paying attention. In loneliness, the stark alternatives are laid bare before us: communion or annihilation. It is not clear which of the two we will choose. Chapter 3, “The Household: Sustenance and Reproduction,” is oddly positioned between Chapter 2’s examination of the experience of loneliness and Chapter 4’s discussion of religion, which is to say the experience of communion. 

What does the household have to do with these sublime and intimate issues? The household—the oikos, the economy—is generally understood in a straightforward way, as pertaining to preferences and the rules necessary to secure and signal those preferences to others participating in a market. What has this exchange of things to do with the emptiness of loneliness that no thing can remedy, or the religious communion to which nothing can contribute? 

I sought in Chapter 3 to consider a question that anyone who attends to Tocqueville’s thinking about democratic and aristocratic man will plainly understand, yet about which economic science has nothing to say, because it does not distinguish between honor culture, failure culture, and equality culture. For markets to work, failure must be an option; malinvestment must be cleared. Aristocratic societies are honor cultures, however; for members of such societies, failure does not prove that markets work, failure assaults the basic tenet of an aristocratic society: Face-saving must always be available. That is why aristocratic societies will always be suspicious of markets. 

The Anglo-American world, as Tocqueville pointed out, did not share this prejudice. Bankruptcies happen in America all the time, he noted. Democratic man is quite at home in a failure culture. Because malinvestment clears, capital can be rapidly reallocated to more productive use, which yields improvement. This, in turn, reduces the anxiety democratic man has about falling behind. This picture suggests that democratic man has a clear advantage over aristocratic man when it comes to markets. That is not the end of the matter, however. 

Democratic man also longs for equality. This longing runs headlong into the iron-clad requirement in a failure culture that distinctions be made. Everyone does not get an “A.” Everyone does not get a trophy. In America today, they do. Because of this, I suggested that the household, broadly understood, was not in great shape. Aristocratic societies were going to be reluctant to adopt failure culture, and so they will end up with choreographed economic activity that benefits a few chosen families or corporations; democratic societies, which should endorse failure culture, are choosing equality culture instead, and so real improvement is grinding to a halt. I have said this more clearly here, but the general outline of the argument was intact in the original.

As of this writing, the top-down, low-risk, honor culture, aristocratic command-economies—notably China—have combined with the currently ruling elites in the Anglo-American world (the “globalists”) who are committed to equality culture and the top-down organization that it entails. Neither group wants the failure culture necessary for real improvement, which would put them out of business. We will see if this configuration can last. I doubt it can. 

Speaking biblically, for a moment, no Tower of Babel construction of man has ever endured. God’s plans exceed man’s plans. Always. It is not a question of whether the global edifice held together in one half of the globe by aristocratic honor culture and in the other half by democratic equality culture will collapse; the question is when, and by what causes. Of all the chapters in Tocqueville in Arabia, Chapter 4, “Religion,” has most perplexed readers. Tocqueville wrote a great deal about the need for religion in the Democratic Age, and went so far as to argue that, without it, democratic man will fall into tyranny—the “equality of all in servitude,” he called it. In a book concerned with the anxiety of the Democratic Age, the subject of religion, therefore, cannot be avoided. 

Tocqueville’s treatment of the matter concerned the healthy habits of mind Christianity inculcated, and the experience of suffering he thought Christianity was best equipped to console. What is missing in the whole of Democracy in America is an exposition of the Christian understanding of sin and redemption, which I thought necessary to rehearse for my Middle Eastern students who are perplexed or horrified by the idea of original sin and an Incarnate God, and for my nominally Christian students in America whose religious understanding is deformed or absent altogether. I will say more about this shortly, but first, a comment on religion in the Democratic Age. 

Both Christianity and Islam are in a diseased state these days. Each came into being, so to speak, during the aristocratic age. Each is therefore a ragged survivor, compelled to adjust to, or resist, the sentiments and sensibilities that emerge in the Democratic Age. Most notably, each is faced with a perennial crisis of authority, which Tocqueville thought would ravage all of our institutions in the Democratic Age, not least our religious ones. Who speaks for Islam? The imams in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, or Iran? It is not clear. Who speaks for Christianity? The Reformation and the Treaty of Westphalia put an end to any uncontested answer in Europe and in the Anglo-sphere. With regard to Islam, the problem that lies ahead is the one it has contended with for centuries, namely, what is its relationship to what we are here calling the Democratic Age, or what others might call “modernity”? 

No one really has an answer: Some insist on “going back,” though it is not clear what that would entail; some are choosing to be culturally Muslim in the Democratic Age and abandoning strict religious adherence; and some are giving up on Islam altogether. 

I doubt Islam is going to die. When religions die, the civilizations that carry them die as well. That is not going to happen in the Middle East. The view I expressed in Tocqueville in Arabia, which I still hold, is that Islam will begin to recover its bearings not as a transnational Umma, but rather through constitutional monarchies within the nation-state system, the latter of which I take to be an accomplished and irrevocable fact of the international order. 

With regard to Christianity in the Democratic Age, the question is not whether it can survive, but whether it has lost sight of the somber judgmental God, and gone all in for the God of love, who accepts and loves man “just the way he is”—which is to say, self-satisfied, prideful, full of himself, and lost to himself. Prior to when the “dogma of equality” (Tocqueville’s term) took hold, the God of Christianity extended mercy to all, but adjudged that some would spend eternity in hell. In the Democratic Age, however, man wants universal salvation. Everyone gets a trophy, in this life and in the next. Judgment is out; love and mercy are in. God goes soft, and so do the churches. 

This development has made it very difficult for both my Muslim students in the Middle East and my nominally Christian students in America to understand the distinctly Christian claim about the need for an Incarnate God. This is not the place to rehearse that argument in detail. I only pause to note that there would have been no need for God to send Himself in incarnate form had Adam not radically turned away from Him. Original sin and the Incarnate God go together. Here, however, I want to briefly alert the reader to the consequences of abandoning the God who judges man’s sin, and choosing the God of love alone instead. When the churches in the Democratic Age abandoned the God of Judgment, as they largely did as the 20th century wore on, the idea of irredeemable sin disappeared in the churches, but it did not disappear altogether. Irredeemable sin became political. 

Today, in the Democratic Party, a new political religion has full command over the hearts and minds of elect parishioners, who operate on the basis of an intersectional debt-point scheme that gives them moral clarity about who is pure and who is stained. This is identity politics, the spiritual eugenics of our time. When I wrote Tocqueville in Arabia a decade ago, I worried that Christianity was becoming incoherent, because it was losing sight of the necessary co-relationship between original sin and the Incarnate God. Today, I worry that the idea of original sin has migrated out of the churches and into politics, there to take the form of identity politics group-scapegoating, which intends to purge those who are irredeemably stained, along with all that they have wrought in history, so that the world may be made pure. 

Can this migration into politics of the Christian idea of original sin last? I do not think so, though how and why this maddening heresy ends remains unclear. My assessment of the phenomenon as a whole can be found in American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time. I made no mention of identity politics in Tocqueville in Arabia. I did see, however, that the failure of Christians to understand the centrality of the idea of original sin in their religion was already a problem. 

Finally, I owe the reader an account of why Tocqueville in Arabia takes the mixed form of autobiography and political theory. Why not just write political theory? I count it an incalculable blessing that I did my graduate training at the University of Chicago, in the mid-1980s, under the last generation of scholars who lived in close proximity to World War II. That generation posed for itself the question: What do the Great Books tell us about the civilizational collapse that had almost just occurred? Their correlative method, so to speak, of moving seamlessly between the canon of Great Books and the near catastrophe they had lived through was political theory. That method distinguished it from the sort of inquiry undertaken in philosophy and in history departments. 

As decade followed decade, political theory has lost sight of this methodical charge, and has become increasingly irrelevant as a consequence. Political theory today more involves attending to the mind-numbing secondary and tertiary “literature.” Feeling under a considerable obligation to reinstate the method of relying on the Great Books to illuminate the agonizing events of our time, I wrote Tocqueville in Arabia. The Middle East is in agony. So, too, is America. I doubt we are going to be able to understand either unless we turn to the Great Books for guidance. 

Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is one of those guides. Perhaps the best one. But let us also not forget the corollary insight: Unless we ask of the Great Books that they illuminate the anxieties and agony of our time, they are but black ink on white paper, of no use to anyone.