The Good and Bad of Democracy

I’ve been rereading Alexis de Tocqueville’s masterful Democracy in America.  This book, written in the first half of the nineteenth century by a French aristocrat for his countrymen, remains standard reading for American college students and even some of their professors.  In a way it is too bad that we tend to read it as Americans, as if it were written for Americans.  The problem with this bit of (entirely understandable) self-involvement is that it blinds us to just how unique—even odd—the United States is in global and historical perspective.

Tocqueville knew how odd we were, and this knowledge helped him to analyze and highlight what made it possible for us to combine two important but usually contradictory principles of public life:  democracy and ordered liberty.  To make sense of this achievement, one first must understand what Tocqueville meant by “democracy.”  Tocqueville often referred to “the sovereignty of the people” in a way that comports with democracy as majority rule through representatives.  But this purely political definition in no way captures all Tocqueville meant.  For Tocqueville, our “democracy” was as much social, and even economic, as it was political.  Equality of condition—in terms of how much formal political power each American citizen had, but also in terms of how they were treated by the laws, their roles and respect in social life, and even their wealth—was, according to Tocqueville, a defining characteristic of American life.

Living in our liberal, post-Marxian age, most Americans today would emphasize how unequal Americans were in the nineteenth century.  In addition to the scandal of slavery, many Americans would point to the great families (the Washingtons and the Lees, to name but two) and the seemingly stratified hierarchies of early American social life, with its mechanics, farm workers, and semi-aristocratic landholders.  But the French aristocrat Tocqueville was astonished by just how equal Americans were, and how equally they were treated by their governments and by one another.

Inequality in aristocratic Europe really meant something.  It meant that aristocrats would be subject to different courts and different laws, allowing them, for example, to get away with harming those “beneath them” through dishonesty and even violence, with impunity.  It meant that the “lower orders” would bow to their “betters” or be beaten, that one class ruled, by law, the others, and that aristocrats were not taxed, while the poor found themselves dragooned into back-breaking work on public projects, without pay.  The list could go on, but the point is that real, aristocratic inequality was a system instituted and maintained through law and other powers of the state as well as by individual and social prejudice.

America, meanwhile, was democratic in the sense of being characterized by deep and fundamental equality.  But it was not today’s equality.  The government did not redistribute income from some to others, did not demand that employers discriminate against some types of people in favor of others, did not impose a uniform, awful education system on Americans in the name of “equal opportunity.”  Nor did “democracy” mean empowering the federal government to regulate our economic, social, and even religious lives.

The “inegalitarian” equality of Tocqueville’s America can be attributed to the people’s attachment to another, seemingly contrary ideal, namely, ordered liberty.  Americans’ attachment to equality, on Tocqueville’s view, was at times excessive and even dangerous.  It could spawn a “tyranny of the majority,” stifling dissent and punishing anyone who dared espouse views contrary to the mainstream-of-the-moment.  But these impulses were kept in check by institutions, beliefs, and practices strengthening local associations so that they could, and did, keep the central government from taking over the essentials of everyday life, along with an attachment to “sacred” rights of property and the family to which the people were attached through long practice as well as self-interest and philosophical disposition.  In particular, the township served as the focus of daily life and a bulwark against administrative centralization, empowering people in their local communities to lead free lives within accepted constraints of custom and tradition.  Especially important, of course, was the “spirit of religion,” which motivated the Puritans to come to American shores and to found tight-knit communities committed to living Godly lives in common, with the people ruling themselves according to rigorous conceptions of duty and the common good.  Such a pattern of life did not create fertile soil for grand schemes of universal reform, instead buttressing the authority of myriad local groups within looser state and national institutions limited in their scope to addressing particular issues of general concern.

So what happened?  How did we “progress” from an equality of freedom and community to our administrative and welfare state, which enforces a meaningless equality at the expense of primary social groups?

The easiest answer would be “the Civil War.”  According to many historians and, judging by their actions, most politicians, the War Between the States destroyed the old republic on the grounds that its loose structure was both unjust and unstable, allowing for too much local liberty and, with it, the injustice of slavery and racism.

But that answer is too pat, too easy, and too superficial.  Perhaps most important, it assumes what it should prove—that the Civil War fundamentally changed our culture and society.  And the facts on the ground disprove these claims.  Even if taken in the most anti-Southern view possible, the fact of continuing unrest, racial violence, and discrimination in large parts of the United States (north, south, east, and west) show that the attitudes we all can and should deplore regarding race did not simply disappear at Appomattox.  Rather, the more rational argument is that America was changed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, granting Congress the power to enforce equal citizenship (with its privileges and immunities), due process, and equal protection of the laws.

But, was the Fourteenth Amendment intended to bring a revolution, centralizing administration into the hands of the federal government, quashing the rights and traditions of states and localities in the name of a new kind of equality?  Clearly not.  As Raoul Berger’s classic Government by Judiciary shows, not even the most radical supporters of the Fourteenth Amendment believed it would even extend the right to vote to freed slaves.  Rather, the intention was to open the courthouse door to freed slaves, providing them with the basic rights necessary to participate in social and political life, thus allowing them to fight for the respect and dignity they deserved (Tocquevillean equality).

A better question might be “was it inevitable that, in protecting the rights of freed slaves, the Fourteenth Amendment would destroy local life and politics, instituting a new kind of government and society?”  Here, too, the answer seems to be a clear “no.”  Sadly, the Fourteenth Amendment was, in practice, found to be consistent with unjust laws penalizing, not just freed slaves, but anyone with even a small amount of African blood, with legal disabilities and the humiliations of segregation.

The change in our society from Tocquevillean democratic liberty to government-enforced egalitarianism was the result of broader, deeper, and more corrupting trends than a specific change in the Constitution.  For laws, and even constitutions, can “lead” societies and cultures only on rare occasions, and are themselves the result and not the cause of revolutions.

The revolution in American society took place over many decades, in the hearts and minds of Americans, from old stock and new immigrants, who came to choose uniformity, security, and individual pleasure over the hardships of self-government under God.

Perhaps the greatest flaw Tocqueville saw in the American character was individualism.  Most Americans would resist the very idea that the kind of independence and self-reliance we associate with individualism could be a threat to liberty.  But what Tocqueville saw as individualism was not the spirit of liberty that combined with the spirit of religion and the reality of vibrant communities in America.  Rather, it was the considered view that we are happiest when we ignore the world outside our small group of family and friends, retreating into the felicities of domestic life.  That feeling, while understandable, blinds people to the needs of their wider community, and the dangers thereto posed by centralizers preaching ideological slogans and promising material progress.  Do we want better schools, roads, and human relations?  Well, then, let us bring in the experts from Washington!  This is the attitude that enervates local life, leaving our communities prey to outside forces.

It was not the sins of slavery that required the growth of the leviathan state, any more than it was the battle against those sins.  Rather, it was our own loss of virtue, of our practice of participating in local life, that allowed power to shift from its most natural locale to the distant realm of ideology.  Can such a shift be undone?  On a national level, perhaps not.  But there remain attachments to important, permanent goods and groups that can make our lives more meaningful and awaken, at least in some of our neighbors, a capacity for more fully human lives.

Editor’s Note: This essay first appeared September 3, 2013 on Imaginative Conservative and is reprinted with permission.

Bruce Frohnen

By

Bruce Frohnen is Professor of Law at the Ohio Northern University College of Law. He is also a senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center and author of many books including The New Communitarians and the Crisis of Modern Liberalism, and the editor of Rethinking Rights (with Ken Grasso), and The American Republic: Primary Source. His most recent book (with the late George Carey) is Constitutional Morality and the Rise of Quasi-Law (Harvard, 2016).

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    The description of European aristocracy is very good and explains why, in Europe, the passion for equality and the hatred of noble (and clerical) privilege often involved a tolerance of despotism. Most Europeans believed that, if the central power was weak, the secondary powers would run riot and oppress. Napoléon is still revered, as the man who gave a code of equal laws to a continent and who restored the concept of citizenship to civilisation.

    To an American, freedom primarily means being free from interference, especially government interference. To a European, freedom primarily means sharing in the government. In Europe, in the wake of the French Revolution, government action came to be seen by the citizens, as the consummated result of their own organized wishes. Of course, Europeans can be very readily persuaded that self-serving deputies are betraying the people’s mandate, in the service of special interests; in fact, the political class is held in great contempt. Nevertheless, no one believes that curbing the powers of government is desirable, or even imaginable: the government is the appointee and agent of the people; to curb the government’s powers is to curb their own.

  • Bedarz Iliaci

    Michael Paterson-Seymour,
    The American ideal is life on the frontier while the European ideal is life in a city.

  • Deacon Ed Peitler

    And once transportation – railroads, automobiles – allowed the wider movement of Americans to lay down roots apart from their family of origin, the attachment to community began to be whittled away. And by the time the mid 20th century arrived, the detachment from family and locale and the loyalty that went with them had been eliminated. As a result, there is not a lot of involvement in local politics “because we probably won’t spend a long time living here.”

    I had a sense, though, of what Tocqueville was talking about when we lived in a small New England CT town. I attended a town hall meeting which was not just an occasion for the local politicians to hear from the people and then vote on this or that issue. It actually was an occasion for pure democracy where votes were cast by the citizens after debate and discussion on issues affecting the town.

    • Art Deco

      Many years ago I was shown some data tables from an unpublished historical demographic study done at the University of Rochester. IIRC, Eugene Genovese supervised the study, but the work was done by this man

      http://www.bancroftschool.org/page.cfm?p=5288

      The populations he studied were a set of townships in the Genesee valley over the period running from 1825 to 1835. It was done about 35 years ago, so everything was compiled from paper archives and microfilm and recorded on index cards. The long and the short of it was that local population turnover at that time was immense, with two-thirds to three-quarters of residents departing from particular localities over a period of about a decade. You had a great deal of agricultural colonization of that part of New York at that time with the opening of the canal and all, but I do not think it qualified as a frontier area, since points west on the St. Lawrence seaway were already incorporated states and territories (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, &c).

      • smokes

        Of course it was the frontier. That region had Joseph Smith passing through, the Millerites and the Oneida Community. It was the “burned over” area with few clergy, lots of frontiersman (and the 6 nation tribes). the original canal had to be widened due to the immense traffic. They still call it the Niagara Frontier for Pete’s sake.

        By the way, the St. Lawrence Seaway only opened in 1959, hardly ancient history, Deco.

        • Art Deco

          Um, no. The St. Lawrence river conjoined to the Great Lakes is not a canal constructed during the 1950s.

          European settlement in the more northerly section of the Genessee Valley dates to 1788. That in the more southerly areas was earlier. All of the counties in the area were erected prior to 1825 and about three-fifths of the non-statutory municipalities were incorporated prior to 1836 (and, of course, had settlements present as much as a generation earlier).

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      Very like the Landsgemeinde or “cantonal assembly,” of Switzerland that Rousseau so admired in his native Geneva.

      His opinion of representative democracy is well known: “As soon as public service ceases to be the chief business of the citizens, and they would rather serve with their money than with their persons, the State is not far from its fall. When it is necessary to march out to war, they pay troops and stay at home: when it is necessary to meet in council, they name deputies and stay at home. By reason of idleness and money, they end by having soldiers to enslave their country and representatives to sell it.”

      A remark less often recalled is ” If the object is to give the State consistency, bring the two extremes as near to each other as possible; allow neither rich men nor beggars. These two estates, which are naturally inseparable, are equally fatal to the common good; from the one come the friends of tyranny, and from the other tyrants. It is always between them that public liberty is put up to auction; the one buys, and the other sells.”

  • smokes

    While Napoleon may be revered in Europe, Trotskyism is revered here by our elites in banking houses, colleges, court rooms and corporations. There was chatter about great uncles being members of the communist bund at a recent Supreme Court nominee’s hearing….high fives all around. So, no, it’s God-less communism with that penchant for taking from the earner and giving to the slug that’s done America in. We’re only two steps behind the EU as it withers, along with us, on the dying vine of Western Civilization. Hopefully, South America and Africa will learn from the West’s fatal missteps. As for us, we’re toast!

    • Art Deco

      Trotskyism is revered here by our elites in banking houses, colleges, court rooms and corporations.

      That remark manifests absolute lunacy.

      • smokes

        Why? Defend your conclusion with…well…er…facts? We have NOT moved millions of jobs to communist China? Maoism is NOT taught in our universities? Trotskyites are NOT sitting on court benches for life? Corporations are NOT moving state-of-the-art research facilities out of the USA to China?

        Be specific Art, or take the medications the nurse is giving you and shut up. I’m waiting fool.

        • smokes

          I didn’t think so.

  • Art Deco

    Complaints about ‘the welfare state’ and ‘the administrative state’ are vacuous. Common provision was not an innovation of the post-bellum period or the New Deal. Any state has a corps of salaried administrators. Instead, ask what you expect the state to do, ask at which level it is optimally done, and ask why it is not done by those officials in that manner.

    • Adam__Baum

      “Compaints about ‘the welfare state’ and ‘the administrative state’ are vacuous”.

      To quote a prior post. “That remark manifests absolute lunacy. “

      • Art Deco

        No, it does not, for the reasons explained.

        Common provision was not an innovation of the Roosevelt Administration. It was done on a smaller scale prior to 1933 and with different vehicles (direct provision via public agency being favored). It was still, however, done. In pre-industrial societies it was less evident, but systemic charitable works via monasteries and like institutions were familiar. One could call that philanthropic, but a discrete distinction between ‘state’ and ‘society’ would be somewhat anachronistic in describing Medieval Europe.

        As for ‘the administrative state’, what could this possibly distinguish? Does he imagine there was some sort of stateless society ca. 1832 or that there is some sort of ‘non-administrative’ state?

        • Adam__Baum

          There is a profound difference between authentic voluntary charity, which has at it’s objective to be as temporary and restorative as possible and the involuntary and programmatic mess that is imposed on society that has as its design criteria, dependency and pliability.

          Clearly, you like to object using disingenuous red herrings. When people discuss the “administrative state” they are talking about the tendency for legislatures to alienate their responsibility to legislate to unaccountable bureaucrats, who issue exacting rules and regulations that have the force of law.

          Any law that starts with “The Secretary shall prescribe regulations” is an enabler of a new class of pharisees.
          The first modern bureacracy was the Interstate Commerce Commission, which grew in power, scope and size during its malevolent lifetime. Its legacy was bankrupt railroads and unique among bureacracies, it was disbanded (replaced actually, by the STB and the FRA). Interestingly, informed individuals knew it was a chancre on the body economic, and wrote eloquently for decades. They were dismissed until the effects of the ICC resulted in the creation of Conrail, whose initial managers began complaining that under the regulatory burden of the late 1970’s, there was no way to run a solvent railroad, let alone a profitable one.

          It’s too bad the federal governent doesn’t have to comply with the rules of the IRS (most recently known as serial abuser of the rights of taxpayers) , the SEC (most recently noted for the presence of pornography on its computers) or any other of the myriad of stars in its regulatory galaxy.

          • Art Deco

            Adam Baum, prior to 1933 you had public schools, massive state asylums, state work houses, and state sanitoria for tuberculosis &c, not to mention federal veterans’ hospitals and (her and there) municipal (acute care) hospitals. Certainly the hospitals had a donor corps, but you also had disbursements from the state treasury.

            I do not think mandatory tithes were all that unusual during the medieval period, but we could research the matter.

            If he wishes to refer to “regulatory commissions”, he can certainly use the term “regulatory commissions” or “regulatory agencies”. It sounds more pedestrian than “the administrative state”.

            Of course, the Interstate Commerce Commission was not ‘the first modern bureaucracy’. It was an innovation, of course, in its form, but the federal administration had been under construction for nearly a century prior to its advent. Regulatory commissions commonly have small budgets. The U.S. Post Office had a corps of employees indubitably greater (by a couple orders of magnitude) than the Interstate Commerce Commission.

            You, or Frohnen, might reflect on what the utility of regulatory agencies might be and how that utility might be captured with some other sort of institutional architecture. It is not as fun as writing jeremiads featuring Alexis de Tocqueville, but it is more constructive.

            Yes, there are problematic regulatory agencies, just as there are troublesome commercial companies and troublesome families. You can fix a given agency to the best of your ability, replace it with a new agency, decide that costs and benefits make the least-bad decision no agency, or you can write letters of complaint treating public agencies as if they were all manifestations of the mafia. Some of these options are constructive, and some are not.

            • Adam__Baum

              You simply refuse to ackowledge the fact that the federal government involvement in local concerns, with increasing intrusiveness and unaccountability.

              The ICC WAS the first modern bureaucracy. To compare the Postal Service to the ICC is patently absurd. The Post Office (most recently noted for it’s inability to operate in the black) was not a body that was empowered to dictate the operating practices of private concerns, from some olympian mount.

              Look, I get it, you are a dancing votary for the state. No reasonable person could implicitly assert that inefficiency, mal- and misfeasance are are occasional and not endemic.

              Then again, you’ve previously revealed that you distribute food stamps, and given the amount of weaste fraud and abuse there, I imagine one develops a rather large amount of tolerance for fiscal and operational disorder.

              A little reading for the inclined
              http://gao.gov/assets/600/593070.pdf

              • smokes

                Every question asked is answered, by Deco, with…gas. Note he fails to mention the Christian charity that was everywhere since Christ. St. Vincent, St. Francis and, mostly, the kind religious every few blocks provided Faith, Hope and Charity(Love) in abundance.
                Still do, if Barack doesn’t have them ordered out of the public square by his Trotskyite allies.

                • Art Deco

                  Look in the mirror.

              • Art Deco

                No, I refuse to acknowledge that terms like ‘the administrative state’ or ‘the welfare state’ delineate precise and useful concepts.

                Among other things, talk like that leads to gems like

                To compare it the Postal Service to the ICC is patently absurd and you should find it personally embarrassing to have made the comparison.

                There are two differences between these agencies. One was a regulatory agency and one was a service enterprise. One employed very few people and one employed a great many people and was pervasive throughout the country.

                • Adam__Baum

                  “There are two differences between these agencies. One was a regulatory
                  agency and one was a service enterprise. One employed very few people
                  and one employed a great many people and was pervasive throughout the
                  country.”

                  Are you now arguing against your original point about the USPS?

                  Of course you deny the existence of the administrative state, you are part of it.

                  • Art Deco

                    Are you now arguing against your original point about the USPS?

                    No.

                    • smokes

                      Ben Franklin’s post office has been misused since LBJ became president ( 5 cent stamps) and used the ’67 riots to eviscerate the entity and turn it over to rioters. Then, the price started doubling every 15 years…and the service got worse ( a stamp costs almost 9 times more than in ’67!). Close it down, yesterday. Thanks, Lyndon.

                    • Adam__Baum

                      Smokes, it’s pretty obvious that Deco thinks that if there was a department or agency that had a significant number of employees, then any susequent department is justified. It doesn’t matter what it’s powers might be, the scope or nature of its activities, i.e., the ability to dictate to public or private enterprise, the centralization or recourse of the affected. He’s simply a believer in government.

                    • Adam__Baum

                      Of course, the Interstate Commerce Commission was not ‘the first modern bureaucracy’.

                      “Regulatory commissions commonly have small budgets. The U.S. Post Office had a corps of employees indubitably greater (by a couple orders of magnitude) than the Interstate Commerce Commission. ”

                      You are very confused, or ignorant of the rudiments of public administration.

                • smokes

                  More gas…who needs fracking?

            • smokes

              Foster Brooks made more sense, Deco.

              • Adam__Baum

                “Guzzler’s Gin.. hicc.. a nice smoo hicc..smooth drinkl”

          • smokes

            Deco bloviates with vacuous experience.

      • smokes

        I thought McCormick was bad with his un-Christian baloney, but Deco’s worse with his “lunacy” comments if one disagrees with him!

  • Carol Leeda Crawford

    Plato’s Republic best describes democracy and where it leads. In the western world, especially in Canada and the U.S., rights have replaced reason, tolerance is held above justice, and freedom is available only if you support what is morally right and good contrary to God’s moral law. Yes, democracy leads to tyranny. Plato was right we are definitely living in tyrannical times.

  • AcceptingReality

    The article rings true to me in the sense that, what smokes says below, could only happen to us if what the article asserts is true. Which I think it is.

  • disqus_TvoTw0wy2j

    I’m no expert on the political questions raised in the discussion below. I’m just an American who has lived outside of the US for about half her life (most of my adult life), working with college students, and having to answer – almost daily – the question, ‘Why are Americans like that?’ while teaching American literature though a historical/cultural lens.

    One thing that helps my European students understand Americans is for them to think about what it takes to become an American. I mean the personal qualities it takes now and has always taken in the past. For most Americans (leaving out of course slaves), going to America meant being willing to leave behind everything: family, friends, institutions, native language, religious community, ancestors (where your ancestors are buried is extremely important in many traditional cultures), social and professional networks. In short, everything familiar and stable; in most cases, everything that could constitute your ‘safety net.’ It even means leaving behind such simple but important things as familiar foods, the ability to have a heart-to-heart talk with someone and really be understood, being able to tell a joke in your own language and get a hearty laugh (I know from experience).

    It seems to me that there is an ‘American character’ that is formed before a person even leaves his native country and goes to America: one has to be independent, self-reliant, willing to take risks, and have tremendous self-confidence (or be absolutely desperate) to leave everything and go to an unknown country, starting all over as the outsider, the alien, the newcomer with no contacts.

    Why do it? Because they have come to the conclusion that life in America is going to be better for them (and their progeny) than life in the home country.

    It is no surprise if Americans seem to Europeans to be independent in the extreme (our way of raising children seems as inhuman as animals eating their young to people in the country I live in: we seem to be shoving our kids away in the the name of ‘independence’ from a shockingly young age). It is also no surpise that Americans seem arrogant, full of themselves, convinced that they live in the best country on the planet and that everybody in the world really wants to be an American. Why not? Almost every one of us comes from a long line of independent people who left all those other countries because those countries were not good enough.

    If Americans did not think that America must be the best place in the world, it would be surprising.

    Perhaps part of our problem with ‘democracy’ is that we identify it with ‘independent, self-reliance’ on the ‘Lone Ranger’ (minus Tonto) model. We train our children practically from infancy that ‘doing it yourself’ and ‘being independent’ and growing up, getting in the car and driving away from mom and dad (age 16) is the first step to getting out of the house and as far from mom and dad as possible (18). We seem to push our children hard to be isolated, rugged individualists as soon as possible, and we consider it a virtue – which it was, perhaps, for people who were leaving the old country and going to America, or people who were leaving the place where they were born and going off to open the frontier. But is that extreme independence that we instill in our children and value in ourselves really helping us now?

    The truest thing I ever heard say by a European about Americans is that ‘every American agrees with every other American on only one thing: that he is in no way like any other American.’ I’ve given my students a half-joking challenge sometimes: when they meet an American and get into a conversation, at some point tell the American, ‘You Americans are so similar to one another, just like people in (our ethnically and culturally homogeneous) country all have similar values and outlooks.’ Stand back and watch the American’s head explode. Americans insist that they are independent, unique, totally unlike anybody else. I wish I had a dollar – a dime – for every time the word ‘diversity’ is spoken in the US as the absolute, iron-clad guarantee that whatever you are talking about, it will be approved. But ‘diversity’ and ‘independent self-reliance’ don’t make a community, a culture or a nation strong.

    On the other hand, our belief, inherited from our immigrant ancestors, that America is the best country in the world, and everything is possible in America, can lead to a kind of complacency: no matter how bad it gets or how much we complain, how many Americans would seriously consider that life might be better in another country? As long as we think, ‘The US is the best place in the world,’ it seems to me we’re likely to be complacent even when the country’s institutions are falling down around our ears and our freedoms are being taken from us one by one.

    • Adam__Baum

      ‘Why are Americans like that?’

      The simple answer is that Continent that gave us two world wars, Marxism and Fascism is no position to be asking that question, or Americans have the same question about you.

      Time to come home and shake off the Stockholm Syndrome.

      • disqus_TvoTw0wy2j

        Clearly you’ve never moved out of your own backyard. One way to get perspective on your own culture is to step out of it, and see that the rest of the world doesn’t have the same point of view as you have. You begin to see that while other people do things differently, they don’t do things ‘wrongly’ by their own lights. My students, being European, can do this by driving for a few hours in any direction. It makes them far LESS likely to see foreigners as sub-human ‘aliens’ than people who are never more than five minutes from another Happy Meal. After one trip to a neighboring country, they are much more critical of their own country’s short-comings than most Americans, who only complain about ‘the politicians’ but don’t see that unexamined cultural assumptions may have something to do with the country’s problems, too.

        I explain to Europeans something that mystifies them about Americans (there’s a whole lot more than what I posted here). They only know that Americans have values that to them seem very strange. The fact that they don’t treat me as some kind of hostile alien, but are open about asking, “Why are Americans like that?” indicates that they are interested in giving Americans a chance to explain certain stereotypes that the rest of the world has about Americans (and which Americans like you seem to be clueless about). If Americans were willing to listen to what the rest of the world thinks of them, they would begin to understand a lot of the hostility toward Americans outside American borders. AND THEY’D BE ABLE TO EXPLAIN THEMSELVES AND CREATE BETTER RELATIONS.

        Civilized communication, not name-calling and nastiness, breeds neighborliness, understanding and cooperation, Mr Baum. Or didn’t your kindergarten teacher teach you those things?

        When confronted with a ‘challenging’ student who tells me that ‘Americans are too violent, they all have guns, they all shoot each other all the time’ (another stereotype they have, thanks to our media and movies), I ask them, ‘Hang on. Tell me something. Back when the Nazis marched into this country, what kind of resistance were your grandparents able to give? When everyone in a village heard the pounding on the door and the demand to be on the trucks in 15 minutes, and were sent off to “an unknown destination,” what kind of resistance could they have mounted? And when the Russian Army came in raping, pillaging, burning whole villages and slaughtering every living person, what kind of resistance could they expect from a totally unarmed population?’

        In the embarrassed silence that ensues, I explain to them a more nuanced appreciation of ‘the right to bear arms’ than what they get from Hollywood films and an ant-American media and the possibility that the right to bear arms MIGHT have had something to do with keeping American democracy from some things that happend to the French democracy established around the same time, and the American ‘experiment’ from ending up like similar experiments begun in Latin American countries at the same time. It might have something to do with freedoms that Americans take for granted, and that Europeans can’t even begin to comprehend.

        It might also have something to do with our complacency when our government is growing to enormous, stifling proportions and treating us more and more like the enemy through regulations: WE know that because we have the right to bear arms, we can overthrow a tyrranous government: as long as tanks and troops don’t appear on our streets, we feel we are not under threat from our government. The GOVERNMENT knows that because the people have the right to bear arms, they can only exert total control over us through incremental means, with more and more regulations invading our privacy and limiting our freedoms ‘for our own good and protection.’

        The culture and current political climate in the US is a complicated matter. Simplifications don’t help; neither does hostility and insults in what is meant to be a civilized discussion.

        Mr Baum, at the very least, don’t insult absolute strangers in discussion forums. You have no idea who the other people are and what they know (that you may be ignorant of) or what their qualifications are or what they do with their lives. Cheap shots instead of civilized discourse makes you look like an ass. And your lack of simple good manners is not a very compelling reason to return to the United States.

        • Art Deco

          It makes them far LESS likely to see foreigners as sub-human ‘aliens’
          than people who are never more than five minutes from another Happy
          Meal.

          The history of the 20th century between 1914 and 1945 rather discredits that thesis, as does the coda in the Balkans (1992-95).

          • Adam__Baum

            “It makes them far LESS likely to see foreigners as sub-human ‘aliens'”

            I guess this perspective missed Germany, Italy and the former Soviet Union.

            So why are Europeans the way that they are?

        • Art Deco

          Mr Baum, at the very least, don’t insult absolute strangers in discussion forums.

          I take it you do not consider verbose pomposity to be insulting.

          • smokes

            Art, you’re residing in a glass house on this issue. You lack manners and glory in casting the first stone.

        • Adam__Baum

          You are no expert on manners. You are haughty, not enlightened.

          There’s no honor in suffering fools or traitors gladly. You are however absolutely strange.

        • Deacon Ed Peitler

          You have an awful lot to say in the combox; you might consider your own blog. It would give you ample opportunity to expound on your very interesting ideas.

  • Ed

    The consequences of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of Progressive political philosophy, both arising shortly after the Civil War, might be a better place to find the birth of the Leviathan, n’est pas?

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