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A Favored Few Booted and Spurred

Alexis de Tocqueville distills the lesson of the fourth chapter of Democracy in America with his usual epigrammatic power:

The people rule the American political world as God rules the universe. They are the cause and end of all things; everything arises from them and everything is absorbed by them.[1]

What Tocqueville found remarkable in 1830s America was that the “principle of the sovereignty of the people” was neither “hidden” nor “sterile.” Rather, contrary to practice in the rest of the world, “it is recognized by the mores, proclaimed by the laws; it spreads freely and reaches its fullest consequences without obstacles.”

Could an impartial observer say the same today?

While the sovereignty of the people remains an oft-cited dogma of American politics (and, taken to the literal extreme of Tocqueville’s language, can certainly be abused), it is too often “hidden” beneath several layers of paternalistic government mandates and made “sterile” by the ruling class’s apparent imperviousness to the normal means of political accountability. (All too often, elections seem to amount to: heads they win; tails we lose.)

We might see this best in contrasting our experience with that of our 17th to 19th century forebears.

As Tocqueville remarks frequently throughout his masterwork, early American political life was organized from the bottom up. It began in the pre-political covenantal community, the voluntary association of families in a local church. There, a shared understanding of the terms of one’s moral responsibility before God and an intimate common life produced a naturally accountable form of self-government that required (and sought) little, if any, intervention by the civil authorities.

Next most important for early Americans was the town, where, as in the covenantal community, they were immediately involved in settling their common affairs. For the townspeople, as for those in the same family or those worshipping at the same church, the fact that both they and their neighbors would have to live with the consequences of their decisions naturally encouraged circumspection, though it would also give an opening to abuse of unpopular groups or individuals.

Colonial, then state and national, governments, necessitated at least by the presence of external enemies, required a different form of organization. There now had to be, as Madison put it in Federalist 51, “auxiliary precautions” for accountability. Representative assemblies would have to replace the church or town meeting, worsening the danger that those making the decisions might run contrary to the good of the people. Regular elections, constitutional limits on power, and systems of checks and balances would have to be used to reconnect leaders’ private interest to their duty—and would, at least in part, require a vigilant watchfulness on the part of the people to see that these measures were well executed. Here the experience of self-government was less tangible, but no less real, so long as elections mattered and leaders respected the (people-prescribed) limits of their power.

Thus, James Madison’s confident yet conditional assessment of early American political life in Federalist 57:

If it be asked, what is to restrain the House of Representatives from making legal discriminations in favor of themselves and a particular class of the society? I answer: the genius of the whole system; the nature of just and constitutional laws; and above all, the vigilant and manly spirit which actuates the people of America—a spirit which nourishes freedom, and in return is nourished by it.

Let us contrast this with what can be seen in our political life today. Take last week’s climate “deal,” for example. At the top of our now-inverted political hierarchy, President Obama sends Secretary of State John Kerry to Paris, France, to broker a non-binding, non-treaty climate agreement to reduce greenhouse gases. Each of the signatory countries has promised, through “mandatory reporting” on emissions every five years, to help convince all the nations of the world to feel collectively responsible for the earth’s temperature.

Harmless enough, right? How dangerous is a non-binding, non-treaty agreement? But that’s exactly the rub. Essential to the thinking behind the pact is that a powerful transpolitical elite is duty-bound to shape the moral judgments of the multitude within their respective nations. Why trouble yourself attempting to convince the people’s representatives to pass environmental legislation (or the people to elect those who will) when you can turn up the moral heat against those who question the material factors at play in natural climate change?

Unsurprisingly, on the same day that a New York Times editorial called for a “strong follow-up” to the Paris Climate Pact, its news division reported that the Government Accountability Office of the United States government had found the Environmental Protection Agency engaging in “covert propaganda” by using social media at the grassroots level to lobby the American people to support the Obama administration’s clean-water rule.

The Times reports that Thomas Reynolds, the EPA communications director in charge of employing these tactics, is now leading the White House’s communications effort on global warming. More propaganda, presumably, to follow—and more efforts to render the American people a “hidden” and “sterile” force in the climate-change debate.

Despite this, as 2015 gives way to 2016, the American people will once again have the opportunity to rule the American political world—if they will show the “vigilant and manly spirit” Madison spoke of and elect candidates who aim to represent them rather than to school and to dis-empower them.

[1] From Volume I, Part 1, Chapter Four of Democracy in America.

Reader Discussion

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on December 21, 2015 at 09:22:30 am

David, Matthew--

It is an okd criticism, and surely one with which you are familiar, but what you write above was true only for New England, and even there only for parts. The 18th century company towns of the Connecticut river, described ably by Richard Bushman (in his Pulitzer prize winning study Puritan to Yankee) and by Stephen Innes, do not fit the pattern. Nor do the manors along the Hudson, nor anywhere on the North American continent from Maryland South. In essence, Tocqueville's understanding of 17th and 18th century America was partial to New England. He partly captured the experience of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, although there is little evidence that Tocqueville had any real understanding of the particularities of those places, so that may just be happenstance.

So had the US just been Massachesetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Long Island, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, your description of colonial history would be more or less adequate. But for the rest of the North American littoral, not so much.

For a more accurate and inclusive understanding of American political and cultural development, two books I have found useful. The first, Jack P. Greene, Pursuits of Happiness:
The Social Development of Early Modern British Colonies and the Formation of American Culture, is written by one of the premier historians of the era and is an explicit examination of the weaknesses of the Tocqueville-inflected historical narrative you limn above. After Bernard Bailyn and Edmund Morgan, Greene is the most important historian of the era, and someone whose scholarship you really should know if you care about the origins of American culture.

The second book is by Richard Beeman, The Varieties of Political Experience in Eighteenth Century America. Beeman is a distinguished historian who, in this book, synthesizes the scholarship of a generation of scholars. Read together with Greene, this book demonstrates that Tocqueville simply got the history wrong, and as a consequence could not understand the origins of the individualism that he observed around him in his visit to the US in the 1830s.

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on December 21, 2015 at 09:46:25 am

I should add that what I write above matters only to the extent that Professors Corbin and Parks are doing history. History is about narrative. At its most basic, it goes like this: at first, things were A, but then something happened, and after things were B.

As I read their narrative, it is incomplete, and the "something happened" has to be inferred. At firdt, things were as Tocqueville described, but then the administrative state happened, and now we have Obama.

The punch of the historical story they tell is weakened if the "things were as Tocqueville described" turn out to be, at best, only true for a brief time in US history, and even then only for part of the American Union.

Of the two books I mention at the end of my first post, above, Greene is the more important here. Greene suggests that the individualistic streak in US political culture--what Tocqueville saw as the central problem in US political culture--originated in the Southern colonies and spread from them to the Mississippi Valley. In his story the formative experiences that defined 19th century America originated more powerfully from the Chesapeake rather than New England.

As I read him, the scholarship of Barry Shain supports Greene's insights better than it does Tocqueville's history. Shain points out, correctly in my view, that there is a strong communitarian erhos to be found in reformed calvinism, that shapes American understanding of liberty. But of course, the story of reformed calvinism is not the story of American liberalism.

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on December 21, 2015 at 10:51:48 am

Kevin:

1) Dang, you've done it again. Now I must buy myself a Christmas present - Jack Greene's book.
2) You mention Barry Shain but do not mention a particular work of his. Question, I have read some commentary / essays by Shain. My initial impression was that he was a little too enamored with a Jeffersonian conception of the moral / cultural superiority of the agrarian way of life while, nonetheless still offering a valid counterpoint to some common understandings. a) Am I wrong and b) does this matter in this context?
3) Would it be fair to say that the kernel of Corbin and Parks critique would be valid even across the "Chesapeake influenced domains?" - i.e., the regrettable loss of local / associational control over law and milieu / ethos?

4) Have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

BTW: Would be interested in Ken Masugi's take on this issue.

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gabe
on December 22, 2015 at 05:52:43 am

Why trouble yourself attempting to convince the people’s representatives to pass environmental legislation (or the people to elect those who will) when you can turn up the moral heat against those who question the material factors at play in natural climate change?

What does “turn up the moral heat” mean, and what distinguishes it from “attempting to convince the people’s representatives to pass … legislation”?

[T]he Environmental Protection Agency engaging in “covert propaganda” by using social media at the grassroots level to lobby the American people to support the Obama administration’s clean-water rule.

What does “propaganda” entail, other than attempting to persuade the public – precisely the thing the authors claim to support? If the EPA’s practices were so nefarious, why did three former EPA administrators, including two from Republican Administrations — Christine Todd Whitman (2001-2003), Carol M. Browner (1993-2001) and William Reilly (1989-1992) — released a statement supporting those efforts? According to these administrators,

Engaging the American public in the development of public health safeguards is an important function of the Environmental Protection Agency.
* * *
As former Administrators, we only wish we had the tools available to today’s EPA when implementing safeguards against lead in gasoline, protecting the public from acid rain, and cleaning up our waterways from toxic pollution amongst many other measures. It is appropriate for the EPA to use these tools to engage as many Americans as possible especially as the agency moves forward with important public health protections in development today.

Admittedly, the EPA’s efforts were designed to engage the public regarding clean water regulations, not legislation. If the authors find this distinction problematic, they can blame the law. As the NYT article found,

In its previous opinions to federal agencies, the Justice Department has indicated that “grass-roots” efforts are most clearly prohibited if they are related to legislation pending in Congress and are “substantial,” which it defined as costing about $100,000 in today’s dollars — a price tag that the E.P.A.’s efforts on the clean water rule almost certainly did not reach if the salaries of the agency staff members involved are not counted.

And --

Jeffrey R. Holmstead, an energy industry lobbyist and an E.P.A. deputy in the Bush administration, said the E.P.A. was “using campaign and advocacy strategies to promote a regulatory action.” But he and other experts said the agency’s actions did not appear to cross a legal line.

(Emphasis added.)

The Times reports that Thomas Reynolds, the EPA communications director in charge of employing these tactics, is now leading the White House’s communications effort on global warming. More propaganda, presumably, to follow—and more efforts to render the American people a “hidden” and “sterile” force in the climate-change debate.

Providing the public with information renders the public “sterile”? Man, someone should tell them – although I can’t imagine how, without rendering them sterile in the process.

Despite this, as 2015 gives way to 2016, the American people will once again have the opportunity to rule the American political world—if they will show the “vigilant and manly spirit” Madison spoke of and elect candidates who aim to represent them rather than to school and to dis-empower them.

Damn right! How dare politicians school us?

The nerve of that Washington guy, lecturing us about the threat of factionalism! And just where does this Lincoln dude get off, first yapping on about the evils of slavery – and THEN telling us not to seek retribution from the rebellious states? And the gall of Whatshisface Roosevelt and his laughable “Day of Infamy” yammering. When we want your opinion, we’ll ask for it! Politicians getting’ too big for their britches, that’s all it is. It’s almost as if nobody had ever heard the age-old maxim that government should be seen but not heard….

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nobody.really
on December 22, 2015 at 10:35:40 am

"It’s almost as if nobody had ever heard the age-old maxim that government should be seen but not heard…. "

Heck, I would prefer it if it was neither SEEN nor heard!

Like you, I don't have a problem with EPA proselytizing in this instance. Big Deal, right!

However, where one begins to become concerned is when government as a result of Administrative enforcement actions / litigation decrees that for some industries it shall be unlawful for certain industries (i.e., drug industry) to allow their employees to disseminate information on drug efficacy to doctors and other medical service providers - the information itself being truthful.

What does this say? Are we to apply the age-old maxim to private enterprises as we see fit and reserve for an Administrative Agency alone the right to communicate its (advocacy) position.

Following the argument then, are we going to make medical providers sterile by providing them with peer reviewed research on drug efficacy? Heck, talk about slicing the *creative* cord!!!

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gabe
on December 22, 2015 at 14:46:19 pm

Gabe--

First and foremost, I trust this Christmastide finds you well, surrounded by friends, family, good cheer, and due reverence!

Count me in as well for welcoming any thoughts from Ken Masugi.

If you buy Greene's book, get a beat up used copy. It is very much an academic book, and Greene is not an elegant stylist. He writes like a social scientist. He really is a gigantic figure in early American history--he held an endowed chair at Johns Hopkins for a good many decades, and has trained something like a hundred plus Ph.D.s who are currently teaching at various and sundry universities across the country. That all by itself is a major achievement.

His argument is to some degree forced, as several of the reviewers note, both on Amazon and in the review literature. To my reading of the larger literature since, Greene's argument has prevailed, however--it is no longer possible to write the history of early America using New England as synecdoche.

Well wishes,
Kevin

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on December 22, 2015 at 17:24:10 pm

Thanks, unfortunately I already ordered a "new" hardcopy.

Look forward to the book. And yes, his style can be a bit thick based on last book of his I read.

Anyway, thanks again.

gabe

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gabe

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.