Dickens’ and de Tocqueville’s travels in 19th century America still provide a guide for understanding today’s divisive politics.
As the ambit of modern life expands, like a gas, serious political ambition dilutes. We range more widely, but in a scattered way—a molecule of attention here, another over there. The time and care needed for real (as distinguished from Facebook) friendship and citizenship evanesce as we learn to think and feel in short bursts. Because it is worldwide, the Web is flimsy, thin-spun.
Building character takes time but any twit can tweet. Citizenship requires patriotism, love of one’s own, but one loves nothing so ephemeral as virtual reality. Statesmanship takes sustained thinking, but the distracted mind sustains only nervousness.
This is the Tocqueville problem—the problem of what he called “democracy,” by which he meant social egalitarianism. The new technologies exaggerate this; they didn’t invent it. People living in a democracy love general ideas—ideologies among them. They incline toward a complacent materialism that supplements their foggy idealism, spiced with fits of irritable nationalism. Democratic societies feature a monotonous churning, a petty agitation. These vices of Tocqueville’s America have pervaded the world’s mind-space. A few of the old American virtues also have survived, such as the ability to organize civic associations for mutual help. Nonetheless, a flash mob can’t stay organized for long, even if the video of it gets a million hits.
In Ambition in America author Jeffrey A. Becker joins a large company of thinkers considering this problem, and he’s read his predecessors’ writings attentively. Becker argues that ambition rightly understood means self-government not only in personal but in public life. Because the flame of political ambition burns brighter in a Cromwell or a Napoleon than it does in your average voter, political regimes need to accommodate but also discipline these exceptional souls. How can a regime without an aristocracy do this?
Take away the aristocrats, says Tocqueville, and that leaves two alternatives as to who rules: the one, or the many. Social egalitarianism issues in either a tyranny or a republic and, as history shows, when a tyrant takes over things can go very wrong very quickly.
What about republics, can they do better? Becker thinks they can, but that, for the most part, they haven’t done as well as they might. It’s not a matter of celebrating other-regarding community action, either—charitable good works, getting involved in civic projects. Citizen participation in political life and civic attachments “will mean little,” he writes, “unless people can translate that participation and those attachments into the formal expression of political power through governing.” If republicans don’t get the ruling institutions right they will continue to entangle themselves in a web stronger than the Internet with which they are currently entertaining themselves—“the soft despotism of an administrative state,” described unforgettably by Tocqueville decades before it reached America.
Although Becker recognizes the partial truth in Carl Schmitt’s description of political life as conflict between friends and enemies, he prefers Aristotle’s understanding of human nature as social and political, regarding this as a better foundation for democratic politics. This preference for a particular regime, democracy, pervades the book, although Becker initially takes care to associate it with the trans-political or natural principle of human equality enunciated in the Declaration of Independence. He criticizes the Puritan Founding as aristocratic. It recognized the equality of all postlapsarian humans and established a tightly unified community guided by the principles of justice and mercy, to be sure, but its very unity and moral perfectionism divided sheep from goats in this world, replacing an Old World aristocracy of birth with a New World aristocracy of grace.
The “benign vision of political leadership, where political power exists to cultivate and encourage a moral vision of the good community of model citizens”—a vision the Puritans shared with such ancient peoples as the Spartans and the Israelites, albeit with very different criteria for membership—becomes authoritarian and undemocratic, Becker says, “when members of a polity, bent on enforcing their moral vision, divide the community into a moral ‘us’ and an immoral ‘them.’”
If such a regime holds elections to select its rulers, those elections will bring not unity but “moral polarization,” fostering “a more narrow and reflexively intolerant social mindset.” Here, Becker obviously glances at contemporary American politics, especially on the Right and Left extremes of the spectrum. He especially deplores “claims to moral certainty”—specifically, claims to rule based upon moral certainty—which “lead people to label one another either good or bad.” Such a “mindset” leads away from democracy and toward “authoritarianism.”
It might also lead away from morality altogether, toward moral relativism or egalitarianism—quite evidently a danger in any regime, inasmuch as one cannot make claims about justice without labeling some people and behaviors good, others bad. Democracy may risk cultivating an atmosphere of moral relativism precisely because it makes so much of equality, extending that principle to morality in ways that make morality itself incoherent. Becker hopes to fend off this problem by deploying moral uncertainty in the service of a virtue, moderation, and of a politics that requires citizens to “give reasons for private opinions,” whereby citizens “may learn to appreciate the moral shades of gray involved in reaching agreement about political questions.” This, he hopes, may give us a greater inclination to humility, “self-awareness,” and “compromise about public questions.”
In effect, Becker makes Rousseau’s move, aiming to replace “loyalty to, and active defense of, abstract moral principles” with “a compassion for the well-being of other citizens,” “loyalty to the welfare of people as the mark of moral integrity.” More concretely, he prefers Social Gospel Christianity to Christianity as previously understood. He admires Abraham Lincoln, but not the Lincoln who upheld what Lincoln himself called an abstract principle, equality of right; he prefers the Lincoln of Progressivism, of Herbert Croly, the Lincoln alleged to be a Progressive avant la lettre.
As the real Lincoln might well have observed, without some principled criterion of right, what do such notions as “well-being” and “welfare” actually mean? Becker uses the term “the practical welfare of the people” as his criterion, but he needs a principle—indeed, an abstract principle—to define it. That’s what a definition is, as no less an epistemologist (not to say moralist) than Bill Clinton once had occasion to remind us. Even as he acknowledges the Founders’ principle, natural right, Becker drifts instead into the territory of pragmatism and of historical progress—although, by his own account, we are neither especially pragmatic nor advanced at the moment.
Turning from the Puritans to the American Founding, Becker faults Publius for regarding ambition so sourly and setting up institutional barriers whereby the ambitious will counteract the ambitious. “Gridlock at the congressional level is by design,” Becker exclaims, perhaps more in sorrow than in anger. Although the Founders esteemed one form of ambition—the love of fame, the ruling passion of the noblest minds—they failed to “educate” citizens generally “toward higher aims.” Tellingly, he quotes Robert Eden who, in his important 1983 study Political Leadership and Nihilism, highlighted the negative connotations of the term “leader” in The Federalist. He doesn’t say what Eden’s point was, though. It was that the Founders associated “leader” with military captains and military rulers generally, whereas the Progressives, replacing natural right with rights derived from the march of “history,” esteemed leaders precisely because they were the ones who were bringing us closer toward the morally authoritative future.
This formulation can bring us to salute well-intentioned “idealists” like Wilson, but also to even more dubious enthusiasms, such as those evinced in Wilson’s contemporaries for the likes of Lenin and Mussolini. Again, without a firm criterion for what “higher” aims actually are, a political society will risk marching off the cliff it wants to march up.
In line with these progressivist leanings, Becker charges the Federalists with failing to provide sufficient play for citizen action. Representative government means that only a few of us can participate directly in governance. This, however, overlooks the federalism of the Federalists, who after all founded not only a republican regime but also a federal state—just not the heavily states-centered one seen under the Articles of Confederation system. Americans had plenty of civic space for active self-government at the municipal, county, and state levels throughout the 19th century. It was the Progressives and their successors, the New Dealers, who changed that.
After a chapter criticizing the democratizing Jacksonians and Populists as ineffective small “d” democrats, Becker turns not to the Progressives—which would have required him to confront squarely these differences in principle between the Founders and men like Wilson, Dewey, and Croly—but to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Here the author’s argument weakens to the breaking point. He begins by asserting that “Tocqueville recognized a need for political associations capable of cultivating ideals of excellence for democratic citizens,” ideals which “counterbalance democracy’s leveling effects.” What Tocqueville actually argued was that civil and political associations cultivate not “ideals” but habits of mind and heart that enable Americans to learn how to govern themselves by the very practice of governing—a practice that counterbalances not so much democratic leveling but the tendency of democrats to build over-centralized governments.
Becker does see that such associations can serve a function within egalitarian societies similar to that served by the “vertical” structure of aristocracies: cultivating the virtues of rulers, including self-rule. His omission of centralized government from Tocqueville’s argument makes sense rhetorically, however, because he wants to claim that FDR displayed “Tocqueville’s aristocratic sensibilities in practice.” FDR “used his aristocratic sensibilities to challenge an economic status quo and thereby reinvigorate more Tocquevillian democratic traditions and practices.”
What Roosevelt actually did with his “aristocratic sensibilities” was to build a centralized, administrative state of exactly the sort that Wilson had admired; the government of party appointees gave way in part to a government of tenured, professional, supposedly scientific administrators. Becker acknowledges that Tocqueville might have had his reservations about FDR’s project, but contents himself with assuring us that Roosevelt himself shared concerns “about expanding government responsibility” and that he didn’t really mean to establish a centralized bureaucracy. More, Becker bravely avers that “the ambition to govern oneself was revived through the expansion of the administrative state,” though concededly “what it meant to be self-governing was made more complex by the Depression, global war, and an evolving interdependency between private industry and government.”
In his final chapters, Becker wisely retreats from such tortuous thinking, offering some sensible suggestions about counterbalancing bureaucracy with reinvigorated political parties. Like it or not, party government is indeed the most realistic alternative to administrative government within the modern state. Becker worries that if the most ambitious among us can eschew parties and run campaigns based upon manipulating their own “images”—an opportunity opened by the Progressives, who tried to supplement the administrative state with more direct forms of democracy, such as candidate-centered elections, initiative and referendum, and similar devices of direct democracy—then what results is exactly the kind of ideologically-driven, uncompromising, polarized politics he wants to avoid.
Reinvigorating parties means candidate selection by experienced party bosses, men and (now) women with experience not only in elections but in government. In the past, “political parties were rooted in local organizations and relied upon the explicit power of face-to-face campaigning.” True, but this dovetailed with confederal republicanism and with party appointees to governmental posts, not with governmental centralization and professional bureaucracy. “The common ground of the American character and the American soul was and remains citizenship,” the author concludes. But actually the common ground of the American character was (but does not in practice remain) natural right, with citizenship as the protector of those rights. Replace natural right with “historical” right under the modern administrative state and the American character must change, and has changed.
 See Robert Eden, Political Leadership and Nihilism: A Study of Weber and Nietzsche (University of South Florida Press, 1983).