The American Empire: Triumph & Expansion of the Federal State
The story of America is also one of the steady fall of Jeffersonian democracy and the rise of Hamiltonian plutocracy, with an all-powerful federal government in symbiosis with a ruling oligarchy. This was not a given however, because the Republic created by the Constitution was actually a regime of divided sovereignty. According to an ambiguous compromise (alongside the similarly-dangerous compromise of Negro slavery): “Sovereignty, in the United States, is divided between the Union and the States, whereas, among us [in France], it is one and compact” (196). With Schmittian premonitions, Tocqueville notes the existence of “this despotic and absolute power which, in every government, must reside somewhere” (620).
This outcome was not, as some might rationalize, the result of inspired reflection, but from ugly compromise between sovereign states loath, naturally enough, to abolish their power: “In this state of things, happened what always happens, when interests are in opposition with reasonings: the rules of logic are made to bend” (190). America did not have a “federal” but an “incomplete national government” (244).
Divided sovereignty, in effect, meant a kind of chaos, as the states and union would bicker, and laws go unenforced. This might be acceptable in peacetime (the nullification crises) but was a disaster in war. America could only afford this compromise thanks to its geographic security: “The people which, in the face of the great military monarchies of Europe, were to fraction its sovereignty, would seem to me to abdicate, by this fact alone, its power, and perhaps also its existence and its name” (261). Tocqueville refers to the “absurd and destructive doctrines” under which some states refused to submit their militias to federal authorities in the war of 1812. Fortunately, America was protected by her borders and regional hegemony.
Incredibly: “The government of the Union rests almost entirely upon legal fictions. The Union is an ideal nation which exists so to speak only in the mind” (254). During disputes with the states, the federal government is reduced to conciliatory pleading and lawyering. Tocqueville senses the union’s fragility and the possibility of secessionist civil war:
The American government, it is said, does not address the State: it immediately brings its injunctions upon the citizens, and bends them in isolation under the effort of the common will.
But if federal law were to violently oppose the interests and prejudices of a State, must we not fear that every citizen of this State would believe himself to have an interest in the cause of the man who refused to obey? All the State’s citizens, finding themselves to be wronged at the same time and in the same way, by the Union’s authority, the federal government would seek in vain to isolate them to fight them: they would feel instinctively that they need to unite to defend themselves and they would find an organization already prepared in the portion of sovereignty that the State has been allowed to enjoy. The fiction would then disappear to make way for reality, and one could see the organized power of a part of the territory in a struggle against the central authority. (256)
Either I am strangely mistaken, or the federal government of the United States tend to weaken every day; it is withdrawing step-by-step from affairs, it is tightening more and more the circle of its action. [. . .]
When we will see that the weakness of the federal government compromising the existence of the Union, I do not doubt that we will see the emergence of a movement of reaction in favor of force. (572)
This inherent fragility and divided sovereignty of the early American “federal” system would only be eliminated with the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln’s victory ensured the Union would remain politically whole and finalized federal supremacy. (I am inclined to believe that “state’s rights” understood as divided sovereignty could in any event not survive: even if the Confederates had succeeded, their own central government would have to be supreme if the new nation were to be able to stand up to foreign power. As Tocqueville notes, nations tend to unite politically precisely in the face of foreigners .)
This having been achieved, traditional American decentralization was doomed because of the modern state and democracy’s natural centralizing tendencies:
How to resist tyranny in a country where every individual is weak, and where individuals are not united by any common interest? [. . .]
I am convinced, incidentally, that there are no nations more vulnerable to falling under the yoke of administrative centralization than those whose social condition is democratic. [. . .]
The continuous tendency of these nations is to concentrate all governmental power in the hands of a single power which directly represents the people, because, beyond the people, one sees only equal individuals lost in a common mass. (162)
All the democratic pressures on the central government — especially the endless pressure to “equalize” an actually unequal population through the lie of universal upward social mobility — then exercise themselves on every state and municipality (whether achieved by taxation, conditional federal funding, federal troops, federal judicial decisions . . .): the redistributive welfare state, desegregation, school busing, forced residential integration, affirmative action, “No Child Left Behind,” etc. As Tocqueville notes, democracy summons a thirst for an impossible equality which can never be quenched. Lincoln having established federal supremacy, the coastal elites who controlled the commanding heights of culture and of the federal government would naturally be able, in the fullness of time, to coercively impose their dark designs upon the American heartland.
Thus Jeffersonian democracy and limited government would give way to the perhaps inevitable bureaucratization and rise of the state in all facets of modern life that we have come to know. Tocqueville notes elsewhere, no doubt thinking of post-Napoleonic France but also applying to the late American Empire:
This merits being meditated upon. If a democratic republic like that of the United States were ever founded in a country where the power of one man would have already established and passed into the habits, as in the laws, administrative centralization, I do not fear saying, in such a republic, despotism would become more intolerable than in any of the absolute monarchies of Europe. One would need to go by Asia to find something comparable. (391)
Interestingly (and perhaps suspiciously), Tocqueville does not predict the rise of plutocracy. He praises Alexander Hamilton’s federalists as in effect men against Time, “for fighting against the irresistible tendency [pente, or slope] of their century and of their country” (270). He apparently considers the establishment of the Bank of the United States to be an aristocratic phenomenon, lamentably no longer in keeping with a democratic age. In fact, the dispute between a populist Andrew Jackson and an elitist Bank perfectly prefigures later struggles:
The president attacks the Bank of the United States; the country is disturbed and divides itself; the enlightened classes generally side with the bank, the people with president. (272)
The Bank of the United States is however the object of great hatreds. Its directors have declared themselves against the president, and they are accused, not implausibly, of having abused their influence to prevent his election. (565)
After the Civil War, perhaps the centralization and plutocratization of the United States in the name of democracy was inevitable: one thinks in particular of various innovations of the Wilsonian era: the directly-elected Senate, the income tax, and the Federal Reserve. Thus power in America began becoming far more centralized and compact, with the manipulators of monetary symbols in Wall Street gaining commanding influence in the political process through campaign donations, a rather elegant system.
Having conquered Western Europe and Northeast Asia during the Second World War, and needing to secure these gains against the Bolshevik behemoth that had been summoned from Central Asia, the American Republic became an American Empire. Thus came the rise of the Military-Industrial Complex, the National Security State, and the Surveillance State with their associated loss of liberty: “in general nothing is more contrary to the well-being and freedom of men than great empires” (247).
Towards European-American Liberation?
Thus we have our overview of the rise and fall of the American Republic: the creation of a powerful Anglo-European nation-state on North American soil, followed by its hostile takeover by an ethno-plutocratic elite and transformation into an Evil Empire. Today, things may be changing, as the Internet has broken the mainstream media’s virtual monopoly on cultural power. Tocqueville provides insights as to how transformation may occur.
For a long time, authentic patriotism has been unfashionable in America: “One does not see love of country reign long in a conquered land” (121). There are those who are in denial about an emerging problem:
In the States of the South, they are silent [on the growing population of black slaves]; they do not speak of the future to foreigners; they avoid explaining themselves with their friends; each hides it so to speak even to themselves. There is something more frightening about the South’s silence than the North’s noisy fears. (523)
One can break the silence however. To a certain extent, censorship is impossible with a unanimous media for: “[the Americans] believe incidentally that the courts are powerless to moderate the [publishing] process, and the subtlety of human languages ever escaping judicial analysis, the crimes of this nature [defamation, license] disappear in a sense before the man which comes for to grasp them” (279).
There is pain of having one’s beliefs challenged, cognitive dissonance, and the zeal then comes from having a reflected opinion:
Man firmly believes, because he adopts without going deeply. He doubts when objections are presented. Often he manages to resolve his doubts, and then he begins to believe again. This time, he does not grasp truth by accident and in the dark; but he sees it eye-to-eye and marches directly by its light. (285)
There is the power of freedom of association and gathering in groups:
The right of association is thus almost synonymous with that of the freedom to write; already however association has more power than the press. When an opinion is represented by an association, it is forced to take a clearer and more precise form. It counts its partisans and commits them to its cause. These learn to know each other, and their zeal increases with their numbers. The association unites into a beam [faisceau, cognate of fasces] the efforts of divergent spirits, and pushes them with vigor towards a single goal clearly indicated by it. (288)
Tocqueville speaks of those few remaining Christians who, in an increasingly godless age of European nihilism, have great cohesion, as heretical movements often do:
In the centuries that we have just described, one abandons one’s beliefs through coldness rather than hatred; one does not reject them, they leave you. By ceasing to believe in religion’s truth, the incredulous continues to deem it useful. Considering religious beliefs under a human aspect, he recognizes their power over customs, their influence over the laws. He understands how they can make men live in peace and prepare them gently for death. He regrets then the faith after having lost it, and deprived of a good whose worth he knows the full extent, he fears taking it away from those who still have it. [. . .]
Among these tepid friends and fervent adversaries, I discover at last a small number of faithful ready to overcome all obstacles and to ignore all dangers for their beliefs. These ones have done violence to human weakness in order to elevate themselves above common opinion. Dragged forward by this effort itself, they do not know exactly where they must stop. [. . .] They are then at war with their century and their country [. . .]. (443-44)
Tocqueville’s providential thinking can lead one towards pessimism: if these forces are intractable, what is there to be done? But he has faith in the Creator’s plan for Europe:
Would I believe that the Creator has made man to let him struggle endlessly amidst the intellectual miseries which surround us? I am unable to believe this: God is preparing a more stable and calm future for European societies; I ignore his plans, but I will not cease to believe this because I cannot penetrate them, and I would rather doubt my own enlightenment than his justice. (50)
1. And elsewhere: “Democracies naturally tend to concentrate all social force in the hands of the legislative body. The latter being the power emanating the most directly from the people, it is also that which participates the most to its undisputed power” (238).