Sunday, July 17, 2016

Trump, Tocqueville, and the Leveling of America's Mediating Institutions

In the current cover story for The Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch—consistently one of the commentariat’s most original voices— diagnoses the causes of America’s “insane” political present. On Rauch’s basic story, contemporary political dysfunction follows from well-intentioned, democratic reforms meant to eliminate corruption, weaken the power of parties, and make the political process more transparent. By undermining the elitist influence formerly wielded by shadowy elites, it was precisely these reforms that have devastated the only institutions capable of rendering coherent the chaos of mass politics:
It begins with the weakening of the institutions and brokers—political parties, career politicians, and congressional leaders and committees—that have historically held politicians accountable to one another and prevented everyone in the system from pursuing naked self-interest all the time. As these intermediaries’ influence fades, politicians, activists, and voters all become more individualistic and unaccountable. The system atomizes. Chaos becomes the new normal—both in campaigns and in the government itself.
There is a great deal of truth in Rauch’s account. So much truth, in fact, that the article can fairly be described as a variation on a Tocquevilliean theme. For just as Tocqueville saw 150 years ago (and Montesquieu 150 years before that), the destruction of intermediary institutions is a sure path to political turmoil. But in a sense, Rauch does not go far enough in examining the nature and effects of the decline of American institutional life. His piece emphasizes how electoral and institutional reforms have undermined Congress’s sausage-making ability to reach needed legislative compromises. To that end, he carefully and compellingly describes how weakened national political institutions like parties lost their once sacrosanct power to mediate and moderate the wishes of the many. What Rauch neglects, however, is the hollowing out of American institutions not merely horizontally at the highest levels of national government, but at all levels of contemporary social and political life. It is this hollowing out which has made possible the collapse of once impregnable American institutions, and which must be explained in order to understand the perversity of our political moment. 

Our constitution, both in its parchment barriers and in its unwritten localist premises, has traditionally served to check the more pernicious tendencies of mass politics. In serving as trusted authorities, habituating men in the norms of political self-rule, and limiting the sweeping conflation of the people with the state, institutional life has historically safeguarded the sanity of American politics. As these institutional barriers are swept aside, we not only undermine sorely needed mechanisms of aristocratic lawmaking—the phenomenon Rauch describes—we lay the groundwork for an ever-more empowered, bureaucratized, administrative state. 

But what is it about contemporary American politics that is so inimical to intermediary institutions? To Tocqueville, the explanation lies in the great paradox of democracy, which sees everywhere the twin forces of egalitarian individualism and despotic consolidation march hand in hand. Democratic men are taught from a young age to “despise all outward forms,” and to trust only their own judgment in all things. Thinking themselves inferior to no man, such democrats refuse to accept any external men or institutions as epistemic authorities. As Tocqueville explains, however, the philosophical skepticism in the judgment or authority of any particular man leads Americans irresistibly to place absolute trust in the judgment and authority of all men. From the basic premise that all men are equal in their access to the truth springs a deep faith in the collected judgments of the great mass of mankind:
As citizens become more equal and alike, each individual’s penchant to believe blindly in a certain man or certain class diminishes. The disposition to believe in the mass increases, and the world comes increasingly under the sway of public opinion. … In times of equality, men have no faith in one another because of their similarity, but that same similarity gives them almost unlimited confidence in the judgment of the public, because it seems unlikely to them that, everyone being equally enlightened, truth should not lie with the greater number.
In this respect, the unquestioned authority of majoritarian judgment derives straightforwardly from individualistic and egalitarian moral convictions. The unrelenting logic of such convictions leads not to the sacred defense of each individual’s judgment, but to the ascent of the people—with the definite article­­—as the ultimate source of all power and authority. And where there is a singular people, there is a singular embodiment of popular sovereignty. "L'état c'est moi" becomes the faceless, bureaucratic administrative state, and ultimately, perhaps, "L'état c'est Trump."

Intermediate institutions—or “partial associations” as Rousseau dismisses them—are anywhere and everywhere the enemy of the people. Such institutions introduce hierarchy and order in political life, but are incompatible with the irresistible effort to establish a singular embodiment of popular sovereignty. 

Local political practices, for example, are described by Tocqueville as the indispensable “primary schools” of freedom. Through local political participation the citizen “habituates himself to the forms without which freedom proceeds only through revolutions … gets a taste for order … and finally assembles clear and practical ideas on the nature of his duties as well as the extent of his rights.” This habituation thus tempers the citizens’ otherwise crude, populist impulses, just as our system of political representation was designed to “refine and enlarge the public views.”

Organized religion, too, once played a central role in guiding citizens’ political judgments. In establishing legitimate authorities independent of majoritarian opinion, such religious leaders and institutions were capable of constructively curtailing the celebrity of the vulgar and base. A symptom of the phenomenon termed “Bad Religion” by Ross Douthat, the decline of organized despite persistently high levels of personal theistic belief has led to a whole host of adverse social outcomes. One of those outcomes, as JD Vance points out, is the extraordinary political divergence between observant and non-observant self-described evangelicals. Evangelical populations that regularly attend church were far more likely to support Cruz, while evangelicals who rarely attend church were far more likely to support Trump. If that isn't evidence of the civilizing force of organized religion, I don't know what is.

Robust local government and organized religion are but two of the many intermediary institutions relentlessly swept aside by the democratic and egalitarian leveling of anything that stands between the citizen and the state. This leveling not only lays fertile soil for celebrities-cum demagogues to flourish amidst unchecked national populism, it also aggregates more and more power to an administrative state that speaks merely in the name of the people. The people, no longer to be represented through a diffuse, patchwork set of political and cultural associations, must now be represented intact through the bureaucratized state. In Barney Frank’s immortal words, “Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.” In the new political landscape, there are no mediating institutions of civil society, there is only the individual and the state.

While he recognized the threat of a conventional demagogic tyrant (seen especially in the form of Andrew Jackson), Tocqueville was primarily concerned with a new form of essentially democratic despotism. True self-government requires the active, difficult work of participation channeled by political institutions and civic associational life. Once those mediating institutions are dismantled, however, political rule falls exclusively to a removed, distant, depersonalized state, which purports to rule in the name of the people while stripping them of all real agency:
The sovereign, after taking individuals one by one in his powerful hands and kneading them to his liking, reaches out to embrace society as a whole. Over it he spreads a fine mesh of uniform, minute, and complex rules, through which not even the most original minds and most vigorous souls can poke their heads above the crowd. He does not break men’s wills but softens, bends, and guides them. He seldom forces anyone to act but consistently opposes action. He does not destroy things but prevents them from coming into being. Rather than tyrannize, he inhibits, represses, saps, stifles, and stultifies, and in the end he reduces each nation to nothing but a flock of timid and industrious animals, with the government as its shepherd.
The state becomes "de jure a subordinate agent but de facto a master."

Rauch’s incisive lament of the loss of power-brokers, political parties, and aristocratic secrecy helpfully points us to the central role mediating institutions play in a free society. But the leveling of such institutions in the name of democratic equality has done far more than render national politics more polarized and dysfunctional. It has inaugurated a new era of democratic despotism perhaps even more insidious than the most dangerous of demagogic tyrannies.

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