Over at National Review Online, Michael Ledeen has attacked ex-NRO staffer Russ Douthat for writing that the Iranians will not become “our people” merely by embracing democracy. To Ledeen, this is “distinctly un-American, a snooty rejection of our national mission, which, as Tocqueville observed more than a century and a half ago, is to support freedom and democracy.” ~Tom Piatak, Cultural Revolutions Online
A cursory review of Democracy in America shows that M. de Tocqueville very properly understood liberty and democracy as being opposed, and that democracy threatened the former. This was on account of a democratic people’s preference for simple, general ideas and democracy’s removal of intermediary, secondary powers between the center and the populace.
As M. de Tocqueville wrote: “As the condition of men becomes more equal among a people, individuals seem of less importance, and society of greater dimensions; or rather, every citizen, being assimilated to all the rest, is lost in the crowd, and nothing stands conspicuous but the great and imposing image of the people at large. This naturally gives the men of democratic periods a lofty opinion of the privileges of society, and a very humble notion of the rights of individuals; they are ready to admit that the interests of the former are everything, and those of the later nothing.” (IV.ii)
He goes on to note that the “unity, the ubiquity, the omnipotence of the supreme power, and uniformity of its rules, constitute the principal characteristics of all the political systems which have been put forward in our age.” It is this democratic totalitarianism that subsequently afflicted all forms of government and introduced something new and dangerous into the old forms as well.
In his concluding chapter, M. de Tocqueville paints a bleak picture of democratic despotism, and would have no patience for the contemporary prophets of what Mr. Ledeen calls “democratic revolution,” which seems generally to mean the establishment of pro-hegemony, highly centralised oligarchic regimes based on the deluded, willing complicity of mobs. As Tocqueville said, “It is in vain to summon a people, which has been rendered so dependent on a central power, to choose from time to time the representatives of that power; this rare and brief exercise of their free choice, however important it may be, will not prevent them from gradually losing the faculties of thinking, feeling, and acting for themselves, and thus gradually falling below the level of humanity.” (IV.vi) As democracy fosters centralisation, centralisation so meddles in the customary and ordinary life of people as to wear them down into peons whose validation of the “free” system is a travesty of a liberal politics. Clearly, M. de Tocqueville, as the right-liberal that he was, saw in democracy a threat to freedom and an inevitable despotism of its own kind–he would never have urged any nation, had he the temerity to dictate to another nation its role in the world, to advance the mutually opposed political ideas of liberty and democracy.
Perhaps before sticking his awful slogans in the mouths of genuine intellectuals, Mr. Ledeen would do them the favour of at least being familiar with the ideas of the men he travesties. (And, yes, I am aware that Mr. Ledeen has written on M. de Tocqueville and purports to know something about him.) It is inconceivable how Mr. Ledeen could invoke in his support someone who once wrote, “Despotism therefore appears to me peculiarly to be dreaded in democratic ages.” (IV.vii) Note that it is not the abuse of democracy to which he refers, but to its natural results. Certainly, Mr. Ledeen’s public pronouncements would never leave one with the impression that he imagined there to be such a thing as a natural despotism arising from democracy.
As for Iranians becoming “our people,” this Mr. Douthat is correct that democracy will not suffice, and I will go further to say that nothing will ever happen that will make Iranians “our people.” And why would we or they want them to become “our people”? The very notion is offensive on account of the natural variety of nations and the significantly different historical developments of Iranian and Western civilisation. They look back to an antiquity of Shahanshahs, while we remember Rome, so there will always be a significant difference in the trajectories of our historical and cultural development. If Iranians should someday choose to have a more full-fledged representative government than the half-baked form they have today, it will no more make our two cultures one than it did when the Japanese adopted the practice of our form of government.
My thanks to Mr. Piatak for writing about this post. But he did not include in his quotation what was, in a way, an even more stunning claim: “I think that the Germans and the Japanese and the Italians became “our people” when they became democratic. When they were tyrannical they were our enemies, as tyrants always are. That’s why Tocqueville was able to predict our inevitable conflict with tyrannical Russia.”
Our inevitable conflict with tyrannical Russia? The conflict only became ‘inevitable’ on account of misguided Wilsonian and Rooseveltian policies: the first allowing the Bolsheviks to flourish by knocking out the one force, the Germans, capable of eliminating them in time, and the second by provoking the Axis powers to go to war against us and forcing us into a combination with the most awful tyrant in history. Had we not been supporting the Soviets, they likely would have lost in WWII, and the yoke of communism lifted almost fifty years sooner. In an imperfect world, it is difficult to see how the victory of one despotism or another ultimately made any difference, and it is certainly arguable that Soviet victory was worse for everyone in eastern Europe and the territories of the USSR.
Ledeen’s kind of ideological and political reductionism is really quite funny, and it also does reveal Mr. Ledeen’s bizarre, rootless universalism very nicely. For Mr. Ledeen, foreign peoples and cultures become “ours” by adopting a form of government that we also possess–does that also mean that all “tyrannical” peoples are one people? Does that make the German invasion of the USSR a civil war in Mr. Ledeen’s book? This is ridiculous.
Let’s remember that in the heyday of tsarism (I assume Ledeen regards the tsars as tyrants, since any ‘non-democratic’ form of government seems to be a kind of tyranny for him) relations between the United States and Russia were the best of almost any two nations on earth, and that revolutionary France (Ledeen’s kind of people) was the enemy of the United States while royal France was our ally.
If M. de Tocqueville ever claimed some inevitable conflict with “tyrannical Russia,” he would have been proven entirely wrong by events: tsarist and Soviet Russia were our major eastern allies in the two greatest wars of the twentieth century against three major states (in both wars) that had more active representative, liberal and, yes, democratic traditions than Russia ever had. Ideological and political conflicts did not enter into it, nor should they necessarily when strategic interests are at stake. Indeed, prior to our entry into WWII, there was no inevitable conflict between the United States and the Soviets (Americans had nothing but contempt for communism, but there was nothing ineluctably drawing us to fight the Soviets), and what conflict there was during the Russian Civil War was the result of the kind of hare-brained, futile Wilsonian interventionism that only strengthened Bolshevism by giving it a foreign enemy against which it could oppose itself.
It is curious that Mr. Ledeen should refer to enemies of America in either WWI or WWII as tyrannies (that they were not our enemies because there were tyrannies should be plain by now). In WWI they were all constitutional monarchies under law and mostly in practice (of course, during the war every government, Allied and Central, became tyrannical and oppressive) and in WWII all save Japan definitely represented what Tocqueville would have recognised as democratic despotisms (and even the Japanese case would not have been possible without very modern, democratic mass mobilisation). Even Japanese imperialism emerged during that country’s liberal and democratising era as a natural product of that era.
It is discomforting for the democratist to admit that WWI was a battle of more or less democratic governments, where only the kinds of head of state varied, as this explodes his myth that the expansion of democracy will foster greater chances for peace. In fact, since democracy has appeared on the scene and mass politics have become the norm, the massive calamity, horror and destructiveness of war have naturally followed. Totalitarianism is not possible except in a democratic age and a democratic society.
It is, of course, quite possible for there to be a democratic tyranny (we enjoy one even now), and any government that rules without regard to law can be called tyrannical. But what Mr. Ledeen really means is form of government symbolised by a single leading figure, a dictator or emperor. A government that routinely breaks the law, as ours does, yet has some sort of a popular mandate, probably does not much trouble Mr. Ledeen. (Mr. Putin’s popular mandate, of course, doesn’t count for much, since he has won it using the ‘wrong’ sorts of ideas–democracy as content, not process, to borrow Sam Francis’ description.)
Yet the United States have enjoyed a long history of defending and upholding dictatorships around the world in pursuit of American interests and in pursuit of the basically good cause of anticommunism. Only in the last 25 years have we begun to imagine that there was some necessary connection between American interests and the promotion of the instability and irrationality that is democratic government. Undoubtedly, their leftist enemies (and neoconservatives, of course) believe Pinochet and Franco to be tyrants, but American conservatives have known for some time that they were far preferable to whatever pro-Soviet puppet might emerge in their place and both proved congenial to facilitating the transition to functioning representative government. Had we hastily undermined them out of some ideological opposition to one-man rule, as Ledeen imagines the natural result of our “democratic” system to be, it is conceivable that Spain and Chile would have become bastions of collectivist populism and friends of the Soviet Union to the detriment of containment. No one should be so silly to say, as Daniel Pipes has said, that Chiang Kai-shek was “democratically-minded,” but at the time when he became an American ally the Nationalist cause was preferable to that of the Communists. Had we been preoccupied with some inevitable opposition to tyranny by Ledeen’s definition (as tyrannies are “always” our enemies, right?), we would have had very, very few allies in the Cold War (or indeed in any major international war of the last 90 years).
Democracy is the enemy of real freedom, as M. de Tocqueville well knew, and the interests of the United States may never coincide with those of countries with similar forms of government. Realism is always preferable in strategy to ludicrous ideological assumptions about who our enemies ought to be, and the same watered-down, meaningless ideology of “freedom and democracy” spouted by the Ledeens of the world cannot compare in insight, thoughtfulness or accuracy with the genuine political philosophy and humane principles of a M. de Tocqueville.