Home/Alan Jacobs/Dialogue on Democracy, Part Eleven

Dialogue on Democracy, Part Eleven

B. What do you mean, “Easy for me to say”?

A.“Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral,” as Brecht said — grub first, then ethics. It’s a false dichotomy: either economic prosperity or human flourishing. People who are economically deprived don’t have the leisure to develop their … to start a Finer Things Club.

B. So we’re back to bread and circuses, then. In your model — in your Brave New World, if you want to keep the literary references going, we give up democracy, give up self-rule to the World Controllers, and in return get the bread that allows us to pursue the Finer Things.

A. That’s a rather dismissive way of —

Subjection in small affairs manifests itself every day and makes itself felt without distinction by all citizens. It does not make them desperate; but it constantly thwarts them and brings them to renounce the use of their wills. Thus little by little, it extinguishes their spirits and enervates their souls, whereas obedience, which is due only in a few very grave but very rare circumstances, shows servitude only now and then and makes it weigh only on certain men. In vain will you charge these same citizens, whom you have rendered so dependent on the central power, with choosing the representatives of this power from time to time; that use of their free will, so important but so brief and so rare, will not prevent them from losing little by little the faculty of thinking, feeling, and acting by themselves, and thus from gradually falling below the level of humanity.

— Hey, can you turn that down?

B. I’m not doing it. What is that?

A. That’s not coming from your laptop?

B. Nope. What was it saying? Something about obedience and servitude? Losing the faculty of thinking?

A. There must be a radio around here somewhere.

B. Yeah, must be. That was interesting, though. Hang on, let me google this… Oh. Hmmm. It’s from Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Near the end of the second volume.

A. You’re kidding.

B. No. Apparently we have an eavesdropper.

The moral empire of the majority is founded in part on the idea that there is more enlightenment and wisdom in many men united than in one alone, in the number of legislators than in their choice. It is the theory of equality applied to intellects. This doctrine attacks the pride of man in its last asylum: so the minority accepts it only with difficulty; it habituates itself to it only in the long term. Like all powers, and perhaps more than any of them, therefore, the power of the majority needs to be lasting in order to appear legitimate. When it begins to establish itself, it makes itself obeyed by constraint; it is only after having lived for a long time under its laws that one begins to respect it.

B. Hmm. Someone seems to want to start an argument. Let me try to find out who said that … Well, that’s interesting.

A. What?

B. That’s Tocqueville too.

A. Odd. It sounded like almost the opposite of that first thing. Or different, anyway.

B. Yeah. You know, I think our eavesdropper might be on to something.

A. In what sense?

B. Well, we’ve been talking a lot about democracy, and we’ve been talking about America, but we haven’t had too much to say about democracy in America. Our models have been from ancient China, or England a century ago, or whatever world it is that the neoreactionaries are living in —

A. Now hang on a minute —

B. Sorry. Clerk, strike that last comment from the record. But you know what I mean, yes? Maybe we should think more about the particular circumstances of American democracy.

A. And Tocqueville is supposed to be The Guy about that, yes? He sounds interesting … That comment about how people “sink below the level of humanity” when experiencing “subjection in small affairs” — that reminds me of your emphasis on giving people more power, more “voice,” in matters close to home — because that’s going to help them flourish in ways you were talking about last time.


B. Exactly. But then the passage also makes me wonder what to do when people have been “subjected” in this way so long that they have fallen “below the level of humanity” — can they be brought back? Or must others rule for them? And to what extent does our particular social and political order create this problem that it’s supposed to be solving?

A. That second passage, on “the theory of equality applied to intellects,” is relevant too — what if that “theory” is wrong?

B. Well, you’ve been saying it’s wrong, and it may be, though I’m not sure its wrongness has the political implications you think it does. Maybe you haven’t been living long enough under its laws!

A. Maybe … but in any case, I think we have some reading to do.

B. I think we do.

A. Big book, though.

B. It sure is.

A. May take a while to get through.

B. We have time. Let’s start reading. We can check in with each other later.

A. You have a deal.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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