Democracy: An Aristocratic Spirit

By Rob Riemen

I.

“The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” This conclusion by Saint Paul in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, as simple as it is wise, explains why in our own time so many great words have been so emptied of meaning that we no longer have any idea what they refer to, or continue purely out of habit to believe in things that are in reality nothing, because the letters conceal the fact that the spirit has dwindled.

“Democracy” is one of those faded, depleted words in an ever-lengthening, tragic series: university, freedom, learning, quality, courage, truth, value, humanity… No wonder. In an era in which an obsession with technology, science, data, quantity, innovation, public opinion, kitsch and conformism exists, a mass cultural illiteracy is inevitable, and words will consequently lose all their meaning.

None of this would have surprised Alexis de Tocqueville. Were he to be granted a second coming and decide to follow up his journey around America of 1831-32 with another trip through the free democratic West, he would see with his own eyes how almost everywhere in Western society the precious garment of democracy is unravelling and will soon be destroyed by the poisons with which it is being doused: nationalism, xenophobia, social anxiety, neoliberalism and fascism. The French aristocrat would no doubt soberly remark, “Je t’avais dit!” And on noticing that no one speaks French any longer would repeat, “I told you so!”

In the two lengthy books that Tocqueville published in 1835 and 1840 with the title De la démocratie en Amérique (Democracy in America), he tells his readers how he, a man of noble descent, came to the conclusion early in his life that with the French Revolution the era of feudal aristocracy had ended – and not only in France. He predicts that the future everywhere is now that of a democratic society, since the development of class equality is a universal and enduring phenomenon. In France, he writes, the democratic revolution rapidly destroyed the old aristocratic society and from out of the debris a new order is arising, of which he expects little good because the new freedom as yet lacks a moral framework:

The prestige of royal power has vanished without being replaced by the majesty of the laws; in our day the people scorn authority, but they fear it, and fear extracts more from them than was formerly given out of respect and love. […] The poor man has kept most of the prejudices of his fathers without their beliefs; their ignorance without their virtues; he has taken the doctrine of interest as the rule of his actions without knowing the science of it, and his selfishness is as lacking in enlightenment as was formerly his devotion.

He goes on:

I see others who, in the name of progress, striving to make man into matter, want to find the useful without occupying themselves with the just, to find science far from beliefs, and well-being separated from virtue: these persons are said to be the champions of modern civilization, and they insolently put themselves at its head, usurping a place that has been abandoned to them, but from which they are held off by their unworthiness.

On this fault-line of European history, however, a new world was emerging on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, a world not burdened by centuries of history, nor by the anarchy that was running rampant amid the ruins of the old order. It was for this reason that Alexis de Tocqueville decided to travel to America in 1831, to see with his own eyes how a truly democratic society might function. “I wanted to find lessons there from which we could profit.”

[…] in our own time so many great words have been so emptied of meaning that we no longer have any idea what they refer to […]

During his journey across the immense continent, Tocqueville saw a different social world, one admittedly less magnificent than the old Europe, a place where practical scholarship was far more highly valued than philosophy (“I think there is no country in the civilized world where they are less occupied with philosophy than in the United States”), a society that was materialistic and individualistic and at the same time so religious that it nevertheless had a powerful sense of community. The French aristocrat came to the conclusion that not only was the democratization of the world impossible to stop, democracy itself could cause a civilization to flourish that had more of an eye for the value of each individual human being than the feudal, aristocratic world in which he had grown up. Could, because he perceived a major threat in that same democratization: democracies can commit suicide!

Towards the end of his account of his travels Tocqueville puts it like this: I think therefore that the kind of oppression with which democratic peoples are threatened will resemble nothing that has preceded it in the world; our contemporaries would not find its image in their memories. I myself seek in vain an expression that exactly reproduces the idea that I form of it for myself and that contains it; the old words of despotism and of tyranny are not suitable. The thing is new, therefore I must try to define it, since I cannot name it.

So as early as 1840 Tocqueville described a dystopia, explaining how a democracy can degenerate into a mass democracy, in which personality ceases to exist and countless individuals form a mindless mass like an ant heap. Such a mass is all too willing to give up its freedom and voluntarily submit to an authoritarian power as long as that power protects it, thinks for it, and ensures that nothing stands in the way of an agreeable life.

Tocqueville was the first to foresee a society reduced to a collection of brainless herd animals. Later we come upon this same image in the work of Nietzsche, in Dostoevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor, Zamyatin’s We, Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Out of a deep concern about the danger lurking within every democratic form of government, Tocqueville formulates in the introduction to his book the following duty for the new elite:

To instruct democracy, if possible to reanimate its beliefs, to purify its mores, to regulate its movements, to substitute little by little the science of affairs for its inexperience, and knowledge of its true instincts for its blind instincts; to adapt its government to time and place; to modify it according to circumstances and men: such is the first duty imposed on those who direct society in our day.

II.

When on July 4,1776 in Philadelphia the Declaration of Independence composed by Thomas Jefferson was ratified, its signatories were conscious of what their new world could become and what it ought to be. In February of that year, in his pamphlet Common Sense, Thomas Paine had called for America to be made independent of the tyranny of the British monarchy, and among his arguments was the following: “We have it in our power to begin the world all over again.” In that one sentence the Founding Fathers of the United States expressed their faith in America, a faith shared by all those who wanted to start a new life in the new world. Those who immigrated to America to escape religious persecution, such as the Quakers, saw and praised it as the country where a new Jerusalem, a City on the Hill, would be built for humankind, to fulfill the biblical vision of a God-fearing and peace-loving society. The founders themselves, almost all of them representatives of the ideals of the European Enlightenment, needed neither the Bible nor God to define exactly what kind of new world they had in mind: a moral vision with freedom as its key concept. People from all over the world would be welcome to come and form of a free society together. In the words of a future U.S. President, Franklin Roosevelt, there would be at least four freedoms: freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom from poverty and freedom from fear.

For that reason America needed to be a democracy. Only a democracy respects the belief that “all men are created equal” and protects the freedom of the individual.

For that reason too, the civil war that broke out in 1861 was unavoidable. There was too wide a gulf between the moral vision of the Declaration of Independence and the horrific reality of a slave society with its deeply rooted belief, especially in the southern states, that black people could never be equal to whites. President Lincoln had no choice. If he was to save the democratic spirit by holding the Union together and at the same time put an end to slavery – incompatible as it was with everything America was meant to be according to its Declaration of Independence and its Constitution – he would have to declare war on those southern states that refused to allow equality and freedom for all.

Only a democracy respects the belief that “all men are created equal” and protects the freedom of the individual.

More than eight hundred thousand men lost their lives in four years of civil war. After the battle of Gettysburg of July 1863, in which thousands of young men died, the decision was made to consecrate part of the battlefield as a national cemetery. The president was invited to say a few words to mark the occasion. It was November 19, a crowd of five thousand had turned out to experience the extraordinary moment.

Lincoln did not say much. It was one of the shortest speeches in political history. But every word he uttered was so full of meaning that his address of November 19, 1863 will continue to reverberate down through the centuries. He managed to restore moral significance to the concept of democracy by making every single word hit home:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.  Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us, that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

III.

On the morning of April 15, 1865, the New York newspapers reported that President Lincoln had been shot the evening before and had died of his wounds in the early hours. Poet Walt Whitman read the reports in his house in Brooklyn and felt a broken man. He could no longer eat, no longer think, and he walked numbly through a city plunged into mourning. Shops were shut; the traffic fell silent. In his youth Whitman had earned his living as a journalist and ever since he had held a low opinion of the world of politics. Frustrated by the incompetence and corruption of the political class that in his view perverted the democratic ideal of the Founding Fathers, in 1856 he wrote a pamphlet called The Eighteenth Presidency in which, under the heading “Who Are They Personally?” he described the political elite as “office-holders, robbers, pimps, conspirators, slave-catchers, body-snatchers, ruined sports, blind men, deaf men, the lousy combings and born freedom sellers of the earth…” Abraham Lincoln was not like them, however. In Lincoln, Whitman saw the incarnation of his own democratic ideal, as already described in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution, and in his praise of America in his poetry collection Leaves of Grass:

Any period one nation must lead,

One land must be the promise and reliance of the future. […]

When America does what was promis’d, […]

When through these States walk a hundred millions of superb persons, […]

I announce justice triumphant;

I announce uncompromising liberty and equality;

I announce the justification of candor, and the justification of pride […]

I announce splendors and majesties to make all the previous politics of the earth insignificant.

After Lincoln’s death, Whitman watched America’s rapid descent into a country that was a democracy according to the letter but where the spirit had dwindled. All the democratic political institutions still existed, certainly, but Whitman knew they were insufficient for the preservation of democracy. He was forced to conclude that the democratic spirit had been pushed aside to make room for shameless materialism, egotism and racism, for stupidity, vulgarity, conformism and lack of solidarity. It was for that reason that in 1871 he published his Democratic Vistas. The book is both an indictment of abuses in America and a passionate call never to forget that “the purpose of democracy is that the highest freedom must become a law […] and goodness and virtue will follow freedom.”

[…] the democratic spirit had been pushed aside to make room for shameless materialism, egotism and racism, for stupidity, vulgarity, conformism and lack of solidarity.

Exactly twenty years earlier his mentor and fatherly friend Ralph Emerson had given a brilliant speech in response to the passing of the controversial Fugitive Slave Law. Whitman underlined the following lines of that speech and committed them to memory:

Liberty is never cheap. It is made difficult, because freedom is the accomplishment and perfectness of man. He is a finished man; earning and bestowing good; equal to the world; at home in Nature and dignifying that; the sun does not see anything nobler, and has nothing to teach him. Therefore mountains of difficulty must be surmounted, stern trials met, wiles of seduction, dangers, healed by a quarantine of calamities to measure his strength before he dare say, I am free.

Knowing that political freedom alone is never enough to preserve democracy, Whitman believed that a different mental climate would have to come, an era in which – with the help of literature and poetry – words would have meaning breathed into them again, America would win back its true spirit, and the masses of unthinking individuals, through an exercise in nobility of spirit, would be transformed into the community of free, conscientious personalities to which Emerson had so eloquently given expression. Then and only then could America be, in Lincoln’s words, “the last, best hope of earth.” Then and only then could there be a world that was democratic and would remain so.

IV.

Just one week after his arrival in New York on February 21, 1938, on the Queen Mary, Thomas Mann travelled by train to Chicago to deliver his March 1 lecture The Coming Victory of Democracy to an audience of more than four thousand people. He told his American audience that ever since the early 1920s, in his hometown of Munich, he had witnessed the rise of Hitler, seeing at first hand a fascist movement coming into power in Europe. Based on this experience he wanted to warn Americans and to remind them of what Walt Whitman had taught him since he first started to read the poet’s work in 1922.

According to its literal definition, democracy is a matter of institutions, of the freedom to vote, freedom of expression, the will of the people… But that is not the essence of democracy. Its essence is a spiritual and moral ideal. True democracy is a form of government and of society that is inspired more than any other by the sense and consciousness of the dignity of humankind. True democracy demands a social conscience; it needs to be a social democracy if it is to fight against the excesses of capitalism and of amoral liberalism, against social inequality and injustice. Such a democracy will cultivate the greatness of man as it finds its expression in art and science, in a passion for truth, the creation of beauty and the idea of justice. Where the spirit of democracy is absent, where it exists in name only, the same will eventually happen as has happened in fascist Europe: it will become a mass democracy.

According to its literal definition, democracy is a matter of institutions, of the freedom to vote, freedom of expression, the will of the people… But that is not the essence of democracy.

Mann had watched the spirit of democracy vanish in a mass society in which stupidity, kitsch, vulgarity and the basest of human instincts dominated, where demagogues were welcomed, along with their lies and their politics of resentment. He had watched the incitement of anger and fear, of xenophobia, witnessed a need for scapegoats and a hatred of the life of the mind. In a mass society democracy dies, while fascism, the anti-democratic spirit, takes over. To prevent fascism from coming to America, people needed to realize that: “the purpose of true democracy is to elevate humankind, to teach it to think, to set it free – its aim, in a word, is education, an education in nobility of spirit.”

V.

Seventy years later, we are forced to admit that democracy in the era of Trump is not the democracy that Thomas Mann, Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln and the Founding Fathers of the United States had in mind.

Instead of elevating people, it is facilitating an ongoing dumbing down by mass media and the education system.

Instead of equal opportunities and equal rights, there is growing inequality and increasing exclusion.

Instead of cultivating such universal moral and spiritual values as reason, truth, beauty and justice, our commercial culture engages our basest instincts and promotes only its own interests and values: productivity, efficiency, utility and aggressive materialism.

Instead of compassion there is resentment, racism, fear and hatred.

Instead of a quest for quality, there is a demand for quantity, and everything is measured in numerical terms to determine its “usefulness.”

Instead of serious political and intellectual discussion about the way forward, the way to create a better, more decent society together, there is nothing other than political tribalism, expressed in tweets, slogans and propaganda, nothing but image-building through framing.

Instead of the love of wisdom, there is an obsession with data and information.

Having dismissed as unimportant a liberal education that would provide us with the wisdom and courage to help us to become free, to elevate ourselves beyond our fears, instincts and worst desires, to liberate ourselves from the stupid, pathetic, frustrated sides of ourselves in order to live in truth, to create beauty, to do justice and have compassion, we choose instead to exclude from education everything except science, technology and business.

VI.

Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a new wall is being built. The writing on that wall says that the era of Trump heralds the return of fascism. We should not be surprised. As early as 1947 both Albert Camus and Thomas Mann, independently of each other, issued the same warning: the war may be over, but fascism has not gone away. It can return.

As if in a festival of fools, many academics and pundits are still in denial and want us to believe that what we are confronting now is “populism” (whatever that may mean), not fascism. That attitude is based on ignorance of what thinkers and artists like Mann, Camus, Levi, Croce and Fromm, who lived through the fascist era of the twentieth century, taught us: there is no ideology behind fascism and no one can define it; it will not return in black uniforms and it will inevitably deny that it is fascism (happy as it is with today’s festival of fools), but its characteristics will be the same as ever.

Fascism can be recognized as the bastard child of a democracy that has lost its spirit, and it presents itself as an ethnic religion. Its leader will adopt the guise of an anti-politician, a new messiah promising to cure society of all its ills, knowing full well how to exploit human weakness, resentment, fear, hatred, xenophobia, greed, hunger for authority and the obsession with a national-ethnic identity.

Fascism is an anti-democratic spirit that uses the letter of democracy to destroy the spirit of democracy that cultivates the dignity and freedom of every human being. The free press will therefore be decried as “the enemy of the people.” Art, intellectual endeavor and the life of the mind will be despised. Independent judges will be declared suspect and replaced by party members. Endless propaganda will be used to manipulate the habits and opinions of the people. Racist rhetoric and the divisiveness of the ongoing politics of fear and hatred will, bit by bit, more and more, incite an eventually unstoppable violence in that society and in the rest of the world.

VII.

Half a century ago, in 1969, in the movie Easy Rider, George Hanson (played by the young Jack Nicholson) remarks sadly, “You know, this used to be a helluva good country. I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it.”

Well, we can.

The question now is, what is to be done?

More activism alone will not do. The notion that a democracy can be fixed as if what is wrong amounts to a bug in the system, is a dangerous fantasy. The idea that when Trump leaves the political stage, fascism in

America will be gone is an illusion. Not calling things by their name, not using the F-word because “fascism has become such a contaminated word,” is just as foolish as giving up the name “democracy,” which is after all by far the most abused word in modern history.

What is to be done? Learn the lessons of history! The Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana was right to remark: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Here are two lessons to start with.

The first is that we need to use liberal education and the empowerment of people to restore the original meaning of democracy as Mann, Whitman, Lincoln and the American Founding Fathers understood it. We need to teach democracy as an aristocratic spirit that gives expression to the best in human nature, that strives to elevate us to human greatness and to create a world in which truth, justice and freedom for all will have a home.

The second lesson is that only by reviving the democratic spirit, which is the nobility of spirit, can we fight against this age and prevent the return of fascism.

Rob Riemen, Founder and President of the Nexus Institute
Author of Nobility of Spirit. A Forgotten Ideal (Yale UP 2008)
and To Fight Against This Age. On Fascism and Humanism (W.W. Norton 2018)
©Rob Riemen 2019

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Emily B.R. Rodriguez
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emily.rodriguez@bfna.org