AFTER TOCQUEVILLE: THE PROMISE AND FAILURE OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY
By Chilton Williamson Jr.
ISI Books, $27.95, 264 pages
Chilton Williamson Jr., once the book review editor at National Review, worked in a great tradition, his predecessors being Frank Meyer, who ran the book section from Woodstock, N.Y., and then George Will, who ran it from Washington. When George Will left National Review for more lucrative pastures, William F. Buckley chose Mr. Williamson, then a young editor at St. Martin’s Press, to succeed him. For the first time in memory, in those pre-computer days, reviewers mailed their drafts to the magazine’s offices in New York. But then Mr. Williamson went West for a vacation and decided to stay, so we mailed our drafts to Kemmerer, Wyo., where Mr. Williamson carried on the tradition of National Review book review editors, living far from the mother ship.
There were differences. Unlike Meyer, Mr. Williamson never called at 2 a.m. to ask about reviews and discuss politics; nor, unlike Mr. Will, did he ever infuriate old-line conservatives with heretical writings. But, like both of his predecessors, he demonstrated in his work a love of literature, an appreciation of good writing and an intense interest in politics and history. For the past two decades, Mr. Williamson, who still lives in Wyoming, has brought these qualities to his work as an editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, one of the best written and most intelligent outlets for writers dedicated to championing the values of traditional American conservatism.
In this strongly written and thoughtful book, the subject is democracy, a concept central in our lives but seldom satisfactorily defined. Mr. Williamson rehearses the attempts at definition, from Plato to Chesterton, and suggests that democracy “is no longer a political concept at all; it is shorthand for universal human bliss.”
For a time, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, when the United States remained the only superpower still standing, that blissful state seemed within reach, so much so that rational and respected scholars such as Francis Fukuyama somewhat giddily announced that we had reached “the end of history.”
But, writes Mr. Williamson, “Fukuyama’s notion of the end of history stands dangerously close to the ages-old desire to escape history altogether.”
However, as Reinhold Niebuhr put it, although history cannot complete itself, “men always seek prematurely to complete it.” This could account, says Mr. Williamson, for a “mood of vague apprehension pervading Democracy in America,” reflecting “[Alexis] Tocqueville’s fear that the nature of democracy is to push forward, thoughtlessly and relentlessly, toward that premature completion of history.”
Were Tocqueville to return today, would those apprehensions be justified? And how would he view what democracy has become? An answer of sorts might be arrived at by comparing what we perceive to exist today with “what struck Tocqueville as those American characteristics most likely to perpetuate the American republic.”
Among them, writes Mr. Williamson, was that “America has no great capital city.” Tocqueville “feared and deplored the process of centralization in France that had located all significant powers in Paris and posed a serious threat to representative government.”
Another characteristic was “Americans’ religious faith, which Tocqueville considered essential to democratic government.”
In addition, “the first American colonists were products of a great civilization, arriving ‘completely civilized’ on the shores of North America with ‘no need to learn, it being enough that they should not forget.’”
Would Tocqueville approve of what he would find? “No modern reader who considers Tocqueville’s ‘main causes tending to maintain a democratic republic in the United States’ can fail to notice that not one of the conditions he mentions persists today,” writes Mr. Williamson. Further, he “would probably be appalled by the monopolization of political power, opinion, and culture by Washington, New York, and Los Angeles in the United States of the present day.”
Mr. Williamson acknowledges “the possibility that Tocqueville was simply wrong in his condemnation of centralization in a democratic nation — and in other things.” But he goes on to summarize the charges being leveled by both left and right, among them that “the American republic is a republic no longer that the American federal democratic system is being wrecked and delegitimized by political and administrative centralization, bureaucracy, the imperial presidency, judicial tyranny, the erosion of civil liberties, the growth of a police state, corruption the influence of interest groups and of lobbies, the power of money in electoral politics, and the irresponsibility of the two party system.” Then there is the undoing of our society “by the decay of religious beliefs and by moral rot, by cultural illiteracy and incoherence and by the decline in educational standards.”
Moreover, through a misguided foreign policy, we’ve made “mortal enemies of countries overseas whom the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans no longer suffice to hold at bay. Throughout its history, America has served as a beacon for democrats around the world. Should the salt lose its savor, American democracy falter or fail, the effects on popular governments everywhere would be tremendous.”
And that, we can be certain, no matter how we define democracy, is not something of which Tocqueville would approve.
• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).