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Democracy And Despotism

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By DONALD DeMARCO

Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America was recognized from the first as a political treatise of the first order. It remains today, according to scholars of American history, as the most perceptive and penetrating work of its kind. The author does not idealize democracy. His intention was to show “to those who have fancied an ideal democracy” that “they had clothed the picture in false colors.” He does not hesitate to show, although he is not opposed to democracy as such, how democracy in America contains flaws that could lead to despotism.
He begins volume II of his classic study with words that are at least as true today as they were in 1835 when he penned them: “I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States.”
Americans, then, according to de Tocqueville, find “no need of drawing philosophical method out of books; they have found it in themselves.” In this regard, they unwittingly personify the isolationist thought of René Descartes. “I think, therefore, I am” becomes “I think and that’s all that matters.” Paradoxically, “America is therefore one of the countries where the precepts of Descartes are least studied and are best applied.”
What this means for de Tocqueville is that because Americans are confined to their own thoughts, they become closed to the universal truths that form the content of true philosophy. Love of wisdom is directed toward universal truths, not the ethical relativism of private thoughts.
This is a most serious deficiency, and de Tocqueville’s trenchant observation appears now as a stunning prophecy: “Thus they [Americans] fall to denying what they cannot comprehend; which leaves them but little faith for whatever is extraordinary and an almost insurmountable distaste for whatever is supernatural.” Consequently, “Each man thus retreats into himself from where he claims to judge the world.”
This “distaste for whatever is supernatural” is now apparent on many fronts. Without a healthy regard for supernatural verities, America becomes immersed in the material and the practical, losing sight of the basis for the dignity of man, the importance of philosophy, the reality of God, the need for religion, the distinction between the sexes, the sacredness of marriage, and the splendor of truth. In their place, we have a pandemic of abortion and pornography, widespread atheism, the acceptance of same-sex marriage, and the promotion of euthanasia and anti-Christian attitudes.
There is a thread of self-reliance and independence that runs from what de Tocqueville observed to what is transpiring in the present regime. Despite pockets of sectarian groups, such as the Puritans, Amish, Quakers, and so on, 19th-century Americans saw democracy, by and large, in terms of moral and philosophical self-reliance, consistent with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s paeans to this virtue (“Man is his own star”; “Trust thyself; every heart vibrates to that iron string”).
People who flatter themselves as being “liberal” in today’s society reduce moral values to something that is peculiarly their own. Thus, the widespread reluctance exists to “impose” one’s own values, as if moral values were private and not universal. Abortion is permitted, to take but one example, because the Commandment “Thou shall not kill” is deemed much too supernatural to be comprehended. By logical extension, it is like saying, “I am personally opposed to war, but I do not want to impose my private values of peace on anyone.”
In the domain of theology, dissent is commonly interpreted as an expression of a free mind that will not be subordinated to any higher authority. But the absence of a genuine authority or reliable guide inevitably leads to chaos.
In his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II calls attention to the “risk of an alliance between democracy and ethical relativism” (n. 101, emphasis his). He reasons that ethical relativism would “remove any sure moral reference point from political and social life, and on a deeper level make the acknowledgment of truth impossible.” Without the guidance that real, objective values provide, ideas can easily be manipulated by those in power.
“As history demonstrates,” John Paul goes on to state, “a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.” Democracy is not self-correcting. If it is infected by ethical relativism, it can lead to the kind of despotism that de Tocqueville feared.
In 1993, John Paul II offered confirmation to what de Tocqueville observed more than 150 years ago as a weakness in democracy. This is a powerful testimony to the enduring value of philosophy. Philosophy is not “mine” but “ours.” A nation flourishes when it embraces values it can share, not when it adopts an assortment of private views that bring about conflict, disharmony, and despotism.

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(Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Conn., and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. Some of his recent writings may be found at Human Life International’s Truth & Charity Forum.)

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