The Shaping of American Character

Have you ever thought that who you are as a person is determined in part by the government you live under? Political philosophers have been considering such a possibility going all the way back to the early Greeks. Government shapes us either by engaging and empowering us through participation or by assuming all power unto itself and leaving us to go our separate ways alone and isolated.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti was a fourteenth-century Italian painter. Between 1338 and 1340, he painted a series of frescoes on three walls of the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena. The panels are commonly known as “Allegory of Good Government,” “Effects of Good Government on Town and Country,” and “Allegory of Bad Government and Its Effects on Town and Country.” The paintings grace the walls of the room where the chief magistrates of Siena held their meetings. Their dominance of the space serves as an inescapable reminder to all who gather there that government does matter, that it can have both good and bad effects.

One can well imagine how the effects of good government are por­trayed. The buildings are solid. People in the square are dancing, plying their trades. Similarly, the rolling hills of the Tuscan countryside are lovingly depicted. The fields are verdant. Workers are tilling the land. An allegorical figure of security hovers above the landscape. Under bad government, the buildings are in disrepair, the fields are barren. Symbolic representations of evil prevail. The mood is dark and somber. Such is the contrast between good and bad government, a contrast that prevails as much today as when these paintings were executed.

Government and character

Plato took up the same theme. He was keenly aware that government shapes the character of the governed. His republic was set up with a few active, intellectually alive rulers at the top and all the rest passive charac­ters who knew their role in society, never veered from it, never questioned, never sought to become actively involved in the process of governing. That was Plato’s ideal.

Plato speculated on what kind of characters would prevail if this ideal were not reached or if the ideal were attained and then deteriorated to a less-than-ideal form. He reasoned that in these less-than-ideal forms of government, it is the preponderance of a certain kind of individual that produces a certain government, rather than the other way round. Nonetheless, there is a direct correlation between a cer­tain form of government and a certain kind of character.

In the republic, the ideal government, the dominant value is love of reason. The first phase of decline leads to timocracy. In this form of gov­ernment, love of honor replaces love of reason as the dominant motive. In timocracy, active characters prevail. The men are ambitious and competi­tive. There is a hunger for war and glory. Sparta offers the obvious example.

Next in line is the oligarchy, or plutocracy—government of the few. Under this government, men are driven by a need for wealth. The rich become competitive with each other in the acquisition and consumption of wealth. Reason and ambition are harnessed to the pursuit of wealth. As materialism spreads through the society and the rich rise in social esteem, there is a decline in virtue. The unity of the state is compromised. The rich are in conflict with the poor, each plotting against the other. As they age and continue to spend and consume, these plutocrats either spend what they have and become beggars or else they become criminals.

As government falls into decline from the ideal of the republic, first to timocracy, then to oligarchy, then to democracy, there is a corresponding internal struggle within the spirit or soul of the citizen that leads to the defeat of certain virtues or appetites and the ascendancy of others, less desirable. “Knowledge, right principles, true thoughts, are not at their post; and the place lies open to the assault of false and presumptuous notions.” In the case of the democrat, modesty and self control “are thrust out into exile,” to be replaced by “Insolence, Anarchy, Waste and Impudence.”

Recall that Plato had nothing but contempt for democracy. His revulsion was no doubt a consequence of the fact that democracy was not the outcome of abstract speculation but in fact was the government he lived under in Athens. His daily encounters with people he consid­ered to be beneath him could only reinforce his theoretical objection to this form of government.

Writing in the nineteenth century, John Stuart Mill took up the same theme, the relationship between character and government. The merit of political institutions, he says, consists in part “of the degree in which they promote the general mental advancement of the community, including under that phrase advancement in intellect, in virtue, and in practical activity and efficiency.”

Mill’s thoughts hearken back to Lorenzetti’s frescoes, where one sees the direct effect of government on the well-being of those who are governed. “A government is to be judged,” says Mill, “by its action upon men, … by what it makes of the citizens, and what it does with them; its tendency to improve or deteriorate the people themselves.” In other words, government shapes our character, values, and intellect. It can affect us positively or negatively. When political institutions are ill constructed, “the effect is felt in a thousand ways in lowering the morality and deadening the intelligence and activity of the people” (Mill, 210-211).

Mill describes what it is like to live under a good despotism. The citizenry has handed its destiny over to the government, which ministers to its needs without consultation or involvement. This would seem to be a desirable state of affairs. But as Mill sees it, there are negative consequences. “Leaving things to the Government, like leaving them to Providence, is synonymous with caring nothing about them, and accepting their results, when disagreeable, as visitations of nature.” People become mentally passive. Their intellect declines. Purpose in life is reduced to “the material interests … to the amusement and ornamentation, of private life.… The era of national decline has arrived” (ibid., 220).

Thus, the moral fiber of the individual citizens and of the nation taken as a collective are a consequence of the degree of honest involvement in government by those who are governed. According to Mill, the logical conclusion is that a “completely popular government … promotes a better and higher form of national character, than any other polity whatsoever” (ibid., 224).

If government helps to shape character, then we need to decide what kind of character we prefer, “that which struggles against evils, or that which endures them; that which bends to circumstances, or that which endeavours to make circumstances bend to itself.” As Mill points out, there is a general appeal to the passive type. The passive citizen is less a menace to those who govern and less a menace to his neighbor, who feels content to be surrounded by passive souls who offer no threat of competition or agitation. Contentment is the goal. However, if our intention is the improvement of mankind, active, “uncontented characters” are our only allies (ibid., 227).

William Godwin, ((William Godwin (1756–1836) was an English political philosopher whose most enduring work bears the title Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on Morals and Happiness. Godwin was married to the pioneering feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, who died giving birth to a daughter named Mary, who went on to marry the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mary Shelley became a novelist and is best known for her novel Frankenstein.)) writing more than a half-century earlier, at the time of the French Revolution, expressed similar sentiments. We need to consider, he said, that “politics and modes of government will educate and infect us all.” (Godwin, Book I,4) We need to understand that indeed government conduct ((Just a reminder that the word “government” represents a concept. Concepts cannot act. Only people can. The word “government” is thus shorthand for “person or persons in power.”)) has intellectual, moral, psychological, and emotional consequences for its citizens—that, “perhaps it insinuates itself into our personal dispositions, and insensibly communicates its own spirit to our private transactions” (ibid., Book 1, 1). What we consider to be our political education is, in effect, “the modification our ideas received from the form of government under which we live” (ibid., Book 1, 4). ((The French philosopher Claude Adrien Helvétius (1715–1771) was similarly concerned about the effects on government on the mentality of the governed. He believed that we were all equally endowed with intelligence and that differences could be explained by circumstances. He makes special reference to the role of government: “The inequality of intelligence that exists among men is a consequence of the government they live under” (author’s translation). Helvétius, De l’Esprit, p. 180.))

Max Weber, writing more than a century later, at the time of the German defeat in World War I, makes the same point. It was the politicians who failed the public. They were lacking in “character,” he says, character “in the purely political sense of the word, which has nothing to do with private morality. Nor was it by chance that they lacked it; it was the result, rather, of the structure of the state” (emphasis in original) (Weber, 205). Government creates character. Different governments produce different characters, some better, some worse.

In his introduction to Aristotle’s Politics, Richard McKeon states, “There is no simple relation between ethics, which is part of political science, and political science conceived as the study of the state, for the state influences the education and formation of its citizens and the character of its citizens determines the constitution of the state” (McKeon, 548). Says Aristotle, himself, it is the job of the legislator to see to it that citizens “become good men.… The citizen should be molded to suit the form of government under which he lives.… The character of democracy creates democracy, and the character of oligarchy creates oligarchy; and always the better the character, the better the government” (Aristotle, 288, 300). Or, in the words of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “I had come to see that everything was radically connected with politics, and that however one proceeded, no people would be other than the nature of its government” (Barber, 213, fn 1).

Fifth century Athenian democracy produced citizens who were robust, self-assured, independent, civic minded, courageous in defense of their way of life. Open-minded and tolerant they were quite comfortable seeing their leaders and their gods satirized. No one was too important or too powerful to be poked fun at. Nothing was sacred. Even in times of war, freedom of speech was tolerated, as can be seen in the plays of Aristophanes.

Athenians attained a considerable degree of literary and intellectual sophistication. Routinely, they showed their understanding and appreciation of some of the finest plays know to the western world, plays by writers like Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripedes, Aristophanes. It can reasonably be argued that their form of government, which encouraged active, meaningful involvement of all citizens, played an important role in the development of the Athenian’s character and intellect.

As the structure of government underwent fundamental changes from fifth-century B.C. Athens to fourth-century B.C. Athens, there was a corresponding change in the intellect, culture, and character of its citizens. As Athenian democratic government entered a period of decline, subsequent to defeat in its war against Sparta, the individual Athenian retreated into a more self-centered way of life. Citizenship weakened. Private life began to take precedence over public life. Commitment to the common good diminished.
Writing of Germany in the late nineteenth century, under the powerful autocrat Otto von Bismarck, Max Weber shows how a nation loses its political will when the citizenry lacks the opportunity to share responsibility for its own political fate. Weber describes the awkwardness of the average German traveling to other countries:

Deprived of the accustomed carapace of bureaucratic regimentation, [they] lose all sense of direction and security—a consequence of being accustomed to regard themselves at home merely as the object of the way their lives are ordered rather than as responsible for it themselves. This is the reason for that insecure, self-conscious way of presenting themselves in public which is definitely the source of the Germans’ much criticized over-familiarity. In as much as it exists, their political “immaturity” results from the uncontrolled rule of officialdom, and from the fact that the ruled are accustomed to submit to that rule without themselves sharing responsibility (Weber, 268-269).

Such generalizations could apply to any culture at any time. One’s sense of self and level of self-confidence are determined, in part, by the government one lives under. This becomes much harder to grasp as we change our focus to our own culture and our own time. Yet it is as true today as it was twenty-five hundred years ago in Athens, or more than a century ago in Germany.

The United States offers an interesting case study in government and its effects, largely because this country started from scratch with a particular form of government—a constitutional oligarchy (P.D.–) with strong emphasis on rhetorical democracy (R.D.+). ((In Chapter 13, I differentiate among different forms of democracy, civic democracy (C.D.), political democracy (P.D.), social democracy (S.D.) economic democracy (E.D.) and rhetorical democracy (R.D.), using a plus or a minus sign as an indication of whether or not a particular government represents a given form of democracy.)) And further, in early American history, there was a change in government that parallels the change in Athens from the fifth to the fourth centuries. Between 1776, when the thirteen colonies became thirteen states, each with its own form of government, and 1787, when the U.S. Constitution was ratified, there was a period of experimentation in government. Democratic values were on the rise. Citizens were actively involved in shaping their own political destinies. Then the Constitution put in place a centralized government with power concentrated in the hands of a few. The result was a notable change in the culture, character, and intellect of the citizenry.

The Paltry American

If we would like to know something about the character and intellect of the average American in the early 1800s, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is one of our best resources. It is important to remember that de Tocqueville was an aristocrat and that his bias is reflected in his attitude toward American culture. Nonetheless, I believe that his descriptions and insights are uncanny and startling in their validity more than one hundred fifty years later, all the more so when one takes into account that he was twenty-seven years old at the time of his American visit.

However, de Tocqueville is confused on the subject of democracy. He repeatedly makes broad generalizations about “democracy” based on his observations in the United States. But the country he visited was not a political democracy. It was an oligarchy. If we substitute the word “oligarchy” for “democracy,” we can gain a clear sense of why the typical American has ended up the way de Tocqueville describes him.

De Tocqueville ascribes what is wrong with America to “equality.” The equality he has in mind, however, is not the political equality that would prevail in a democracy, but “equality of condition,” that is, social equality. ((Here de Tocqueville gets it right: “The principle of equality may be established in civil society without prevailing in the political world.” (de Tocqueville, vol. 2, 100).))

As de Tocqueville sees it, the leveling effect of social equality has a deleterious effect on individual and social development. Everyone is like everyone else. Character and culture settle into a condition of mediocrity. If only there were an aristocracy, says de Tocqueville, American culture would be qualitatively richer, the typical American more profound in his thought and emotion.

While de Tocqueville’s observations are accurate, I believe his attribution of causality is in error. The Americans he observed were the way they were not because they were socially equal but because they lived in an oligarchy, which afforded them little or no opportunity to develop their capacity for abstract thought the way the Athenians did.

The typical American, as observed by de Tocqueville in the 1830s, is weak and isolated, plagued with feelings of insignificance. “Everyone shuts himself up tightly within himself and insists upon judging the world from there”(de Tocqueville, vol. 2, 4). As an American in the twenty-first century, one might cringe at the following observation: “Nothing conceivable is so petty, so insipid, so crowded with paltry interests—in one word, so anti-poetic—as the life of a man in the United States” (ibid., 78). I’m afraid the word “anti-poetic” truly does apply.

Because Americans are so focused on their own comforts and material success, they lack breadth of vision and depth of insight. The literature produced under such circumstances will be geared more toward dazzling than toward developing a deeper appreciation for its aesthetic qualities. ((Morris Berman makes a similar point (Berman, 296-297).)) “The object of authors will be to astonish rather than to please, and to stir their passions more than to charm their taste” (ibid., 63). Readers treat their authors as do kings their courtiers: “They enrich and despise them” (ibid., 64).

Under such circumstances, independent thought will be at a minimum. Not only is there a lack of time and peace of mind, as well as lack of an interested public, there is also the enormous weight of a multitude in agreement with each other on what is and is not an acceptable idea. Says de Tocqueville, “the power exercised by the mass upon the mind of each individual is extremely great.” One does not need oppressive laws and censorship to discourage new ideas and critical thinking. “Public disapprobation is enough; a sense of their loneliness [that of independent thinkers] and impotence overtakes them and drives them to despair” (ibid., 275).

De Tocqueville draws a contrast between life under a monarch and life under the kind of government he sees in the United States. Under a monarch, oppression was material, directed against the body itself: “The body was attacked to subdue the soul; but the soul escaped the blows which were directed against it and rose proudly superior.” Such, he says, is not the case under a “democracy” (oligarchy, in fact). There the body is left free and the soul is enslaved. The master no longer says, “You shall think as I do or you shall die.” Instead, he says:

You are free to think differently from me and retain your life, your property and all that you possess; but you are henceforth a stranger among your people…. Your fellow creatures will shun you like an impure being;… Go in peace! I have given you your life, but it is an existence worse than death (ibid., vol. 1, 274-275). ((Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) put it this way: “The most dangerous revolutions are not those which tear everything down, and cause the streets to run with blood, but those which leave everything standing, while cunningly emptying it of any significance.” Aldous Huxley (1894–1963) said, in the Foreword to Brave New World, “A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude.”))

The collective repression of intellect and critical thinking ((See Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.)) leads to a weakening and debasement of character. There is a lack of courage, a lack of independent thought that contrasts with what had been the case in an earlier time. De Tocqueville notes, “I found very few men who displayed that manly candor and masculine independence of opinion which frequently distinguished the Americans in former times, and which constitutes the leading feature in distinguished characters wherever they may be found” (ibid., 277). ((With the installation of a strong central government—an oligarchy, under the Constitution—American character and intellect declined. One has only to dip into the writings of the Anti-Federalists to see the difference. Almost immediately after the government shifted to Washington, all discussion of government, its meaning and purpose, its various forms and consequence, was replaced with the nasty vindictiveness of the struggle for personal power.))

De Tocqueville finds Americans to be practical, small minded, and lacking in self-awareness and awareness of the sensitivities and needs of their fellow citizens. ((Says the aristocratic de Tocqueville, “I have often noticed in the United States, that it is not easy to make a man understand that his presence may be dispensed with; hints will not suffice to shake him off.… This man will never understand that he wearies me to death unless I tell him so, and the only way to get rid of him is to make him my enemy for life.” (de Tocqueville, vol. 2, 182) )) This is so, he says, because in a democratic (i.e., oligarchic) community, “each citizen is habitually engaged in the contemplation of a very puny subject: namely, himself ” (ibid., vol. 2, 83). Needless to say, the American who thinks little of his fellow citizen has even less concern with those who live in countries other than his own. “An American leaves his country with a heart swollen with pride; on arriving in Europe, he at once finds out that we are not so engrossed by the United States and the great people who inhabit it as he had supposed; and this begins to annoy him” (ibid., 183).

De Tocqueville detects “a strange melancholy” among the Americans. ((De Tocqueville was writing in the 1830s. How much more unhappy and insecure is the American today? Consider how many millions are taking some form of psychotropic medication, how many others abuse alcohol and other drugs. Consider how many self-help books are sold each year, as Americans continue their desperate search for something that will make them feel better.)) This he attributes to the fact that though they attain an equality of condition, they always want more. “It perpetually retires before them, yet without hiding itself from sight, and in retiring draws them on.… They are near enough to see its charms, but too far off to enjoy them; and before they have tasted its delights, they die”(ibid., 147). In a similar vein, de Tocqueville observes that the American “clutches everything … [but] holds nothing” (ibid., 144). He is at once “independent but powerless” (ibid., 311). He is near people but not connected to them. “He is close to them, but does not see them; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone” (ibid., 336).

The Lonely American

It is enlightening to compare de Tocqueville’s critique of the American character with the thoughts of the American transcendental philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882). Writing at the same time as de Tocqueville, Emerson echoes de Tocqueville’s thoughts, but with approval, not condemnation. In Emerson’s writings, the individual is portrayed as being detached and isolated from others. What, in fact, has its locus outside the head, in the world of human interaction and public affairs, is internalized. The individual becomes “self-possessed.” He becomes his own private property. He is his own self-contained nation-state, wanting nothing from the external world. (( “The wise man,” writes Emerson, “is the state” (Emerson, Essays, 206).))

Emerson was a loner and an isolate and developed a philosophy of life that consecrated the individual’s separateness and lack of community involvement. “Let man stand erect, go alone, and possess the universe.” (Emerson, Journals, vol.3, 99) “Build therefore your own world” (Emerson, Essays, 38). “Do not seek yourself outside yourself” [“Ne te quaesiveris extra”] (ibid., 77). “Man,” we learn, “is insular and cannot be touched … and holds his individual being on that condition” (Emerson, Selections, 61). These are the words of a man unto himself, for himself, by himself, who believes that by extension that is where we all belong. This, as de Tocqueville would see it, describes the typical American.

Writing in 1970, Philip E. Slater, in The Pursuit of Loneliness, offers a description of the American character that resonates with the thoughts of de Tocqueville and Emerson, thoughts that were penned some one hundred forty years earlier. Basically, as Slater sees it, Americans are lonely, isolated, and bereft of emotion. “Re-entering America, one is struck first of all by the grim monotony of American facial expressions—hard, surly and bitter—and the aura of deprivation that informs them.” (Slater, xii). Here we have another witness.

Anaïs Nin (1903–1977) is the author of published journals that span more than sixty years, beginning when she was eleven years old and ending shortly before her death. Nin was born in France and immigrated to the United States with her mother and two brothers in 1914, at the age of eleven. About a decade later, after marrying, she returned to France. Subsequently, she made return trips to the United States, where she ultimately spent the last part of her life. Nin is an astute observer with extensive experience in both Europe and the United States. She draws a contrast between Paris and New York:

In Paris, when entering a room, everyone pays attention, seeks to make you feel welcome, to enter into conversation, is curious, responsive. Here it seems everyone is pretending not to see, hear or look too intently. The faces reveal no interest, no responsiveness.

Overtones are missing. Relationships seem impersonal and everyone conceals his secret life, whereas in Paris it was the exciting substance of our talks, intimate revelations and sharing of experience (Nin, vol. 3, 14).

Nin expresses her concern over the American “cult of toughness, its hatred of sensitivity” and issues a warning: “Someday [America] may have to pay a terrible price for this, because atrophy of feeling creates criminals” (ibid., 28).
Here is another vignette, written in 1940:

No place to sit and talk. You are rushed by the waitress. The radios blare so loudly one is deafened. The lights stun you. Noise and light amplified until the senses become dulled.…

In Europe the machines are killing people. Here the machines seem to have dehumanized people. There are few amenities, the softening use of courtesy to palliate the cruelties of life. Under the guise of honesty people are brutal to each other (ibid., 34).

This lonely, empty, harsh feeling is a consequence of the pursuit of a separate, private life of self-sufficiency, from which community and collective needs are excluded, says Slater. “We seek more and more privacy and feel more and more alienated and lonely when we get it”(Slater, 7). The suburban ideal, which so many Americans pursue, Slater describes as follows:

The suburban dweller seeks peace, privacy, nature, community, and a child-rearing environment which is healthy and culturally optimal. Instead he finds neither the beauty and serenity of the countryside, the stimulation of the city, nor the stability and sense of community of the small town, and his children are exposed to a cultural deprivation equaling that of any slum child with a television set (ibid., 9). ((Here is de Tocqueville’s version: “In the United States a man builds a house in which to spend his old age, and he sells it before the roof is on; he plants a garden and lets it just as the trees are coming into bearing; he brings a field into tillage and leaves other men to gather the crops; he embraces a profession and gives it up; … [he gets a few days vacation and he travels] fifteen hundred miles in a few days to shake off his happiness … [in] his bootless chase of that complete felicity which forever escapes him” (de Tocqueville, vol. 2, 144–145).))

The pursuit of the American dream has its roots in the need to escape, evade, and avoid (ibid., 131). As a consequence, the capacities to enjoy and attain fulfillment are stunted. Americans have a craving to belong but “have a profound tendency to feel like outsiders—they wonder where the action is and wander about in search of it” (ibid., 110). The isolation and passivity lead to feelings of powerlessness, which the American devotes himself to denying and escaping. (( “The oppressed,” says Brazilian educator Paolo Freire, “are not only powerless, but reconciled to their powerlessness, perceiving it fatalistically, as a consequence of personal inadequacy or failure. The ultimate product of highly unequal power relationships is a class unable to articulate its own interests or perceive the existence of social conflict.” Max Weber takes the argument a step further and actually speaks of “the will to powerlessness.” Freire quoted in Roy Madron and John Jopling, Gaian Democracies, 115; Weber, Political Writings, p. 270.))

Americans are insecure, constantly in pursuit of a feeling of security, which they never attain. There is an underlying anxiety that leans toward paranoia. According to Slater, “Americans devote more of their collective resources to security than any other need.” (ibid., 1). The unrelenting anti-Communism of the 1950s could be offered as one example of this phenomenon. The current concern with “terrorism” is another. The ease with which Americans commit themselves to a course of war and killing is another illustration of their continual attempts to achieve safety and security.

An inner sense of vague foreboding leads Americans to acquiesce to just about any government action that makes them feel better. Torture—which had been consigned to a time of primitive barbarism—is currently openly acknowledged, debated, and accepted by many. Americans are even willing to see their basic civil rights abrogated, all in the hope of squelching the ever-present anxiety. The Patriot Act, signed into law on October 26, 2001, allows for the indefinite detention of immigrants; searches of homes or businesses without warrant; and searches of telephone, e-mail, medical, financial, and library records. ((On December 31, 2011, President Barack Obama signed the controversial National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) into law. The bill allows the government to hand over suspected terrorists to the military for indefinite detention—including U.S. citizens. Suspects are also subjected to potentially being held on foreign soil in facilities like Guantanamo Bay. People under scrutiny by the NDAA are tried under a military tribunal instead of a judicial court, violating their Fourth Amendment rights. In other words, what the Patriot Act did for immigrants, the NDAA does for American citizens.))

Americans are fearful and they are angry. Deep down they are angry with government/parent for lying to them and betraying them. But the anger rarely, if ever, is outwardly directed at the government. Instead, it is taken out on immigrants, foreigners, racial minorities, and enemies real or imagined. For years, the American government has indefinitely held foreign nationals deemed to be “terrorists,” without charges and without trials, subjecting them to torture and other inhumane treatment.

The United States spends more on its military than the other countries of the world combined. It has about a quarter million troops stationed in one hundred thirty countries. By 1990, Pentagon property was valued at $1 trillion. The U.S. military controls 18 million acres of land worldwide. With 5.1 million employees, it is the nation’s largest employer (Berman, 143).

The Credulous American

Here is another portrait of the American character, this one even more recent. With a book bearing the foreboding title Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire (2006), Morris Berman, like Philip Slater, continues with the same motifs initially identified by de Tocqueville. ((Walter A. McDougall, in Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History, 1585–1828, has a different take. The American is a con-man, he says. He makes his point with a lengthy discussion of Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man. He then quotes from M. G. Jean de Crèvecoeur’s 1782 Letters from an American Farmer. Americans, says Crèvecoeur, are “litigious, overbearing, purse-proud,” their society “a general mass of keenness and sagacious acting against another mass of equal sagacity. Happy when it does not degenerate into fraud against fraud.” “Who is this new man, this American?” asks McDougall. “As Melville would certainly have it, he or she is a hustler” (McDougall, 4).))

Americans are lost and alone, clinging to what eludes them. Speaking for Americans, Berman declares, “We are desperate today for community because we have been lonely and alienated for so long” (ibid., 239). He paraphrases Mother Teresa’s view on America’s spiritual poverty: “America’s poverty … is worse than that of India’s, for it is that of a terrible loneliness that comes from wanting the wrong things” (ibid, 237).

As but one example, Berman cites an incident in Orange City, Florida. On November 28, 2003, Walmart had a sale. A woman was trampled to a state of unconsciousness by the stampede of eager shoppers. They wouldn’t even move aside for rescue workers, who found the victim slumped over, clutching her DVD player—an apt expression of the selfish individualism of the average American. When it gets down to basics, says Berman, “America is about as diverse as a one string guitar” (ibid., 240).

For many Americans, the isolation, the loneliness, brings out a craving for something bigger, an all-encompassing belief to hold on to and bring meaning to their lives. This is where the myth of America comes into play, erected on a foundation of rhetorical democracy. Thus, though Americans are denied the opportunity to govern themselves and are cut loose from meaningful connections to community and one another, they believe that they are living in a democratic nation and that their democratic values are what set them apart from the rest of humanity and endow them with the holy mission of saving the world. “Americanism, in short: that is our religion,” says Berman (ibid., 249).

Religion does not admit of analysis or critique, which is why Americans are incapable of taking an objective, analytic look at their culture and government. One does not question the beneficence of one’s government and its leaders. As Berman points out, only in America is it possible to be “un-American” by disagreeing with one’s government. There is no such thing as being “un-Italian” or “un-Danish” (ibid., 284).

Americans, as a rule, are very gullible and hence easy to manipulate. They believe what their government, via the media, tells them to believe. Anyone who thinks otherwise is a “conspiracy nut.” Berman puts it bluntly: “in other countries grown-ups know there is no truth teat to suck on” (ibid., 282).

Like small children, Americans trust their parents—that is, their government and the people who speak for it—and like small children they have a desperate need to be taken care of, to be “okay.” They believe what the commercials tell them about various drugs and foods, usually unquestioningly, frequently with dire consequences for their mental and physical health. Bombarded with endless amounts of “information,” Americans are notoriously ignorant about the world they live in, including and especially their own country.
Berman, like other writers, makes reference to “the endless restlessness that is so characteristic of America” (ibid., 252) and observes that though they are always on the move, Americans are “extremely nervous about real change” (ibid., 253). He offers this quote from the American poet W. H. Auden, from “The Age of Anxiety”: “We would rather be ruined than changed” (ibid., 236).

Berman also quotes Nicholas von Hoffman, who describes Americans as living in a glass dome, a sort of terrarium, cut off from reality and the outside world. “Bobbleheads in Bubbleland,” Hoffman calls them. “They shop in bubbled malls, they live in gated communities, and they move from place to place breathing their own, private air, in the bubble-mobiles known as SUVs” (ibid., 282).

It is not surprising that, living in isolation, in “Bubbleland,” Americans are anxious, insecure, and fearful. From such a condition—in which one is detached from community both national and international, ignorant of the various political forces at play, subject to manipulation by the media on behalf of a government that wishes to intimidate as a means of exercising control—it is not surprising that Americans should be prone to violence. The detachment, the separation from and misunderstanding of the root causes of power dynamics, results in chronic insecurity and the need to defend oneself against unseen enemies.

The homicide rate in the European Union between 1979–1999 was 1.7 per one hundred thousand. In the United States, it was 6.26. In Europe, there is deep-seated opposition to the death penalty. Two-thirds of Americans are in favor of it. The United States routinely engages in ruthless repressions and violent wars on a sustained basis, for the most part unchallenged by the populace whose taxes fund them.

The Depleted American

Reluctantly, I must agree with three thoughtful writers who have reached the same conclusion over a span of close to one hundred fifty years. Americans are isolated, anxious, insecure, and lonely. One might also argue that the culture that has developed has become what it is so as to provide escape from these very unpleasant conditions. So, if one were to query the average American, putting aside for a moment the economic hardships that persist in 2014, that American might describe himself as the happiest person on earth. Such a response has its basis in denial and the perpetual distraction that contemporary culture provides. The American doesn’t know his true feelings and doesn’t want to.

One might also reasonably argue that Americans are the way they are because their form of government excludes them from the possibility of the participation that would bring them back to the community in an active way, expanding their emotional and intellectual horizons. After all, as de Tocqueville observes, “Feelings and opinions are recruited, the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed only by the reciprocal influence of men upon one another” (de Tocqueville, vol. 2, 117).

Using the United States as his point of reference, and once again misapplying the word “democracy,” de Tocqueville makes some thoughtful observations on the relationship between the individual and the state. He says, “In a democratic [read oligarchic] community individuals are very weak, but the state, which represents them all and contains them all in its grasp, is very powerful.… In democratic [read oligarchic] communities the imagination is compressed when men think of themselves; it expands indefinitely when they think of the state” (ibid., 56).

One could revise what de Tocqueville has said as follows: ‘In a constitutional oligarchy, spread across a vast land mass, where power and control are highly centralized, individuals are very weak.’ I think this is an important observation and helps to explain a lot of what has been said about the insecurity, loneliness, and sense of isolation that seem to characterize the average American. He is made to feel small and powerless by the very existence of a large, powerful central government over which he has no control. He becomes weak and enervated, for “extreme centralization of government ultimately enervates society” (ibid., 317).

Where there is a big, powerful central government, run by a small oligarchy sharing common interests, and a vast mass of undifferentiated individuals with no valid means for exercising political power, the political situation can easily slide into despotism. De Tocqueville sees a self-enhancing process:

Thus the vices which despotism produces are precisely those which equality fosters. These two things perniciously complete and assist each other. Equality places men side by side, unconnected by any common tie; despotism raises barriers to keep them asunder; the former disposes them not to consider their fellow creatures, the latter makes general indifference a sort of public virtue (ibid., 109).

The equality de Tocqueville refers to—equality of condition—probably never existed to the degree he thinks it did. Even in colonial days, there was gross disparity in wealth, a condition that became more pronounced with the passing of the years. But, more importantly, there is nothing about equality of condition that should keep men asunder. Rather, it is the political condition de Tocqueville aptly describes that creates a situation favorable to the emergence of despotism: strong, central government and a mass of individuals with no significant political means at their disposal.

Lacking a true political life, people focus instead on success in business and the pursuit of personal pleasure in their private lives. “They lose sight of the close connection that exists between the private fortune of each and the prosperity of all.” Under such circumstances, one would not have to do violence to deprive them of the rights they enjoy: “they themselves willingly loosen their hold” (ibid., 149).

Having the freedom to pursue one’s private interests undisturbed leads to a dread of anarchy, a fear that is sparked by the slightest public commotion. As de Tocqueville puts it, men are willing “to fling away their freedom at the first disturbance.” A nation that asks nothing of its government but public tranquility and order “is already a slave at heart, the slave of its own well-being, awaiting only the hand that will bind it.” The universal pursuit of private interest leaves an open path to “the smallest parties” who seek to get the upper hand:

A multitude represented by a few players, who alone speak the name of an absent or inattentive crowd: they alone are in action, while all others are stationary; they regulate everything by their own caprice; they change the laws and tyrannize at will over the manners of the country; and then men wonder to see into how small a number of weak and worthless hands a great people may fall (ibid., 150).

Is this not the current condition in the United States? A handful of oligarchs have squandered trillions of dollars on banking interests and foreign wars. Legislation is passed that more and more limits the opportunity to enjoy one’s civil rights and engage in meaningful political activity.

Americans are cowed by the latest threats of terrorism and pandemic. All of this is the consequence not of democracy, which was explicitly eliminated from consideration by the clique of men who engineered the writing and ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Instead, it is the consequence of a small oligarchy, ruling a vast nation, in which the citizenry has atrophied into a mass of passive, frightened men and women, in the absence of a viable political alternative to the despotism they are living under and don’t even understand.

As de Tocqueville points out, there are two kinds of tyranny. Under the Roman emperors, tyranny was odious and obvious. It “was extremely onerous to the few, but it did not reach the many.” Of a different nature is tyranny under a constitutional oligarchy, such as exists in the United States. This tyranny “would be more extensive and more mild; it would degrade men without tormenting them” (ibid., 335). It would be something like living under the tutelage of a parent.

However, this is not the parent who seeks to prepare his children for adulthood and then liberate them. This is the parent who seeks to keep the child perpetually passive and dependent. Living in this setting—in which the government ostensibly ministers to the children’s needs, controls and oversees their actions—“what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living”? Such a tyranny “every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all uses of himself”(ibid., 336-337).

The persistent sense of a lurking presence, the need to conform and acquiesce so as not to trouble the parent who watches over and protects him, the possibility of action leading to independence and adulthood having been eliminated, man is reduced to a state of flabby self-indulgence, which he labels “freedom.” In the grips of such a presence, de Tocqueville tells us:

The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till [the] nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd (ibid., 337). ((Gore Vidal has referred to Americans as “sheeple.”))

The power to bend an entire nation to such tutelage requires deception. The population submits so gently because it believes it is doing so voluntarily. This is where the notion of “popular sovereignty” comes in. Always remember, the voice of government tells us, that you, the people, rule and that you, the people, choose your rulers. Thus, de Tocqueville explains, “Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees [that is, he believes] that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large who hold the end of his chain.” By such a system as this—through elections—“the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master and then relapse into it again” (ibid.).

Writing more than one hundred fifty years ago, when the electorate was probably more cognizant of its political potential and less thoroughly lulled into a state of quiescence than it is today, de Tocqueville could nonetheless declare, without hesitation:

It is in vain to summon a people who have been rendered so dependent on the 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 (ibid., 339).

It is folly to believe that those who have been deprived of self-government “should succeed in making a proper choice of those by whom they are to be governed.” It is folly to assume that a subservient people will choose to be led by “a liberal, wise, and energetic government” (ibid.).

The Trivialization of Public Life and its Consequences

De Tocqueville set out all of this in the 1830s. C. Wright Mills, in The Power Elite (published in 1956), more than a century later, described in detail the same process de Tocqueville had alluded to. The individual loses his substance by voluntarily bowing to an overpowering and distant oligarchy, while simultaneously “participating” in sham democracy.

Mills speaks of the “grim trivialization of public life.” He describes the election of 1954, where national issues of substance were ignored in favor of slander and personal attack, which initially entertained and then alienated prospective voters. “Slogans and personal attacks on character, personal defects, and counter-charges and suspicions were all that the electorate could see or hear, and, as usual, many paid no attention at all” (Mills, 253). ((What Mills neglects to mention is that the tawdry nature of electoral campaigns was characteristic of national politics from the beginning. The oligarchy created under the U.S. Constitution in 1787 spawned a vicious competition for personal power that has continued unabated ever since. The Federalists and Alexander Hamilton were spoken for by The Gazette of the United States. Thomas Jefferson and the Republicans could count on Philip Freneau’s The National Gazette. The virulence of the personal attacks makes today’s campaigns seem gentlemanly by comparison.))

Mills hypothesizes the existence of various local publics, or community discussion groups/parties that represent a specific set of opinions and viewpoints. Such publics are scattered throughout the country, interact with each other, and in some way or another bring their beliefs to the attention of those in power. Public opinion in this version of government has a means of bearing down on elected officials and gaining their cooperation. The discussions themselves, these local interactions, are the mechanism by which the individual educates himself and articulates his viewpoints.

This version, says Mills, is “a fairy tale.” In fact, this “community of publics” has been transformed into a “society of masses” (ibid., 300). Belonging to this mass serves to annihilate the individual and his capacity for honest self-expression. Politically, he becomes a phantom, a shadow on the wall, and nothing more. The political process Mills describes is more like a ballet or a silent movie than an active polity shaping its own destiny. Everyone has a role to play in convincing himself and the next person that democracy exists and that he is actively participating in an act of self-government. “What the public stands for, accordingly, is often a vagueness of policy (called open-mindedness), a lack of involvement in public affairs (known as reasonableness), and a professional disinterest (known as tolerance)” (ibid., 306).

When a man is part of the masses, says Mills, he lacks “any sense of political belonging.” He lacks the political community, where there is shared belief in the purposes of the organization and trust in its leadership. To have political belonging is “to make the human association a psychological center of one’s self, to take into our conscience, deliberately and freely, its rules of conduct and its purposes, which we thus shape and which in turn shape us.” This kind of political association is a place “in which reasonable opinions can be formulated.” It is “an agency by which reasonable activities may be undertaken.” And it is powerful enough “to make a difference” (ibid., 308). Thus, our psychological existence is determined, as adults in the world, by the opportunity we are given to partake in the process of determining those policies and acts of legislation that shape the content and context of our social living. In the absence of such an opportunity, we cease to exist.

As Mills saw it, the political power dynamics of the 1950s were such that there was no opportunity for the individual to engage in political struggle and thus develop into a full adult with political beliefs and a sense of empowerment. What he describes of the political culture he knew is even truer today than it was fifty years ago. On the one hand, there is “the huge corporation, the inaccessible government, the grim military establishment.” On the other, we find “the family and the small community.” There is nothing in between, “no intermediate associations in which men feel secure and with which they feel powerful.” As a consequence, there is “little live political struggle” (ibid.).

In such a context, where political reality has been flattened into a two-dimensional, cardboard cutout, there really is no such thing as “public opinion,” because there is no genuine public, just the anonymous mass. As Mills observes, “Public opinion exists when people who are not in the government of a country claim the right to express political opinions freely and publicly, and the right that these opinions should influence or determine the policies, personnel, and actions of their government” (ibid., 309).

As Mills makes clear, public opinion is not what some polling organization reports to the news media after knocking on a few doors. Public opinion has efficacy, or it is nothing. For example, in February of 2003, millions of people demonstrated in the United States and around the world against an invasion of Iraq. As subsequent events have come to prove, public opinion counted for nothing. In 2008–2009, trillions of dollars were given away to a handful of bankers as the world economy crumbled. There is a hardly a man or woman standing, anywhere in the world—other than the aforementioned handful of bankers—who supported such a policy. Yet the plunder of the public treasury continues.

Public opinion counts for nothing. The crowds disperse, “atomized and submissive masses” (ibid.). As these examples demonstrate, public opinion is not something to be honored and respected, it is something to be shaped, manipulated, and controlled, just as Edward Bernays predicted in the 1920s. ((See his Propaganda, 1928. Bernays’ point of view is discussed in Chapter 2.))

Although the conditions Mills outlines have existed since the days of de Tocqueville and even earlier, there is at least one factor that deserves special mention: the media. Mills uses the term “psychological illiteracy” to refer to the fact that our knowledge of what is real in the world of politics and power is shaped for us by the media. We have little or no first-hand knowledge. A reality is created for us, which we come to believe in. “Our standards of credulity, our standards of reality, tend to be set by these media rather than by our own fragmentary experience” (ibid., 311).

To resist the media—to see behind one reality to the other—we need a context of meaning, which of course the media do not supply. But if we allow ourselves to delve deeper into meanings, if we leave the realm of stereotypes to enter the realm of real beings and real events, we separate ourselves from those around us and raise our level of anxiety and sense of isolation.

But if we want to free ourselves, we have to accept the fact that there are two different realities—one that is pleasant and comforting and the other that is devious and sinister. We have to accept the fact that we are being lied to and manipulated. Yet, if we are willing “to accept opinions in their terms,” we “gain the good solid feeling of being correct without having to think” (ibid., 312).

The media, says Mills—especially television—not only affect how we see external reality, they affect how we see ourselves. They give us our sense of self. They give us our identity. Thus, if we attempt to see deeper and further, we raise fundamental issues about who we are and how we fit in. Not a very reassuring prospect.

And, most critically, even when the media supply simple, accurate information about the state of the world, they present it in such a way as to make it difficult if not impossible for the individual “to connect his daily life with these larger realities. They do not connect the information they provide on public issues with the troubles felt by the individual. They do not increase rational insight into tensions, either those in the individual or those of the society which are reflected in the individual” (ibid., 315)

In other words, though Americans typically feel cut off from the world around them, in fact, they are deeply affected by what occurs in that world. There is a connection between the tension and suffering in the world and the tensions they feel on a daily basis, but they have been trained to ignore the connection and to believe that they are blissfully content in their private universe.
The American does not understand that his personal troubles are shared by others, that they have political implications, that personal troubles often need to be translated into public issues for them to be properly resolved. “They lose sight of the close connection that exists between the private fortune of each and the prosperity of all” (De Tocqueville, vol. 2, 149).

As Mills points out, it is not only the media that fail us in our attempts to stay connected to social reality and be effective in shaping our destinies. Education has a large role to play, as well. It trains us vocationally. It inculcates the values and national loyalties required to maintain the status quo. We are not trained to think critically, to analyze. We are trained to get ahead. We mistake job advancement for self-development, which it is not. “Mass education … has become—another mass medium” (Mills, 317). Our schools and colleges fail us. They should train us for “the struggle for individual and public transcendence” (ibid., 319). Instead, they school us in acquiescence, stereotypes, and blind loyalties.

Americans lead narrow and fragmented lives. Confined by their routines to a repetitious existence, they are denied the opportunity for genuine discussion, debate, and conflict of opinion—which could redirect their energies from the immediate task at hand to the grander issues. They lack a sense of the larger structure and their place in it. “In every major area of life, the loss of a sense of structure and the submergence into powerless milieux is the cardinal fact” (ibid., 321). Unable to see the whole or his place in it, the American submits to vague inevitability that he can neither comprehend nor avoid. There is no outer dialogue, nor is there an inner dialogue, which we refer to as “thinking.”

Unable to transcend his daily existence, the mass man “drifts, he fulfills habits, his behavior a result of a planless mixture of the confused standards and the uncriticized expectations that he has taken over from others” (ibid., 322). He loses is self-confidence as a human being. He loses his independence. As de Tocqueville puts it, he “allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large who hold the end of his chain”(ibid., vol. 2, 337).

It is striking the degree to which de Tocqueville and Mills, with more than a century separating them, reach the same conclusions about the nature and quality of American life. Both identify power—power that is hidden and subtle, power that denies itself as power—as the key ingredient in fragmenting the population, creating a mass of “sheeple” who lack the capacity of self-understanding both individually and collectively.

Mills differentiates between authority—power that is visible and explicitly obeyed—and manipulation, where there is “the ‘secret’ exercise of power, unknown to those who are influenced”(Mills, 316). When men want to rule without seeming to do so, probably because they cannot lay claim to the required legitimacy, they will rule invisibly and “benignly,” shielding themselves behind the rhetoric of popular rule. Although “authority formally resides ‘in the people,’ … the power of initiation is in fact held by small circles of men.” This is not to be known. There is the risk that power becomes identified by its true colors. “That is why the standard strategy of manipulation is to make it appear that the people … ‘really made the decision’” (ibid., 317).

Mills identifies “liberal rhetoric which requires a continual flattery of the citizens” as a key ingredient in keeping the masses quiet (ibid., 331). Such a rhetoric becomes a mask for all political positions, a means of exercising political power without appearing to do so. This is consistent with my earlier use of the term “rhetorical democracy.” It is not that “the people” are in charge, but that they are led to believe that they are. As de Tocqueville points out, since the people are submitting to their own will, why should they in any way object?

Thus, the people are their own oppressors and, of course, they don’t know it. They don’t know they are being tyrannized. They think they are free. “Instead of justifying the power of an elite by portraying it favorably, one denies that any set of men, any class, any organization has any really consequential power” (ibid., 336). To reiterate what de Tocqueville said, “Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till [the] nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd” (de Tocqueville, vol. 2, 337). ((Such an outcome is consistent with what Wolin has called “inverted totalitarianism,” a form of government whose genius “lies in wielding total power without appearing to, without establishing concentration camps, or enforcing ideological uniformity or forcibly suppressing dissident elements so long as they remain ineffectual” (Wolin, 57) See the Introduction for a fuller discussion of Wolin’s ideas.))

Sheldon Wolin (Democracy Incorporated) has coined the term “inverted totalitarianism” to describe a form of government that in many ways achieves the goals of totalitarianism but by different, gentler means. Inverted totalitarianism is “driven by abstract totalizing powers, not by personal rule.” The leader is not the architect of the system. He is its product. He fulfills a pre-assigned role.

The system succeeds not by activating the masses but by doing just the opposite, “encouraging political disengagement.” “Democracy” is encouraged, touted, both domestically and overseas. To use Wolin’s terminology, it is “managed democracy,” “a political form in which governments are legitimated by elections that they have learned to con­trol,” a form of government that attempts to keep alive the appearance of democracy while simultaneously defeating democracy’s primary pur­pose, self-government.

In managed democracy “free politics” are encouraged. Thus the populace is placated and pacified. Believing that in fact they have the government they want, people are lulled into a state of passivity and acquiescence, leaving the controlling powers to operate as they see fit to advance their particular interests. Democratic myths persist in the absence of true democratic practice.

Thus there is a confluence of opinion spanning close to one hundred eighty years concerning American character and the government forces that shape it. We are dominated and formed by a government that eludes our efforts to know it and bend it to our wishes. It is a phantom government that is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. It shunts us into a realm of confusion and fear from which we see no escape.

Yet there is an escape. Mills has described what needs to happen for Americans to become transformed from a herd of sheep into a society of independent, thoughtful, politically sophisticated individuals. They must develop ”a sense of political belonging.” To have political belonging is “to make the human association [i.e. political community] a psychological center of one’s self, to take into our conscience, deliberately and freely, its rules of conduct and its purposes, which we thus shape and which in turn shape us.”

robbins_DVIn Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained: The True Meaning of Democracy, Chapter 23, I explore in detail just how such communities are established. Basically, it as simple as getting together with fellow citizens on a regular basis for the purpose of discussing government on a national level. As we hear ourselves express beliefs that have been long dormant we start to feel alive and empowered. We listen to others. We learn. We agree. We disagree. No longer are we isolated and deflated. We have begun to take on a political identity, an identity that is at the core of true adult living.

To be political is to think critically about the government one lives under. Americans live under a constitutional oligarchy that owes its origins to a conclave of wealthy merchants, lawyers, speculators and aristocratic landholders who met in Philadelphia in 1787. We revere the Constitution they created, largely because we haven’t read the document very closely and haven’t taken the trouble to understand its true meaning by establishing the historical context from which it emerged.

Once we understand our government in its origins, once we understand the forces that drove it from the outset, we will better understand why it operates the way it does. And we will be in a position to begin transforming our government from one that serves the power elite into one that serves the common good.

  • This essay is an extract from Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained: The True Meaning of Democracy, by Arthur D. Robbins, published by Acropolis Books. Learn more at where you can find a complete bibliography of the works cited.
  • Arthur D. Robbins is the author of Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained: The True Meaning of Democracy, referred to by Ralph Nader as “An eye-opening, earth-shaking book… a fresh, torrential shower of revealing insights and vibrant lessons…” Read other articles by Arthur.