Commentary Magazine


Topic: Tocqueville

A League of One’s Own

In the Wall Street Journal, Rachel Bachman has an interesting piece on “The Decline of the Company Softball Team.” She writes, “the New York Corporate Athletic League … had about 30 teams in 2008. Now it has eight.” The trend seems to be national. “Just 12% of U.S. organizations sponsor a company athletic team, down from 29% seven years ago, according to the Society for Human Resource Management,” Bachman notes. “The Amateur Softball Association doesn’t track corporate leagues, but says its adult-team registrations in 2013 had dropped 56% in 20 years.”

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In the Wall Street Journal, Rachel Bachman has an interesting piece on “The Decline of the Company Softball Team.” She writes, “the New York Corporate Athletic League … had about 30 teams in 2008. Now it has eight.” The trend seems to be national. “Just 12% of U.S. organizations sponsor a company athletic team, down from 29% seven years ago, according to the Society for Human Resource Management,” Bachman notes. “The Amateur Softball Association doesn’t track corporate leagues, but says its adult-team registrations in 2013 had dropped 56% in 20 years.”

One could look at this as a lightweight culture story, but political and social scientists are in the business of finding meaning in such phenomena. And they’re right. In a country with abundant freedoms, the choices we make say a great deal about who we are and where we’re headed.

The decline in company softball echoes the findings of political scientist Robert D. Putnam, whose 2000 book Bowling Alone looked at the increasing dissolution of what he termed “social capital” in America. Social capital comprises the willingness to be among family, friends, clubs, associations, and so on. Through wise investment (not all social activities are equal), significant social capital may enrich national life. Putnam believes that genuine human connections make us kinder, happier, more moral, more trusting, and better equipped to face challenges.

More than that, voluntary organizations offer a distinctly American rebuke to state coercion. Alexis de Tocqueville noted famously that “Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of dispositions are forever forming associations. … Nothing strikes a European traveler in the United States more than the absence of what we would call government or administration. … There is nothing centralized or hierarchic in the constitution of American administrative power.” (These days, that quote can feel a bit like the mockery of the ages.)

As evidence of our growing disconnectedness, Putnam pointed to decreased membership in school PTAs, the Boy Scouts, churches, and various charitable organizations. His critics claimed that while the organizations he cited were losing members, participation in new social organizations, such as support groups, book clubs, and environmental movements, was on the rise. Putnam countered with data showing that “membership” in these new associations required far less involvement with other people. The new associations were largely nominal. Putnam blamed the atomization of American associations on the self-directed culture of both Baby Boomers and Generation X. He also blamed the enervating and isolating effects of watching television.

And where are we now? The tedious nihilism of Millennials addicted to the Internet makes Boomer TV watching look like the model of civic engagement. The softball piece is apt because Putnam’s title also came from the realm of amateur sports. While Americans still liked to bowl, he found, they were becoming less likely to do so on teams. One can’t play softball alone, so we’ll probably just see the game played less and less. Which, by the way, might please today’s identity obsessives, who see softball as an expression of sexism.

Bachman quotes one former company softballer on the decline of the game: “We don’t have that connection anymore, that little silly thing you talk about on the side.” On its own, yes, a small thing. But that connection is not so silly and it has been central to our national character.

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No Pop for the Poor

New York City’s mayor wants the federal government to say food stamps can’t be used to buy soda – a story that is less about the technicalities of welfare and more about political paternalism.

Now, there’s a strong argument to be made that if the government is setting the table and preparing the dinner, it should be able to choose the menu. But that argument is not being made; on the contrary, those who want soda omitted from the items obtainable by food stamps are making the link between health and public spending.

The New York Times ran an op-ed today by city and state health commissioners. In it, they point out that “some 57 percent of adults in New York City and 40 percent of children in New York City public schools are overweight or obese” and that “one in eight adult city residents now has diabetes, and the disease is nearly twice as common among poorer New Yorkers as it is among wealthier ones.”

Pay close attention to their following conclusion: “Obesity-related illnesses cost New York State residents nearly $8 billion a year in medical costs, or $770 per household. All of us pay the price through higher taxes.”

This story could be seen as some microscopic foreshadowing of what’s to come for everybody, not just for the surprisingly high number of food-stamp recipients — 1.7 million in New York City alone, or 35 percent of the city’s residents (who, by the way, will still be able to buy that soda on their own buck).

Granted, in New York City, two-thirds of the population does not rely on government to fill the pantry. But once everyone’s health care is a public-spending issue, it is logical to assume that, at least to some extent, private behaviors will be up for public scrutiny; they have become a public cost issue.

Never mind Tocqueville’s warning about the democratic danger of preferring comfort to freedom. For those willing to sacrifice some degree of liberty for a government that ensures their well-being, here’s a little reminder that paternalism isn’t always so comfortable. In addition to saying yes, it also says no sometimes.

New York City’s mayor wants the federal government to say food stamps can’t be used to buy soda – a story that is less about the technicalities of welfare and more about political paternalism.

Now, there’s a strong argument to be made that if the government is setting the table and preparing the dinner, it should be able to choose the menu. But that argument is not being made; on the contrary, those who want soda omitted from the items obtainable by food stamps are making the link between health and public spending.

The New York Times ran an op-ed today by city and state health commissioners. In it, they point out that “some 57 percent of adults in New York City and 40 percent of children in New York City public schools are overweight or obese” and that “one in eight adult city residents now has diabetes, and the disease is nearly twice as common among poorer New Yorkers as it is among wealthier ones.”

Pay close attention to their following conclusion: “Obesity-related illnesses cost New York State residents nearly $8 billion a year in medical costs, or $770 per household. All of us pay the price through higher taxes.”

This story could be seen as some microscopic foreshadowing of what’s to come for everybody, not just for the surprisingly high number of food-stamp recipients — 1.7 million in New York City alone, or 35 percent of the city’s residents (who, by the way, will still be able to buy that soda on their own buck).

Granted, in New York City, two-thirds of the population does not rely on government to fill the pantry. But once everyone’s health care is a public-spending issue, it is logical to assume that, at least to some extent, private behaviors will be up for public scrutiny; they have become a public cost issue.

Never mind Tocqueville’s warning about the democratic danger of preferring comfort to freedom. For those willing to sacrifice some degree of liberty for a government that ensures their well-being, here’s a little reminder that paternalism isn’t always so comfortable. In addition to saying yes, it also says no sometimes.

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Reviving More than Faith

Glenn Beck’s rally, perhaps wisely in anticipation of liberal criticism, kept policy and partisanship out of it. The focus was on patriotism and a call for a spiritual revival. As the country pivots toward the homestretch of the midterm-election season and the warm-up to the 2012 campaign (Already? Unfortunately, yes), conservatives running for office or advising those who are may be wise to focus on a different sort of revival.

The Tea Party has come to be seen as merely a brake on liberal economic policy — don’t raise taxes, control spending, end bailouts. But it was, at its start, also a cry of opposition to what all of that foretold for America: the decline of self-reliance, risk-taking, entrepreneurship, and the creative destructiveness of capitalism that requires that we punish failure and reward success.

Conservative reformers are right to focus on limited government, entitlement reform, and spending control. There has never been a more receptive audience for that, thanks to Obama. But modern conservatism’s success, both in policy and electorally, did not come from being the green-eye-shade party. It stemmed from an enthusiasm and celebration of free markets and from policies that sought to unleash the potential of individuals, investors, and employers. And it was Reagan whose embrace of supply-side economics, free trade, and modest regulation unleashed an economic boom — and launched a conservative political vision that was inclusive and successful.

In a speech delivered at Hillsdale College in 1977, Reagan explained:

In spite of all the evidence that points to the free market as the most efficient system, we continue down a road that is bearing out the prophecy of Tocqueville, a Frenchman who came here 130 years ago. He was attracted by the miracle that was America. Think of it: Our country was only 70 years old and already we had achieved such a miraculous living standard, such productivity and prosperity, that the rest of the world was amazed. So he came here and he looked at everything he could see in our country, trying to find the secret of our success, and then went back and wrote a book about it. Even then, 130 years ago, he saw signs prompting him to warn us that if we weren’t constantly on the guard, we would find ourselves covered by a network of regulations controlling every activity. He said if that came to pass we would one day find ourselves a nation of timid animals with government the shepherd.

It all comes down to this basic premise: If you lose your economic freedom, you lose your political freedom and, in fact, all freedom. Freedom is something that cannot be passed on genetically. It is never more than one generation away from extinction. Every generation has to learn how to protect and defend it. Once freedom is gone, it is gone for a long, long time. Already, too many of us, particularly those in business and industry, have chosen to switch rather than fight.

This is both smart policy and the political formula for melding multiple strands that have been swirling around the conservative movement — American exceptionalism, defense of capitalism, and personal accountability. It is, at bottom, a platform for restoration — not necessarily a spiritual one, as Beck suggested, nor one based on defense of country in war, as Sarah Palin suggested. It is nevertheless a call to restore the economic vitality and the creative spirit of capitalism that made America a superpower and the envy of the world. The Republican presidential candidate who can put all that together, I would  suggest, will be a formidable contender and a well-prepared combatant to face off against Obama.

Glenn Beck’s rally, perhaps wisely in anticipation of liberal criticism, kept policy and partisanship out of it. The focus was on patriotism and a call for a spiritual revival. As the country pivots toward the homestretch of the midterm-election season and the warm-up to the 2012 campaign (Already? Unfortunately, yes), conservatives running for office or advising those who are may be wise to focus on a different sort of revival.

The Tea Party has come to be seen as merely a brake on liberal economic policy — don’t raise taxes, control spending, end bailouts. But it was, at its start, also a cry of opposition to what all of that foretold for America: the decline of self-reliance, risk-taking, entrepreneurship, and the creative destructiveness of capitalism that requires that we punish failure and reward success.

Conservative reformers are right to focus on limited government, entitlement reform, and spending control. There has never been a more receptive audience for that, thanks to Obama. But modern conservatism’s success, both in policy and electorally, did not come from being the green-eye-shade party. It stemmed from an enthusiasm and celebration of free markets and from policies that sought to unleash the potential of individuals, investors, and employers. And it was Reagan whose embrace of supply-side economics, free trade, and modest regulation unleashed an economic boom — and launched a conservative political vision that was inclusive and successful.

In a speech delivered at Hillsdale College in 1977, Reagan explained:

In spite of all the evidence that points to the free market as the most efficient system, we continue down a road that is bearing out the prophecy of Tocqueville, a Frenchman who came here 130 years ago. He was attracted by the miracle that was America. Think of it: Our country was only 70 years old and already we had achieved such a miraculous living standard, such productivity and prosperity, that the rest of the world was amazed. So he came here and he looked at everything he could see in our country, trying to find the secret of our success, and then went back and wrote a book about it. Even then, 130 years ago, he saw signs prompting him to warn us that if we weren’t constantly on the guard, we would find ourselves covered by a network of regulations controlling every activity. He said if that came to pass we would one day find ourselves a nation of timid animals with government the shepherd.

It all comes down to this basic premise: If you lose your economic freedom, you lose your political freedom and, in fact, all freedom. Freedom is something that cannot be passed on genetically. It is never more than one generation away from extinction. Every generation has to learn how to protect and defend it. Once freedom is gone, it is gone for a long, long time. Already, too many of us, particularly those in business and industry, have chosen to switch rather than fight.

This is both smart policy and the political formula for melding multiple strands that have been swirling around the conservative movement — American exceptionalism, defense of capitalism, and personal accountability. It is, at bottom, a platform for restoration — not necessarily a spiritual one, as Beck suggested, nor one based on defense of country in war, as Sarah Palin suggested. It is nevertheless a call to restore the economic vitality and the creative spirit of capitalism that made America a superpower and the envy of the world. The Republican presidential candidate who can put all that together, I would  suggest, will be a formidable contender and a well-prepared combatant to face off against Obama.

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Assassinating Tocqueville

Reading François Furstenberg’s ill-founded assault on Alexis de Tocqueville on Slate.com, one is left wondering whether the history-professor-turned-reviewer has ever actually read Democracy in America.

Furstenberg, in reviewing Tocqueville’s Discovery of America by Leo Damrosch, purports to answer “what Tocqueville and his friend really did on their travels.” Because collecting material for what would become a political-science classic must have been a paltry time commitment, the reviewer suggests that Tocqueville “flirted his way through salons and dinner parties, stumbling along in mediocre English, complaining about the prudishness of American women.”

This review makes several ungrounded criticisms of poor Alexis, who is quite regrettably too long gone to defend himself. But because Democracy in America is such an enduring work, and because some of Tocqueville’s warnings are at their most relevant today, the review deserves to be dismantled piece by piece, pairing Furstenberg’s cheap shots with Tocqueville’s actual words.

(Furstenberg might be thrilled to discover that Democracy in America is not only found in libraries around the country, including at the New York Public Library, to which he has full access through May 2010 as a fellow there — it is also available online in its entirety, both Volume 1 and Volume 2 — searchable, even, for the sake of convenience. Given Furstenberg’s demonstrated interest in the topic, I highly recommend it to him.)

Furstenberg’s criticism centers on class and race, both of which Tocqueville treats at length. He repeatedly takes out of context Tocqueville’s writings on race relations. “[Tocqueville] bumped into Native Americans being expelled from the eastern states on the infamous Trail of Tears. But he didn’t make much of it, failing to connect that experience to his own reflections on the danger of the tyranny of the majority,” writes Furstenberg.

He must have somehow missed Tocqueville’s lengthy analysis of the injustices committed against the Native Americans, to be found in Volume 1, where he describes how, through trickery and coercion, American settlers “obtain, at a very low price, whole provinces, which the richest sovereigns of Europe could not purchase. … These are great evils; and it must be added that they appear to me to be irremediable.” In fact, Tocqueville portrays the Native Americans as the last remnants of the noble warrior-aristocracy, and he bemoans their degradation and the loss of their civilization.

Yet Furstenberg continues with his race-based criticism. He wrongly implies that slavery was not a big issue for Tocqueville:

Clearly Tocqueville, unlike Beaumont, believed that slavery and racism did not touch on “the essential nature of democracy,” as Damrosch puts it. … When he did turn his mind to the subjects [of race and slavery], moreover, Tocqueville was exceedingly gloomy, convinced that a multiracial democracy was impossible. If slaves ever gained their freedom, he predicted a genocidal war: ‘the most horrible of all civil wars, and perhaps the destruction of one of the two races.’ … One of the most striking features of emancipation, as it actually happened a generation later, was the lack of violence foreseen by Tocqueville and many others.

But Democracy in America clearly outlines Tocqueville’s strong concern about slavery and its consequences for the future of American democracy. He describes slavery as a “permanent evil,” a “calamity,” and a “wound thus inflicted on humanity.” The consequences of slavery would be even more far-reaching and disastrous, Tocqueville supposes, because “the abstract and transient fact of slavery is fatally united with the physical and permanent fact of color.” He expects that “the moderns, then, after they have abolished slavery, have three prejudices to contend against, which are less easy to attack, and far less easy to conquer than the mere fact of servitude, — the prejudice of the master, the prejudice of the race, and the prejudice of color.”

Furstenberg seems to misunderstand Tocqueville entirely on this point. Far from downplaying the importance of slavery, Tocqueville questions how it can be overcome, and without the violence and devastation of the kind seen in the French Revolution. Furthermore, one might wonder what sort of historical rejiggering has led Furstenberg to think emancipation or civil-rights strides occurred in an atmosphere “lack[ing] of violence.” Democracy in America predicts the ways slavery has promoted racism and acknowledges that the abolition of slavery will not solve America’s racism problem. It is especially baffling that Furstenberg, who has written a book about slavery and U.S. nationalism, missed this.

But the writer is not only wrong about Tocqueville’s ideas about race. He also writes, “Busy chatting in the parlors of wealthy Americans, Tocqueville didn’t seem to notice the artisans slowly being forced into unskilled labor, or immigrant dockworkers, or freed blacks struggling to eke out a living on the margins of American life.” He must have missed entirely the portion of Democracy in America where Tocqueville worries about the intellectual consequences of division of labor:

What can be expected of a man who has spent twenty years of his life in making heads for pins? And to what can that mighty human intelligence, which has so often stirred the world, be applied to him, except it be to investigate the best method of making pins’ heads? … Thus at the very time at which the science of manufactures lowers the class of workmen, it raises the class of masters.

Tocqueville goes on to acknowledge that the supervisor-worker relationship begins to look like that between the aristocratic master and the “brute” — and “what is this but aristocracy?” he asks. More broadly, Furstenberg overlooks Tocqueville’s plentiful examples of working-class Americans who find both their work and the profit earned from it honorable. A close reading of Democracy in America proves the author both realistic and respectful about the working class.

The bigger point is that, read in context, Tocqueville’s writing often portrays the working class favorably and emphatically condemns slavery and racism. The advocates of Big Government may have good reason to go after Tocqueville, who was one of the first to warn about the dangers of the welfare state in democratic societies. Perhaps their bone with Tocqueville is that he prizes liberty and dares to note the risks of absolute equality, even after fairly observing the conditions of workers and minorities. If this book review is not an academic oversight on Furstenberg’s part, it is certainly character assassination.

Reading François Furstenberg’s ill-founded assault on Alexis de Tocqueville on Slate.com, one is left wondering whether the history-professor-turned-reviewer has ever actually read Democracy in America.

Furstenberg, in reviewing Tocqueville’s Discovery of America by Leo Damrosch, purports to answer “what Tocqueville and his friend really did on their travels.” Because collecting material for what would become a political-science classic must have been a paltry time commitment, the reviewer suggests that Tocqueville “flirted his way through salons and dinner parties, stumbling along in mediocre English, complaining about the prudishness of American women.”

This review makes several ungrounded criticisms of poor Alexis, who is quite regrettably too long gone to defend himself. But because Democracy in America is such an enduring work, and because some of Tocqueville’s warnings are at their most relevant today, the review deserves to be dismantled piece by piece, pairing Furstenberg’s cheap shots with Tocqueville’s actual words.

(Furstenberg might be thrilled to discover that Democracy in America is not only found in libraries around the country, including at the New York Public Library, to which he has full access through May 2010 as a fellow there — it is also available online in its entirety, both Volume 1 and Volume 2 — searchable, even, for the sake of convenience. Given Furstenberg’s demonstrated interest in the topic, I highly recommend it to him.)

Furstenberg’s criticism centers on class and race, both of which Tocqueville treats at length. He repeatedly takes out of context Tocqueville’s writings on race relations. “[Tocqueville] bumped into Native Americans being expelled from the eastern states on the infamous Trail of Tears. But he didn’t make much of it, failing to connect that experience to his own reflections on the danger of the tyranny of the majority,” writes Furstenberg.

He must have somehow missed Tocqueville’s lengthy analysis of the injustices committed against the Native Americans, to be found in Volume 1, where he describes how, through trickery and coercion, American settlers “obtain, at a very low price, whole provinces, which the richest sovereigns of Europe could not purchase. … These are great evils; and it must be added that they appear to me to be irremediable.” In fact, Tocqueville portrays the Native Americans as the last remnants of the noble warrior-aristocracy, and he bemoans their degradation and the loss of their civilization.

Yet Furstenberg continues with his race-based criticism. He wrongly implies that slavery was not a big issue for Tocqueville:

Clearly Tocqueville, unlike Beaumont, believed that slavery and racism did not touch on “the essential nature of democracy,” as Damrosch puts it. … When he did turn his mind to the subjects [of race and slavery], moreover, Tocqueville was exceedingly gloomy, convinced that a multiracial democracy was impossible. If slaves ever gained their freedom, he predicted a genocidal war: ‘the most horrible of all civil wars, and perhaps the destruction of one of the two races.’ … One of the most striking features of emancipation, as it actually happened a generation later, was the lack of violence foreseen by Tocqueville and many others.

But Democracy in America clearly outlines Tocqueville’s strong concern about slavery and its consequences for the future of American democracy. He describes slavery as a “permanent evil,” a “calamity,” and a “wound thus inflicted on humanity.” The consequences of slavery would be even more far-reaching and disastrous, Tocqueville supposes, because “the abstract and transient fact of slavery is fatally united with the physical and permanent fact of color.” He expects that “the moderns, then, after they have abolished slavery, have three prejudices to contend against, which are less easy to attack, and far less easy to conquer than the mere fact of servitude, — the prejudice of the master, the prejudice of the race, and the prejudice of color.”

Furstenberg seems to misunderstand Tocqueville entirely on this point. Far from downplaying the importance of slavery, Tocqueville questions how it can be overcome, and without the violence and devastation of the kind seen in the French Revolution. Furthermore, one might wonder what sort of historical rejiggering has led Furstenberg to think emancipation or civil-rights strides occurred in an atmosphere “lack[ing] of violence.” Democracy in America predicts the ways slavery has promoted racism and acknowledges that the abolition of slavery will not solve America’s racism problem. It is especially baffling that Furstenberg, who has written a book about slavery and U.S. nationalism, missed this.

But the writer is not only wrong about Tocqueville’s ideas about race. He also writes, “Busy chatting in the parlors of wealthy Americans, Tocqueville didn’t seem to notice the artisans slowly being forced into unskilled labor, or immigrant dockworkers, or freed blacks struggling to eke out a living on the margins of American life.” He must have missed entirely the portion of Democracy in America where Tocqueville worries about the intellectual consequences of division of labor:

What can be expected of a man who has spent twenty years of his life in making heads for pins? And to what can that mighty human intelligence, which has so often stirred the world, be applied to him, except it be to investigate the best method of making pins’ heads? … Thus at the very time at which the science of manufactures lowers the class of workmen, it raises the class of masters.

Tocqueville goes on to acknowledge that the supervisor-worker relationship begins to look like that between the aristocratic master and the “brute” — and “what is this but aristocracy?” he asks. More broadly, Furstenberg overlooks Tocqueville’s plentiful examples of working-class Americans who find both their work and the profit earned from it honorable. A close reading of Democracy in America proves the author both realistic and respectful about the working class.

The bigger point is that, read in context, Tocqueville’s writing often portrays the working class favorably and emphatically condemns slavery and racism. The advocates of Big Government may have good reason to go after Tocqueville, who was one of the first to warn about the dangers of the welfare state in democratic societies. Perhaps their bone with Tocqueville is that he prizes liberty and dares to note the risks of absolute equality, even after fairly observing the conditions of workers and minorities. If this book review is not an academic oversight on Furstenberg’s part, it is certainly character assassination.

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American Equality

Arthur Brooks, the outstanding president of the American Enterprise Institute (and co-author, with me, of a forthcoming monograph on capitalism and morality), published a Wall Street Journal op-ed on fairness that ends this way:

There is nothing inherently fair about equalizing incomes. If the government penalizes you for working harder than somebody else, that is unfair. If you save your money but retire with the same pension as a free-spending neighbor, that is also unfair.

Real fairness, as most of us see it, does not mean bringing the top down. Yes, free markets tend to produce unequal incomes. We should not be ashamed of that. On the contrary, our system is the envy of the world and should be a source of pride. Generation after generation, it has rewarded hard work and good values, education and street smarts. It has offered the world’s most disadvantaged not government redistribution but a chance to earn their success.

That is true fairness, American-style.

One of the reasons Brooks’ piece is important is because he places economic issues in a moral frame and, rather than running away from the charge of “fairness” – which has been used as a battering ram against conservatives for decades – Brooks takes it head on and turns it to the advantage of conservatives. Brooks’ article helps explain why, in the words of Tocqueville, “equality in liberty” is vastly preferable, both economically and morally, to “equality in restraint and servitude.”

Call it true equality, American-style.

Arthur Brooks, the outstanding president of the American Enterprise Institute (and co-author, with me, of a forthcoming monograph on capitalism and morality), published a Wall Street Journal op-ed on fairness that ends this way:

There is nothing inherently fair about equalizing incomes. If the government penalizes you for working harder than somebody else, that is unfair. If you save your money but retire with the same pension as a free-spending neighbor, that is also unfair.

Real fairness, as most of us see it, does not mean bringing the top down. Yes, free markets tend to produce unequal incomes. We should not be ashamed of that. On the contrary, our system is the envy of the world and should be a source of pride. Generation after generation, it has rewarded hard work and good values, education and street smarts. It has offered the world’s most disadvantaged not government redistribution but a chance to earn their success.

That is true fairness, American-style.

One of the reasons Brooks’ piece is important is because he places economic issues in a moral frame and, rather than running away from the charge of “fairness” – which has been used as a battering ram against conservatives for decades – Brooks takes it head on and turns it to the advantage of conservatives. Brooks’ article helps explain why, in the words of Tocqueville, “equality in liberty” is vastly preferable, both economically and morally, to “equality in restraint and servitude.”

Call it true equality, American-style.

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Does This Presidential Election Matter?

The British prime minister Harold Macmillan was once asked what represented the greatest challenge to a statesman. His famous answer: “events, my dear boy, events.”

We’ve seen some events over the past decade and we are likely to see more. Who is better poised to handle them: John McCain (to whom I am giving the Republican nomination) or Hillary Clinton (to whom I am handing the Democratic nod)?

Or does it matter; are we inexorably following a path predicted by de Tocqueville? Here are pertinent reflections from the memoirs of Michael Howard, formerly of King’s College and Yale, now retired:

for a generation, under the dingy leadership of Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson, Britain simply ceased to try in foreign affairs; abandoning its global responsibilities, following in the wake of an erratic American leadership, scrabbling belatedly to join the European enterprise, and getting the worst of every possible world. The ‘flip-side’, it must be said, was the creation of a standard of living for the bulk of its citizens beyond the wildest dreams of their grandfathers, if not indeed their fathers. Perhaps de Tocqueville was right in doubting the capacity of democracies to pursue consistent and successful foreign policies; but his countryman Raymond Aron was equally right when he remarked ruefully, when I met him at a conference in Italy, that the English people had regressed from being Romans to Italians in a single generation. My generation, I thought bitterly.

From Captain Professor: A Life in War and Peace, 2006.

The British prime minister Harold Macmillan was once asked what represented the greatest challenge to a statesman. His famous answer: “events, my dear boy, events.”

We’ve seen some events over the past decade and we are likely to see more. Who is better poised to handle them: John McCain (to whom I am giving the Republican nomination) or Hillary Clinton (to whom I am handing the Democratic nod)?

Or does it matter; are we inexorably following a path predicted by de Tocqueville? Here are pertinent reflections from the memoirs of Michael Howard, formerly of King’s College and Yale, now retired:

for a generation, under the dingy leadership of Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson, Britain simply ceased to try in foreign affairs; abandoning its global responsibilities, following in the wake of an erratic American leadership, scrabbling belatedly to join the European enterprise, and getting the worst of every possible world. The ‘flip-side’, it must be said, was the creation of a standard of living for the bulk of its citizens beyond the wildest dreams of their grandfathers, if not indeed their fathers. Perhaps de Tocqueville was right in doubting the capacity of democracies to pursue consistent and successful foreign policies; but his countryman Raymond Aron was equally right when he remarked ruefully, when I met him at a conference in Italy, that the English people had regressed from being Romans to Italians in a single generation. My generation, I thought bitterly.

From Captain Professor: A Life in War and Peace, 2006.

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More on the Hong Kong Elections

As Arthur Waldron has written, the election of Anson Chan to LegCo, Hong Kong’s legislature, was an important victory for democracy in the city, a special administrative region of China. Chan took her seat yesterday after beating Regina Ip, the candidate favored by the Chinese government, in Sunday’s landslide win. The race was especially symbolic because both Chan and Ip sought to fill a vacancy created by the death of Ma Lik. Ma was the head of the misnamed Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, the territory’s main pro-Beijing party.

Not surprisingly, Beijing’s friends attacked Chan moments after she was sworn in. Tsang Tak-sing, Hong Kong’s secretary for home affairs, launched a personal attack on the new lawmaker, calling her a “sudden democrat” who cares little for the livelihood of the people of the city. Tsang, by the way, is the brother of a past chairman of the Democratic Alliance.

It’s clear that Mainland leaders not only want the LegCo seat back, they need to eliminate Chan from politics. Her electoral win is not only a victory for democracy in Hong Kong, it is threatening to the rulers of the modern Chinese state. And unfortunately for Beijing, her presence in the legislature undermines a core assumption of the Communist Party of China. Ever since the early 1990′s, Chinese officials have been betting that continual economic growth will keep them in power. Yet Hong Kong’s strong economy this decade did not translate into sufficient support at the polls for the pro-Beijing Ip.

Moreover, Chan’s victory also undercuts an emerging trend in Western thinking. Due to the apparent success of present-day Communism in China, political scientists are beginning to believe that authoritarian is a sustainable form of governance. Columbia University’s Andrew Nathan, for instance, is no friend of Communism, but he now talks of “resilient authoritarianism.” Dozens of analysts have picked up on this theme and doubt the link between economic progress and democratization. Francis Fukuyama’s seminal End of History is now ridiculed.

Yet Anson Chan’s victory reminds political scientists that real people do not think prosperity is a substitute for representative governance. The academics and analysts should remember their Tocqueville. In The Old Regime and the French Revolution he wrote that sustained prosperity does not tranquilize a citizenry. On the contrary, it promotes “a spirit of unrest.”

So we are all in debt to Chan, dubbed “Hong Kong’s conscience,” for reminding us that repressive governments are never as strong as they appear. Yesterday was a good moment for the people of Hong Kong—and for the rest of us as well.

As Arthur Waldron has written, the election of Anson Chan to LegCo, Hong Kong’s legislature, was an important victory for democracy in the city, a special administrative region of China. Chan took her seat yesterday after beating Regina Ip, the candidate favored by the Chinese government, in Sunday’s landslide win. The race was especially symbolic because both Chan and Ip sought to fill a vacancy created by the death of Ma Lik. Ma was the head of the misnamed Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, the territory’s main pro-Beijing party.

Not surprisingly, Beijing’s friends attacked Chan moments after she was sworn in. Tsang Tak-sing, Hong Kong’s secretary for home affairs, launched a personal attack on the new lawmaker, calling her a “sudden democrat” who cares little for the livelihood of the people of the city. Tsang, by the way, is the brother of a past chairman of the Democratic Alliance.

It’s clear that Mainland leaders not only want the LegCo seat back, they need to eliminate Chan from politics. Her electoral win is not only a victory for democracy in Hong Kong, it is threatening to the rulers of the modern Chinese state. And unfortunately for Beijing, her presence in the legislature undermines a core assumption of the Communist Party of China. Ever since the early 1990′s, Chinese officials have been betting that continual economic growth will keep them in power. Yet Hong Kong’s strong economy this decade did not translate into sufficient support at the polls for the pro-Beijing Ip.

Moreover, Chan’s victory also undercuts an emerging trend in Western thinking. Due to the apparent success of present-day Communism in China, political scientists are beginning to believe that authoritarian is a sustainable form of governance. Columbia University’s Andrew Nathan, for instance, is no friend of Communism, but he now talks of “resilient authoritarianism.” Dozens of analysts have picked up on this theme and doubt the link between economic progress and democratization. Francis Fukuyama’s seminal End of History is now ridiculed.

Yet Anson Chan’s victory reminds political scientists that real people do not think prosperity is a substitute for representative governance. The academics and analysts should remember their Tocqueville. In The Old Regime and the French Revolution he wrote that sustained prosperity does not tranquilize a citizenry. On the contrary, it promotes “a spirit of unrest.”

So we are all in debt to Chan, dubbed “Hong Kong’s conscience,” for reminding us that repressive governments are never as strong as they appear. Yesterday was a good moment for the people of Hong Kong—and for the rest of us as well.

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God and Man in Rome

When it comes to cultural exchange programs for academics, my reflexive attitude tends to be very much like my attitude toward the institution of tenure: it’s probably a bad idea in many cases, for most people, but if it’s going to exist . . . well, I shouldn’t deny myself the benefits. Thus I’ve come to Rome, under the auspices of the Fulbright program, for a semester of teaching and lecturing. I am not sure whether five months spent living in Rome and traveling around Italy will make me a better professor, but the experiment seemed worth conducting. So I have taken it on—strictly, I will have you know, in the severe spirit of disinterested scientific inquiry, a spirit I bring with particular asperity to my examination of Italian foods and wines.

I am teaching the history of American religion to graduate students in an American-studies program, and can report that the level of interest in the subject is extremely high. I had not really wanted to spend so much of my time teaching about American religion, but my Italian hosts insisted otherwise, and now I understand their wisdom.

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When it comes to cultural exchange programs for academics, my reflexive attitude tends to be very much like my attitude toward the institution of tenure: it’s probably a bad idea in many cases, for most people, but if it’s going to exist . . . well, I shouldn’t deny myself the benefits. Thus I’ve come to Rome, under the auspices of the Fulbright program, for a semester of teaching and lecturing. I am not sure whether five months spent living in Rome and traveling around Italy will make me a better professor, but the experiment seemed worth conducting. So I have taken it on—strictly, I will have you know, in the severe spirit of disinterested scientific inquiry, a spirit I bring with particular asperity to my examination of Italian foods and wines.

I am teaching the history of American religion to graduate students in an American-studies program, and can report that the level of interest in the subject is extremely high. I had not really wanted to spend so much of my time teaching about American religion, but my Italian hosts insisted otherwise, and now I understand their wisdom.

None of my students, so far as I can tell, consider themselves believers in any conventional sense, though I assume that most are at least nominally Roman Catholic, and have been baptized and confirmed. Italians, like most of us, hedge their bets; and given the remarkable closeness of Italian families, and the still-formidable presence of the Italian mama, I suspect that such young people go to mass more often than they let on.

But they are utterly without the kind of anti-religious or anti-clerical edge to their sentiments that one might expect, and seem genuinely curious to understand the reasons behind the otherwise inexplicable (to them) persistence of religion in America. They came into the course knowing nothing whatever about Protestantism, and are astonished to find out that the New England Puritans were such formidable intellects, to read documents like James Madison’s magisterial “Memorial and Remonstrance,” and to see the truth in Tocqueville’s assertion that in America, the spirit of liberty and the spirit of religion actually supported one another, and that the Enlightenment and Protestantism coexisted with remarkable comfort.

Above all, they are curious: curious about revivalism and its relationship to social reform movements, curious about Mormonism, curious about all the utopian experiments of the 19th century and all the other wild edges of American religion, curious about the centrality of the conversion experience in American evangelicalism, about how Protestants understood the authority of the Bible, and perhaps above all, about the voluntaristic character of American religion. The Baptist emphasis on the primacy of the uncoerced conscience: this is an ideal that clearly intrigues them.

In other words, it is all entirely new to them, so that the experience of teaching them has been energizing, and has caused me to see my own subject afresh. (Thank you, Senator Fulbright.) From the inside of American culture, one is at times impressed by nothing so much as the anarchy and inanity of American religion: its thinness, its institutional chaos, its individualism, its trendiness, its willingness to pander to the consumer and to the culture. These observations remain as valid as ever. And yet my experiences here, listening to students who have grown up in a largely monochromatic religious culture, in which the choices placed before them are far more stark, cast it all in a different light.

We Americans take our freedoms too lightly in other respects, and our highly voluntaristic religious culture—and the boisterous vitality and variety of religious expression that have resulted from it—is no exception. Not all of what it produces is to my taste. But the exercise of freedom is not the same thing as good taste. “It is the duty of every man,” Madison said, “to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to Him.” My Italian students help me to see anew the grandeur in those words.

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