The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

February 20, 2018

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Democracy without Nations? The Fate of Self-Government in Europe (part 1)
Pierre Manent - 04/16/08

This return to—or of—Tocqueville occurred through a critique of regimes that claimed to base themselves on Marx: the critique of “totalitarianism.” The totalitarian experience required the Tocquevillean question—that of the sovereignity of the people and the different modes of its actualization—to be posed again, but this time in an even more intense way.

Regarding “the events of ’68,” could one interpret them in Tocqueville’s terms? The answer, I believe, is yes. Putting matters in a very condensed way, ’68 was “an explosion of mildness” or “softness,” an explosion of what Tocqueville called “democratic mildness.” Thus, it also marked an upsurge of the democratic sentiment par excellence, that of “human resemblance.” As I suggested earlier, Tocqueville saw in this sentiment the active source and intimate cause of all the transformations characterizing democratic life. And what was the most visible sign of this? The democratic eruption abolished or at least significantly diminished distance between the governors and the governed in the political realm (it was the end of Gaullist “hauteur”) and between teachers and students in the educational realm (it was the end of “Napoleonic” discipline).

If the preceding remarks have any validity, then it is legitimate to say that the “Marxist” period of democracy, that of the social question, was preceded and followed—was in fact enveloped—by a large and powerful Tocquevillean “bed,” to use a geological term. After 1968 democracy rediscovered its unchallenged authority. One could even say it attained an unprecedented degree of legitimacy. It was then that the reign of democratic consensus or uniformity began. This consensus was so powerful that communism itself, through the mouth of the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, declared itself defunct!

Do we still live in this “Tocquevillean” period? My answer, put a bit abruptly and emphatically, is no! In my view, we are now leaving the Tocquevillean period that was preoccupied with institutionalizing the sovereignty of the people and reducing social “distances” or inequalities. This period was opened in 1776 by the Americans. We can date its closure with an event that also first concerned the United States, although its consequences rather quickly revealed a growing divergence between the European and American orientations. I refer of course to September 11, 2001.

What defines this new period? Because it has barely begun I can venture only some conjectures. One important fact appears quite clearly. The sovereign state and the established people—i.e, the nation—were called into question by means of, and under the cover of, the democratic consensus at the end of the previous century. This was done in the name of democracy itself, or as a result of democracy having reached its final limits. Yet the state and the existence of an established self-governing people were the very conditions that made democracy possible in the first place.

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