Tuesday, September 16, 2003

More on Brooks

In our little argument about David Brooks and the decline of the WASP elite, David Adesnik makes a revealing remark. Adesnik (scroll down after you click on the link) calls Tocqueville a conservative or at least lumps him together with conservatives who lament the mediocrity of democracy. But Tocqueville understood himself to be a liberal (at least in the original sense). In fact, he sought to devise a "new political science" in Democracy in America to help democracy (which he understood primarily as equality) cope with its defects. Certainly Tocqueville was himself from an aristocratic family and understood acutely what was lost with the shift from aristocracy to democracy. Nevertheless, he didn't doubt the justice of democracy and thought the march toward equality inevitable in any case.

This misunderstanding of Tocqueville has more significance than a scholarly or interpretive miscue. It reveals an unwillingness to confront the fact that democracy has defects. Moreover, it reflects a refusal to consider that democracy's true friends are those who are willing to acknowledge its defects and not flatter it. The cure for the ills of democracy is not always more democracy. The understanding of and appreciation for alternative forms of government can make one unusually sensitive to democracy's defects, ultimately causing one not necessarily to reject democracy but giving one an unusual ability to assist and maintain it.

In this case, the defect or deficiency is the lack of training or educating a political class, including inattention to the ambition and desire to rule among potential leaders. Everyone acknowledges the need for "leadership" or what used to be called "statesmanship". But we're not sure how to get it, especially in ways that don't undermine a regime that is still popular and should be suspicious of it. Actually the word "leadership" lulls us into a false sense of security that rulers do not threaten popular government; it all seems so natural that we should have rulers if we call them "leaders". I take Brooks's argument to mean that the opportunities for and tendencies toward democracy's great defect, demagoguery, have increased with the decline of WASP-dom. Poor leadership is on the rise.

However unjust aristocracy was, it never risked demagoguery because popular consent is not the ticket to rule in that kind of regime. Leaders or statesmen in aristocracies are more self-confident, more free to say what they think, and less apt to flatter. This seems to be Brooks's point. This analysis and defense of the "WASP elite" in America is not perfect, of course. Ronald Reagan and Al Gore are two examples who defy the analysis. One is a non-Ivy Leaguer who knew his own mind and didn't flatter and the other is an Ivy Leaguer who doesn't know his own mind and does flatter.

Actually, it doesn't matter so much whether Brooks is correct about the way things were. "WASP elitism" is a somewhat abstract sociological concept. What may matter even more is our reaction to him. Adesnik's spirited reaction against the idea of a pseudo ruling class that was more free to have its own mind and avoid flattery without undermining popular government, whether such a thing really ever existed or not, may reflect an unhealthy unwillingness to see liberal democracy's defects, especially the tendency toward demagoguery.


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