Our Friendly Visitors
by Daniel J. Mahoney
What They Saw In America: Alexis de Tocqueville, Max Weber, G.K. Chesterton, and Sayyid Qutb, by James L. Nolan, Jr. (Cambridge University Press) (1)
In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville strikingly observed that Americans live in “perpetual adoration” of themselves and that “only foreigners or experience can make certain truths reach their ears.” These remarks, quoted at the beginning of James Nolan’s impressive work on the most reflective foreign observers of American democracy, provide the point of departure for a fascinating study. Nolan examines the “fruitful ambivalence” that highlights the travels and reflections of three visitors to these shores who admired many features of American civilization but who also didn’t hesitate to criticize important dimensions of American—and democratic—life. Tocqueville, Weber, and Chesterton, Nolan’s friendly critics, were not casual tourists. They were disciplined observers of the American experiment in democratic self-government who constantly drew comparisons to their native countries (France, Germany, and England, respectively). Their work combined penetrating sociological observation with political and philosophical reflection, often of the highest order.
Nolan points out the common themes that connect these visitors to America over a period of 100 years (Tocqueville traveled to America in 1831–32, Weber in 1904, and Chesterton in 1921 and 1930–31). But many of their themes and concerns were shared by an almost uniformly critical observer of America, the Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb (who spent time in America from 1948 to 1950). The first three visitors “were simultaneously impressed with and disquieted by what they saw in America.” Qutb saw only shadows and the dissolution of the human spirit. In his view, Americans lived for the almighty dollar, had no sense of beauty, and were fundamentally estranged from nature and religion. Moreover, the happiness they pursued constantly eluded them. He saw in America only conformity and a tendency to form an agitated “herd.” Much of this is undoubtedly overwrought. But Nolan is struck by the fact that many of the same criticisms were made in a more balanced way by the friendly critics of America and American democracy. One doesn’t have to indulge Qutb’s penchant for political extremism, his one-sided hostility to Western democracy, his hatred of Zionism and Jews (which Nolan understates), or his fanciful belief that Islam will solve all the problems of modern civilization to recognize that he, too, has something to say about the limits of modern democracy.
Alexis de Tocqueville was “the first to identify the paradoxical tendencies of individualism, conformism, and voluntarism in American society.” A self-declared friend of America and democracy, Tocqueville nonetheless described Americans’ “conformist habits and acute sensitivities to the opinion of others.” Americans always wanted praise from foreigners, as if they were searching for confirmation of their own superiority. Tocqueville worried about the “tyranny of the majority” (excessively assertive majorities) as well as the passivity that could accompany democratic conformism. The later visitors to America repeated these themes and concerns, in somewhat different form. Tocqueville and Chesterton were both sensitive to the paradox that excessive individualism, and disengagement from the larger society, undermined authentic individuality—the ability to withstand public opinion and the pressures of the crowd. They feared the rise of what later came to be called “mass society.”
Tocqueville was the first to praise the American propensity to “associate” with others—to overcome pernicious individualism through voluntarism and collective efforts that didn’t entail intervention by an obtrusive central government. This “art of association,” as Tocqueville called it, went hand in hand with a vigorous system of local self-government. Tocqueville admired Americans’ capacity to take charge of their own lives in a way that avoided the twin extremes of individualism and collectivism. Chesterton, too, praised “the pro-democracy” force of voluntary associations and saw in American habits “of social organization” a “power that is the soul and success of democracy.”
As for political economy, Tocqueville, Weber, and Chesterton all admired the energy and industriousness of the American people. At the same time, they criticized the excesses of what Tocqueville called the “mercantile spirit.” Long before Weber articulated his famous thesis on “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” Tocqueville noted the multiple ways Americans brought together Puritanism and the mercantile spirit. Americans, he noted, affirmed the value of religion, even as they redefined virtue in utilitarian terms (virtue was increasingly tied to self-interest and worldly success). All three visited Niagara Falls, commenting on its stunning beauty but foreseeing (Tocqueville) and lamenting (Weber, Chesterton) the degradation of the natural environment that surrounded it. Americans weren’t given to disinterested respect for natural beauty (a point Qutb, who lived in suburban Greeley, Colorado, reaffirmed). For his part, Chesterton was a fierce critic of industrial capitalism, though in his view, socialism was no solution to the problems that afflicted industrial civilization.
Chesterton was a precursor of the “small is beautiful” movement. He admired small-town America and the “small agrarian town,” “characterized by personal relationships of cooperation and service.” He favored local craftsmen and local economies and advocated the widespread distribution of private property (he called his sociopolitical vision “distributism”). His support for localism and a system “under which all property would be distributed and controlled by everyone” was informed by and helped inform twentieth-century Catholic social thought. He might fairly be accused of romanticism when it comes to issues of political economy and economic scale. But his criticisms of the excesses of capitalism and the threat to human liberty and dignity posed by statist socialism still reward reflection.