Belmont Club

A Tale of Two Cités

Guest column by Leo Linbeck III

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. But what “best” for some is “worst” for others, and vice-versa.

Today, President Obama was sworn in for his second term. This event was a “best” for his stalwart supporters, such as Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, and is a sign of a bright future:

The Houston congresswoman said she is confident that the diverse faces of Texans in Washington for the second inauguration of President Barack Obama will “build the new era of Texas Democrats.”

For thousands of demonstrators at “High Noon” rallies across the country, it might not yet be the “worst of times,” but the sense was clear that Frank Miller and his gang were on the noon train:

In Connecticut, a rally for gun rights drew about 1,000 people at the state Capitol, where lawmakers have reacted to the Newtown shooting with proposals to tighten gun-control rules, including limiting access to assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

That did not sit well with gun owner Jessie Buchanan, who attended the rally in Hartford.

“They could take away the 10-round magazine today and tomorrow it would be the five-round and the next day it would be the whole thing,” Buchanan said.

One suspects that many of these ralliers viewed the Second Inauguration as a sign of the “worst of times,” at least with respect to the Second Amendment.

Interestingly, in the same article we find out that gun-control advocates had their own plans:

On Sunday, gun-control advocates plan to hold a National Gun Prevention Sabbath, where they say 150 houses of worship will call on the faithful to advocate for an “actionable plan to prevent gun violence.”

And that’s not all. We have Sen. Charles Schumer calling the NRA a “fringe group”:

Sen. Chuck Schumer told HuffPost Live Friday that the National Rifle Association has become a very extreme group that “doesn’t even represent average gun holders.”

“They sure are a fringe group,” Schumer said, “but whether enough of my colleagues are ready to admit that, I’m not sure.”

Standard fare in today’s caustic and hyper-partisan environment, right?

Perhaps. But these articles expose the fundamental tension in the United States today. We have two different visions of America, two views on the way it should work, two different meanings of the word “community.” And, alors, they’re both French.

One vision is Rousseau’s. The late Robert Nisbet, in his magnificent book The Quest for Community, put it this way:

Rousseau’s community, however, is a political community, one indistinguishable from the State and sharing all the uniformitarian qualities of the State. It is, in his mind, a moral unity, but it is a unity conferred by the sovereign will of the State and directed by the political government. The same centralization of control existing in the human body must dominate the structure of the community; unity is conferred by the brain, which in Rousseau’s analogy represents the sovereign power. The General Will is the analogue of the human mind, and as such must remain as unified and undiversified as the mind itself. The volonté générale as he is careful to indicated, is not synonymous with the voluonté de tous, the will of all. It is the will of the political organism, an entity with a life of its own quite apart from that of the individual members of which it is built.

Our political superiors in Washington DC define the General Will, and all of those bitter clingers in the hinterlands must accept it, and comply. If they’ll only do that, they’ll be happy. Even better, they’ll be free.

This was Rousseau’s genius: he re-defined freedom as acting in accordance with the General Will. Which is defined by the powers that be. Orwell understood how this worked.

That is the spirit in which Sen. Schumer says of the NRA, “they are a fringe group” —  which is just his rough English translation of Ceci n’est pas un volonté générale.

It is the same spirit in which former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm spoke on ABC’s This Week:

Today on ABC’s This Week, after Rick Santorum explained that Americans are protective of their right to buy guns because they “want to feel safe,” former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm offered a reassuring sentiment: Americans needn’t worry about protecting themselves, because they have President Obama, and “he sees himself as protector-in-chief.”

Here we see Rousseau’s vision in total clarity: there is no need for all of the annoying mediating institutions of society, those that have traditionally been the wellspring of security — the family, the neighborhood, local government. No, we have the all-powerful centralized State. We have the protector-in-chief. I’m sure that we can rely on Washington DC to respond in days when seconds count.

The other vision, the other cité, is described by Tocqueville. It is a vision of strong and flourishing mediating institutions, each with its own scope, identity, and role. Tocqueville describes these associations in his magisterial Democracy in America:

The political associations which exist in the United States are only a single feature in the midst of the immense assemblage of associations in that country. Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions, constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds — religious, moral, serious, futile, extensive, or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found establishments for education, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; and in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it be proposed to advance some truth, or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society. Wherever, at the head of some new undertaking, you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association. I met with several kinds of associations in America, of which I confess I had no previous notion; and I have often admired the extreme skill with which the inhabitants of the United States succeed in proposing a common object to the exertions of a great many men, and in getting them voluntarily to pursue it…

Nothing, in my opinion, is more deserving of our attention than the intellectual and moral associations of America. The political and industrial associations of that country strike us forcibly; but the others elude our observation, or if we discover them, we understand them imperfectly, because we have hardly ever seen anything of the kind. It must, however, be acknowledged that they are as necessary to the American people as the former, and perhaps more so. In democratic countries the science of association is the mother of science; the progress of all the rest depends upon the progress it has made. Amongst the laws which rule human societies there is one which seems to be more precise and clear than all others. If men are to remain civilized, or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve in the same ratio in which the equality of conditions is increased.

These associations, of which the NRA is but one example, are the muscle of the American body politic. Tocqueville sees them as essential; Rousseau sees them as competitors, even enemies, of the General Will, and so must destroy them.

In other words, Rousseau doesn’t attend Tea Parties.

The real conflict in today’s America is the conflict between those who want to undermine all of the mediating institutions in our society and leave the individual, unfettered but also unprotected, at the mercy of the political State, and those who wish to cultivate and strengthen those institutions as bulwarks against both the all-powerful, all-knowing State and the lonely, unconnected life of the atomized individual.

That is one reason why I find the pro-gun-control rally so quaint and touchingly clueless. Over the past 100 years, Rousseau’s American acolytes have systematically enervated religion in our society. Like Rousseau himself, they have been hostile to, and jealous of, whatever power churches wielded over the minds and actions of their followers. But now, having marginalized, even demonized religion to the best of their ability, they’re turning to them for “moral support” in their efforts. God, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.

I’ll give the last word to Tocqueville, as he describes the way he expects despotism to emerge from modern democracy:

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

Thus it 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 the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things; it has predisposed men to endure them and often to look on them as benefits.

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. 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 each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.


I appreciate the opportunity to make an occasional post here at the Belmont Club. I have long admired Richard’s writing, and have at various times participated in the commentariat that riffs on the themes he develops. There is no way I can match his output or his erudition, but I hope to make some meaningful contribution from time to time. It is a privilege, and I will treat it as such.

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