Dear friends of Istituto Acton,
The Women’s March in Washington, D.C. and other cities around the world (including Rome) is yet another piece of evidence proving the dogmatic nature of left-wing politics. In the minds of these activists, diversity and tolerance are meant only for those who wish to move society in a “progressive” direction, which means towards greater equality and inclusion. As former President Barack Obama often remarked, paraphrasing Martin Luther King, Jr., “the arc of history bends towards justice” – which puts his political opponents on “the wrong side of history.”
The problem for the left is that it renders them incapable of explaining to themselves and any non-believer what happened and why. In this case, their indignation at the election of Donald Trump had made them blind to the reasons for his victory. So they blame Hillary Clinton’s loss on bigotry, the FBI, the Russians, fake news, the Electoral College, anything so long as they don’t have to think about the actual causes.
Mass demonstrations and public displays of nervous breakdowns rarely happen when the right loses an election. Conservatives are certainly disappointed, sometimes depressed, but they can understand why the other side occasionally and maybe even deservedly wins. But their lives go on; they live to fight another day, which means, if they are politically astute, preparing for the next election.
The left is more “political” in the sense that everything in their lives revolves around politics, by which they mean every issue of justice is eventually a matter of exercising State power. But the left is also less “political” because it refuses to engage in rational arguments about justice and why the State is the only legitimate means for it. They tend to assume that anyone who doesn’t agree with them is simply prejudiced, cannot be reasoned with, and will eventually be overcome by “progress.” So they are understandably shocked when they lose an election, which does, after all, rely on persuasion and choice.
Yet if “History” is the irresistible, inevitable force the left claims, why such outrage over the occasional setback? Perhaps there isn’t such faith or confidence in the basis of their political claims, especially those having to do with the absolute equality of all human beings. Such doubts are actually justified since a perfectly equal society has never existed – and if we care at all about liberty and other human goods, never should.
As with so many aspects of liberal democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville understood the complicated nature of this quasi-religious passion for equality. At the beginning the second part of the second volume of Democracy in America, Tocqueville wrote that freedom and equality may coexist in principle and that democratic nations tend towards this “ideal state.” But in fact democratic peoples care more about equality than freedom:
Equality every day confers a number of small enjoyments on every man. The charms of equality are every instant felt and are within the reach of all; the noblest hearts are not insensible to them, and the most vulgar souls exult in them. The passion that equality creates must therefore be at once strong and general. Men cannot enjoy political liberty unpurchased by some sacrifices, and they never obtain it without great exertions. But the pleasures of equality are self-proffered; each of the petty incidents of life seems to occasion them, and in order to taste them, nothing is required but to live.
I think that democratic communities have a natural taste for freedom; left to themselves, they will seek it, cherish it, and view any privation of it with regret. But for equality their passion is ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible; they call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that, they still call for equality in slavery. They will endure poverty, servitude, barbarism, but they will not endure aristocracy.
This is true at all times, and especially in our own day. All men and all powers seeking to cope with this irresistible passion will be overthrown and destroyed by it. In our age freedom cannot be established without it, and despotism itself cannot reign without its support.
The tendency of this passion, Tocqueville wrote in 1840, was to centralize power and eventually oppress “the great” or those who refuse to go along with prevailing sentiments. Rather than raise the level of the poor or ordinary, democratic nations will tend to bring down the rich or extraordinary in the name of the people. This will form the governing basis for anti-capitalist progressives well into the 21st century.
It is therefore no surprise that Trump’s promise to make America great again has so riled the left. He successfully convinced the working- and middle-classes of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin that he will promote their interests better that the Democrats who have become an out-of-touch party exclusively concerned with elitist, “politically correct” issues. Trump distinguishes primarily between Americans and others, which the left has become unable to do because of its allegiance to multiculturalism in the name of international equality. Trump has turned a narrower but more powerfully felt notion of equality into a winning issue for the right.
Tocqueville is also a useful guide when it comes to the overwhelmingly female component of the protests against Trump. Tocqueville criticized Europeans who sought to “make man and woman into beings not only equal but alike” in all things which results in “weak men and disorderly women”, while praising Americans who have applied “the great principle of political economy which governs the manufacturers of our age, by carefully dividing the duties of man from those of woman in order that the great work of society may be the better carried on.” If we note that American feminists have become more like (if not surpassed) their European counterparts in this regard, we can see why they are threatened by the new regime. While Trump is emphatically not promising to return women to the home, it is enough that he portrays himself as a strong man with little regard for the pieties of feminism, especially when it comes to abortion.
It’s highly unlikely that Trump and his advisors have looked to Tocqueville in diagnosing what ails America. They may very well err in their own ardent passion for equality without fully understanding what they are facing. But at least they grasp that something fundamental must change for the common good of the nation. Given the force of the trends he is facing, he may need as much of the Frenchman’s wisdom and prudence as he can get, if reason is to carry the day.