Michael Ledeen

Democracy in America

VTR Date: November 9, 2000

Guest: Ledeen, Michael


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Michael A. Ledeen, Ph.D.
Title: “Democracy In America”
VTR: 11/9/00

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today is historian and political analyst Michael A. Ledeen, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC.

Now let it be known that whenever Dr. Ledeen has joined me here on The Open Mind over the years because he has written another provocative article or book that I an my viewers want to parse, I take the opportunity to brag on the fact that many decades ago I was my guest’s teacher. Though clearly any political influence this old Mr. chips might have had has been purely coincidental. And that holds true even today as Dr. Ledeen joins me to discuss the ideas he sets forth so forcefully in his challenging new St. Martin’s Press volume, “Tocqueville On American Character”. His sub-title, “Why Tocqueville’s brilliant exploration of the American spirit is as vital and important today as it was nearly 200 years ago”.

Now I’m particularly enthralled by this slim but compelling volume because of my own now hear half century old one volume edition of “Democracy In America”, the young Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic 19th century of who Americans are and would likely become. Indeed, that my own paperback edition happily continues to be read so widely is a tribute to Tocqueville’s particular relevance to the modern reader. So that I would begin today’s program by asking Dr. Ledeen both why Tocqueville was so taken with democracy in America and why contemporary Americans continue to be intrigued by what the 19th century French aristocrat wrote about our own forebears. Michael, what’s the nature of this attraction.

LEDEEN: Well, the first question is why, why was Tocqueville so taken with American democracy …

HEFFNER: That’s the more important one.

LEDEEN: Why did he want to look at it and the reason was that he thought that he was doomed to have to live through a democratic revolution himself. And so he wanted to come to America and see what it was about so that at least France might be able to avoid the worst of it. He wasn’t an enthusiast remember. He accepted it as his destiny, but he didn’t like it, he preferred aristocracy.

HEFFNER: And your attraction to Tocqueville?

LEDEEN: Is that he’s the smartest guy who ever looked at America. And so, I mean we damn well better pay attention to him. I think, I think Tocqueville’s our national psychoanalyst. I don’t think anybody that I’m aware of, any way, has ever looked at us and understood us so well and was able to play out what we were likely to do and what our greatnesses were and what out weaknesses were and what might finally do us in and what might finally make us a world power. He understood all those things.

HEFFNER: But you know, as you say in your sub-title, this is nearly 200 years ago, how could anyone have been that perceptive, when there have been that many changes. And you yourself emphasis “change”, change that has taken place in America.

LEDEEN: Yeah, well, he’s wrong … I mean things are … he says things that have turned out to be wrong, of course. But I actually think the answer to why is Tocqueville so important, and how could he have seen so far is the same as the … that question about Machiavelli, for example. Because each of them came at the beginning of something. And they saw it taking shape at the outset. And so it’s easier in many ways to see the fundamental elements of something. From Machiavelli the modern nation state. For Tocqueville American democracy … at the beginning before it gets encrusted with all kinds of developments. And they see the essential components. Tocqueville understood the essential components.

HEFFNER: When you say “before they became encrusted”, I always reminded when that kind of comment is made about his own particularly impressive statement that we were not born, as Pico said, at one or another, but we were born in the middle and we can make our way. Do you think we have? Do you think have formed ourselves without that encrustation.

LEDEEN: Well, in part “Yes” and in part “No”, I mean nothing’s perfect. But I think that Americans today are amazingly similar to the Americans that he saw in 1831. And I think that he fundamental astonishment with Americans is as accurate today as it was then. I mean what did he see … he came off the boat, looked around and it just knocked his socks off, we were so astonishing, we were so energetic, we were so creative, we were so hustling and bustling, we were making money hand over fist, we were engaged in political activities all the time, we were creating organizations, we were just moving, all the time. Moving, moving, moving, moving. And we are the same today. And I am astonished. In fact all my adult life, you know, I am a Europeanist, after all … not an American scholar. And all my adults life I’ve been going to Europe for good conversation and profound insight and better culture; people knew philosophy, people knew history, which American famously don’t. And I will tell you that for the last ten, 15 years I have found Europe and Europeans increasingly boring. The conversation is more lively, exciting and interesting here. Young Europeans who really want to do something with their lives nowadays come here because they know they can do it there anymore. And we’re back in another moment of which this old world/new world contrast between a young new world like America, which is really creative and on-the-make as against an old world which is really exhausted and doesn’t know what it is anymore. I think that cycle has come round again, and so a lot of the things that Tocqueville say are particularly appropriate today.

HEFFNER: So, it’s not just in your dotage you’ve come home.

LEDEEN: I don’t think I’m in my dotage yet. At least I hope I’m not, although my surgeons might disagree with that. But I don’t think so, no. In fact this book was not my idea. I …

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

LEDEEN: It wasn’t my idea, I say so right in the acknowledgments. My editor, the guy Mack Talley, who edited “Tocqueville on Modern Leadership” called me up as I was doing the last few chapters of “Machiavelli On Modern Leadership” … sorry … called me up and said “Look this is really great, I’d like you to do another book right away, called “Tocqueville on American Character”. And I said, “What a terrific idea”.

HEFFNER: Why does the one follow the other? I assume that you’re making the point that it follows … one follows the other intellectually … philosophically.

LEDEEN: I don’t think it does.

HEFFNER: You don’t?

LEDEEN: No. Although God knows they share a lot of ideas. No, what … it follows … the point of doing “Machiavelli On Modern Leadership” was that people were reading Machiavelli. And the point of doing “Tocqueville on American Character” is that increasingly Americans don’t read. And so for those of them who aren’t smart enough to read your edited edition and want to read instead a screed on Tocqueville, I thought I would try to do, just as I did with Machiavelli, a presentation of Tocqueville’s ideas with contemporary examples instead of the ones that he gives to help people understand what he’s about and what he’s talking about.

HEFFNER: Now, that’s what I want you to do for the people who are watching us. You do in this book write, not less about Tocqueville, but write a great deal about Ledeen. It’s Ledeen on Tocqueville’s interpretation or insights into the American character. What are the ones that stand out most for you?

LEDEEN: Well, I’ll say as I said the last time we spoke that I have really tried to do Tocqueville on American character, not Ledeen on Tocqueville on American character. And maybe I failed and you’re right and it’s really Ledeen. But, but Tocqueville … and I read Tocqueville really fresh because I, you know, I’m not an American scholar and I have nothing invested in one or another view of Tocqueville. So I simply took the two volumes and read them about 25 times over and over and over again, until I thought I understood what was key. And I think the key thing that Tocqueville understands about Americans, with which I agree, so there’s no conflict here, is that Americans believe opposite things about a whole series of very important subjects. And that we are opposite things … we are passionately opposite things on religion, wealth, foreign policy … we are the most secular and the most religious people in the world, simultaneously. We are both things. We are the most interventionist and the most isolationist people in the world, simultaneously. We are the most materialistic and the most religious. We’re the most individualistic … remember Tocqueville invented the word “individualism” to describe us … and the most collective. Because we’re all the time creating our own collective organizations to deal with our own problem.

HEFFNER: Do you celebrate yourself … do you personally celebrate that contradiction … the multitudes, as Whitman would have said, and did say, that Tocqueville points out.

LEDEEN: Yes, I do. I like that. I mean I like America. I think it’s a great thing to be an American. And I think that Americans, when they work hard at what they do are capable of the greatest things of any people. I think we have great competitive advantages over almost any other people I know. I mean there are some things that others can do better …

HEFFNER: But you seem at points to worry about one side of an equation rather than the other.

LEDEEN: That’s because Tocqueville stresses over and over again that this is a great balancing act, and you have to keep both elements in balance in order for us to function properly. And that his concern, and my concern, is that if we tilt too far in one direction, then we can lose it all … we will unwind, as he puts it, and then we risk losing freedom

HEFFNER: Do you feel that we have tilted too far in one direction?

LEDEEN: No, I don’t, but I think we’re in danger of tilting … we’re always in danger of tilting too far in one direction and the direction that he worries most about is the, is tilting in the direction of materialism. And losing religion as a constraining force. And therefore moments of great material success are the most dangerous and we’re in one right now. I mean we’re creating wealth a mile a minute, and therefore the temptation to say, to banish religion altogether and to say, “well we’re just going to fulfill ourselves personally” with the consequence that Americans would be less involved in civil affairs, less involved in politics, less involved in their community and have the tendency to turn it all over to governments, particularly Federal governments. That’s a huge risk. And that’s a risk he writes about and that’s one that I try to underline.

HEFFNER: But, Michael, don’t we seem to be doing both things at the same time even now and that what you celebrate about Tocqueville, what he celebrated about this country two centuries ago still there.

LEDEEN: Oh, yes, absolutely.

HEFFNER: So why are you concerned?

LEDEEN: Because, you’re right, because Tocqueville’s concerned and I’m trying to communicate his concern. It’s a book about him. It’s not a book about me. And Tocqueville is concerned, profoundly concerned. And, and some of the stuff that we’ve done on religion has really been silly. But I think …

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

LEDEEN: … I think it’s swinging back. Well, I mean the founders … separation of church and state is not an excuse to ban religion from the public square. The separation of church and state is simply a way of making sure that government can’t excessively meddle in religion. And that religion is a private matter. That was the whole point of it. I mean at the time that the First Amendment was written, after all … I mean the First Amendment just says … hardly anybody’s ever read it, but I mean the First Amendment says “Congress shall pass no law concerning freedom of religion and so forth”. It doesn’t say, for example, that States shall pass no law and lots of states had passed laws and at the time of the First Amendment it never entered anybody’s mind, not even Jefferson’s to play with that. And there were state churches and every time there was a new territory created, and as we moved West, Congress required religious education. All schools were religious schools. So that we come to today, to the opposite extreme. So we started with all schools were religious schools. Today, virtually all schools are secular schools. And any school that gets any help from government or is involved with government in any way, shape or manner can’t talk about religion, I mean to the point of absurdity. And I mean that … we just went too far in that direction and now, I think, it’s started to swing back and I’m sure we’ll find a balance point. We usually do.

HEFFNER: And the other areas of concern?

LEDEEN: The other areas of concern are if you take Puttnam’s recent book “Bowling Alone” about what he takes to be the decline of civic organizations in America, with which I don’t entirely agree by any means. But …

HEFFNER: How so?

LEDEEN: Well, I, I think he leaves out for example corporations which are, which is one of the spontaneous associations that most impressed Tocqueville and should most impress any of us. And there, I think, that the things that corporations are doing today and the number of people engaged in corporations and all the things that they do is very impressive, so I wouldn’t be overly pessimistic. I think that the kinds of civic associations in which we get engaged change over time. But I don’t think we’re less involved. I mean certainly the sums of money that we’re turning over to philanthropy and most of it is, for example, is through religious organizations. That’s not decreasing, that’s increasing.

HEFFNER: When Tocqueville related himself to associations, what do you think he mostly was talking about in this country.

LEDEEN: I think social organizations like temperance leagues. He was horrified to discover the people in Boston, for example, were passing laws regulating smoking in public places.

HEFFNER: My, my.

LEDEEN: Right. Very funny. 1831. And he was horrified that these people actually wanted to stop other people from drinking alcohol. Well, any good Frenchman would be worried about that. So those things. And, of course, political organizations of all sorts, whether they’re lobbies or parties or caucuses or whatever they might be.

HEFFNER: The phrase “the tyranny of the majority” …


HEFFNER: … certainly is identified with Tocqueville and …


HEFFNER: … you’re not … you’re not hesitant about dealing with it. But, what, what do you see in that area?

LEDEEN: Well, I agree with Tocqueville and I agree with you. I mean it’s your … yeah, it was your biggest concern when you wrote your Introduction back when we were both young. Yeah, the tyranny of the majority is a frightful influence in American life and there’s no question that we are one of the most conformist peoples in the world, at the same time we’re very individualistic and anti- conformist [laughter]. But the tendency to, to make all people behave the same way in this country and even think the same way and use the same expressions, the same words, the same gestures and so forth, that’s a threat. And it’s something that we have to be alert to all the time.

HEFFNER: Michael you say to make people gesture the same way, dress the same way, etc. What do you mean by “make”.

LEDEEN: Spontaneously … it, it comes naturally out of the nature of an associative democratic society like ours. And now it’s more powerful than it was at Tocqueville’s time because our means of communication are so efficient and so … that we get it from the movies and the television and so forth.

HEFFNER: Which leads me to ask you … whether it is possible, in your estimation for that not to happen, given our technological progress … I put that in “quotes”. Given the changes that you just referred to …

LEDEEN: It’s hard. And you have to … and we have to fight against it. The good news is that Americans are fighters and love to fight against conformity at the same time they love conformity and like to impose it on those who are fighting against it. I’m … I must tell you that I’m particularly concerned about universities …

HEFFNER: Tell me why.

LEDEEN: … and schools which I find … I find increasingly intellectually monolithic. I find them a bit less tolerant and maybe that’s because I don’t remember really the way it was when I was in college or when I was a college professor. But I find that there’s a uniformity of thought right now, a kind of what other people call “political correctness” which is bothersome …

HEFFNER: Michael I think back as, as back even in the twenties there was a sense of lock-step thinking in the universities.

LEDEEN: Yeah, I’m sure that’s true. And I do distinctly remember that when I was a student professors were all conservative. And we were radical. And then we were radical professors and the students started to become more conservative and I, I welcomed that. I think that’s great. I only saying that I think if you look at, at student bodies and at facilities, you will find a homogeneity, a political homogeneity which is unusual and I think is greater than it used to be.

HEFFNER: Well, I’ve just wondered whether … and as I read, “Tocqueville On American Character” I was wondering whether you were going to pay your respects to Tocqueville and identify Tocqueville’s insights into the American character today and you do that. But whether you were going to go on or look backwards, whichever way you want to interpret and say, the soil of America which produced the America which he observed and reported on has changed so, the very climate of America has changed so, that Tocqueville by definition must be less, less of a guide to the future than he has been to the present.

LEDEEN: Well, I must tell you that as I read through “Democracy In America” my 20 or 25 times I was increasingly impressed with how contemporary Tocqueville is, and how reliable a guide to the modern America he turns out to be. So I don’t agree with that. I, I think his insights about us and his description of us is really as important and in many ways even more important today because our responsibilities are greater and our power is greater and therefore, our … the obligation that we have to understand ourselves well is greater.

HEFFNER: Well, I appreciate what you say about the obligations we have. And Tocqueville was quite one to indicate what we had to do to protect ourselves in light of the tyranny of the majority. But I wondered whether you had come to feel that perhaps, not our institutions necessarily, but our technology more so, would re-focus us and re-mold us and I gather that’s …

LEDEEN: That’s …

HEFFNER: … not your concern.

LEDEEN: … no I don’t. I’m not. In fact I loved … my favorite contemporary line about the influence of technology is the “information revolution has happened and the information won”. That’s what happened at the end of the day … was instead of … I mean everybody … a lot of people were very concerned that the computers, Internet, etc. was going to turn out to be a new kind of Big Brother system that would be able to mold us and discipline us and make us into something. And as it turns out that … I mean the technology itself doesn’t do that. And that, in fact, we have so much choice and there’s so much freedom and there’s so much information that it’s virtually impossible to use the technology in that way.

HEFFNER: Do you think that the information that Tocqueville related to was more useful, perhaps, two centuries ago, than our information is today?

LEDEEN: I think the problem is that we don’t know what information today is central. And, and there’s too much information, it’s very hard. It’s very hard to get to the truth of anything simply because if you go to Lexus or you go online and say, “Richard D. Heffner, who is he, what is he?”, you get so much … it, it just takes a hell of a long time to check it out and figure out what the facts are. What the real facts are, or true facts are, as my kids would say.

HEFFNER: A true fact.


HEFFNER: About true facts … let’s go back because as you say, it always was my major concern about Tocqueville, the tyranny of the majority. What about the protections, the barriers to the tyranny. You mention some, what about the others, what do you see operative in our society that gives you the basis for the optimism that you express. And you do express it.

LEDEEN: Oh, I’m very cheery about this subject, believe me. We have a multiplicity of outlets. So that even if someone … even if, let’s say the major media does try to silence somebody … suppose they singled somebody out and said “we don’t want him … you know”, so all the networks ban him, all the major newspapers ban him. So he still has endless outlets from talk radio to chat rooms to websites and so … anybody can just go on line and create his own web site and start talking.

HEFFNER: So what is a negative result or a positive.

LEDEEN: No, but that’s a positive, that’s a huge positive.

HEFFNER: Well, what’s negative about it is that you can go on talking, but what he has to say may or may not be reliable.

LEDEEN: Well, that’s as true of Dan Rather as it is about this imaginary person.

HEFFNER: Absolutely.

LEDEEN: So, we all have to take our chances and check the information that comes out us anyway. No, I’m, I’m not really that frightened about that, I think that has improved recently. I mean I think, I think we have access to the public in a million ways that we never did before. Surely, in the last 20 years the ability of people with, let’s say, dissenting views, to reach a broad public has improved dramatically, dramatically compared to what it was twenty years ago. There are more outlets, there are more ways to reach, even a mass audience …

HEFFNER: What are your concerns?

LEDEEN: My, my … I’m as concerned as Tocqueville was with big government. I’m concerned about an increasingly intrusive government. I’m greatly encouraged that President Clinton vetoed the Secrecy Bill that Congress tried to pass. I’m terribly concerned about all the various institutions that are being set up, governmental institutions to meddle increasingly in details with people’s lives, about family structure, about adoption, about ways in which you can behave in your, in your private life and so forth. And I see a slowly expanding government, which is the nature of any bureaucracy … it has endless appetite. Wind it up and it will expand and seek new things to do. And we haven’t really, I mean we had a cycle twenty years ago when people tried to cut back this king of government … that happens and now government has grown a bit in the interim, and it’s important for us now to pay attention to it and true to prune it back again. Because left to its own devices, it will just get bigger and bigger.

HEFFNER: Of course, Michael, I understand that as a point of view, I guess the question that keeps coming up is whether it is possible in reality, given what we known and how much more we know every day, every week, every years, whether we can restrain ourselves now that we have bitten of the apple. Can we help but put that knowledge to use and that the instrument of putting it to use is government. Are you talking about something that one simply cannot constrain.

LEDEEN: Well, you may be right, and if you’re right, we’re doomed and, and Tocqueville has laid out the nature of our doom as eloquently as anyone ever has. I don’t think so. I don’t think we’re doomed. I think it’s still a matter of choice for us. The Europeans are lost. I mean the Europeans all have basically turned over their lives to the State, and they want the State to do all the important things that are involved in their lives. We come from a different tradition. Americans have never believed this. There are increasing numbers of Americans that obviously do believe it, who want more and more things from government and they want a more active and a more powerful government to run their lives for them.

HEFFNER: You say, “who want a more and more powerful …”


HEFFNER: … government to run their lives.


HEFFNER: I think there are those of us, however, who do not want, but find no … no option and that inevitably, and here is where you quote Tocqueville against me, in terms of inevitability, and I’ve quote Tocqueville myself, when I was much younger …


HEFFNER: Much, much younger, nearly a half century ago, when I was so enamored of his, of his ability to think of change and control that we impose ourselves. I’m glad to find you … now I’ll say a much younger man … still optimistic that we can stop the growth of government.

LEDEEN: It’s a fight. And, and those of us who are concerned about the growth of government are going to have to keep fighting it. Which certainly I’m going to do. I’ve done it all my life.

HEFFNER: Michael, I understand that and you’re doing it again in this quite compelling book, “Tocqueville On American Character”. And it’s not just because we’ve known each other so many years, but because I think it is compelling to use that word again, that I thank you for joining me today and hope everyone buys the book.

LEDEEN: Well, thank you. I mean, praise from you on this subject is more welcome that from anybody else.

HEFFNER: Thanks. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.