Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

A Tocqueville for today

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 07, 2024 | In Reviews

An author will surely be gratified when his book is likened to one of the great classics. So Janos Zoltan Csak should be pleased with the reception for his new work, The Genius of America. Every review that I have seen has compared the book with Alexis de Tocqueville’s indispensable Democracy in America, and I will not break that pattern.

Like Tocqueville, Csak is a distinguished foreigner—he is Hungary’s culture minister—who studied American society carefully, through both critical reading and first-hand experience, and developed an admiration for the American spirit that is lively but not uncritical.

Admittedly The Genius of America is not likely to have the enduring power of Democracy in America. For one thing Csak’s project is much less ambitious; his analysis does not quite fill 100 pages. For another, the society that Tocqueville found entering into full vigor is now in what could be a terminal decline, beset by the problems that Tocqueville predicted.

But is the decline terminal? Csak holds out hope for an American revival, because he retains his confidence in the fundamental strength of the American spirit. But he is realistic—and unusually perceptive—about the nature of the crisis. With apologies for a lengthy quotation, let me present a sample of his analysis, drawn from his introductory chapter:

Americans are facing the end of a period of unlimited growth and mobility, and are faced instead with weakening social cohesion, deteriorating public security, and the failure of expeditions to spread democracy abroad. The system of subsidiarity between decentralized local government and federal government, which used to function tolerably well, now appears increasingly shaky. The sovereignty of elected legislative and government officials is being constrained by non-elected power and pressure groups, as well as ever more intricate state bureaucracies and business technocracies. The existential anxiety increasingly felt by many Americans, especially those from that backbone of society, the middle class, is being caused by the intrusion of values hostile to a traditional way of life that until recently was taken for granted. Increasingly extreme shifts in government policies, alongside economic instability, are exacerbating the uncertainty.

Again like Tocqueville, Csak is interested in the mechanics of the American political system, but much more interested in the principles on which that system is based. Both books question whether the American Founding contains the seeds of its own eventual destruction.

In the longest chapter of The Genius of America, Csak explores the “internal contradictions of America’s moral project,” explaining how both the history of slavery and the mistreatment of the Native American population belie the statement of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” and thereby undermine the legitimacy of the republic. The damage is still visible, he argues.

But today the greatest challenge comes in another form, Csak writes: a fundamental conflict of vision between what he describes as the “Puritan, Jacobin, Marxist, left-liberal tradition” on one hand and a classical, Biblical world view on the other. In everyday political debates this conflict is sometime obscured, because political candidates on both sides focus primarily on economic issues: “Conservatives are preoccupied with the free market and enterprise, while Democrats are preoccupied with the question of how to distribute wealth ever more evenly.”

The real problem lies deeper, Csak argues convincingly. Notice that he links the Marxist/leftist faction of today to the Puritan influence on the Founding. Few authors would make that association, but Csak recognizes the ideological edge of the Puritan enterprise, the desire of “the Saints” to create a new order, purged of corruption. A secularized version of that impulse fired the Progressive movement. Then in the latter part of the 20th century political strategists like Saul Alinsky saw it as the basis for a sort of class warfare.

Csak emphasizes the key role played by the political theorist Herbert Marcuse, who called for a “discriminating tolerance,” to be employed “as a means of shifting the balance between Right and Left by restraining the liberty of the Right…” So the liberty of some would be secured by limiting the liberty of others. The Left has its own idea of what “liberty” entailed, and that idea was not open for debate.

But what is liberty, as understood by Americans? In 1630 Governor John Winthrop disdained the idea of liberty as license to do as one chose, and proclaimed instead “a moral, a federal liberty, which is the proper end and object of authority; it is a liberty for that only which is just and good.” Contrast that understanding with the notorious passage from Justice Kennedy’s opinion in the Supreme Court’s Casey case: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

Csak realizes that the American Founders, in their determination to preserve and protect human freedom, were influenced by the understanding of “liberty” expressed by John Winthrop as well as John Locke, by the Christian moral tradition as well as the Enlightenment. There is an unavoidable tension between the those two views, and the success of the American experiment depends on resolving that tension successfully.

Csak knows that in raising this concern he is not saying anything new. He quotes the words of George Washington, in his Farewell Address: “Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jun. 11, 2024 11:30 PM ET USA

    Good quote from Washington. This is precisely the limitation of the "Establishment" clause of the 1st Amendment: there shall be no mandatory State religion, but neither shall the government impede the free exercise of religion in both private and public spaces. Far from being divorced from religious principle, natural law is the foundation of all proper government ethics, just as it ought to be the foundation of all criminal law. Civil law is more prudential, but natural-law principles apply.