America is shrouded in layers of a powerful national imaginary. What this country believes itself to be is not what it is, nor what it has been. Yet, those who grip most fiercely to the shallow notion that we have already achieved the most possible America, particularly those who call for a return to a presumably greater past, are seen as its truest patriots at the vanguard of liberation, defending the “greatest country on earth” as a beacon of democracy for all others to admire and aspire toward.
The formation of a nation built on stolen land by stolen peoples occurred at a pivot point in the global story of empire, where America was formed by a fresh, young class of new world colonizers who would soon unseat old world powers. The inherent tragedy of America’s founding is in the missed yet requisite step of internal decolonization. In the establishment of the American state, lofty goals and dreams were held for people power over crown power, but America’s fate has only replicated the empire it hoped to flee, because this people power was narrowly secured for one category of individuals: white, Christian males. The origin story of America is our cultural mythology — one that blatantly denies its inseparability from colonization and racism. And now, as America increasingly veers toward fascism fueled by racial narcissism funded by globalized, financialized capitalism, it is, once again, empire we should fear, empire leveraging this American mythology that now waves a “make America great again” flag. This country’s self proclaimed patriots may make America impossible after all.
To understand how this happened, we can acknowledge that the nation state of America we’ve inherited, the one which dictates the reality we are all obligated to live in but also required to criticize and transform, once yearned to be, on some level, a beacon of equality and liberty at a time when the world was steadily being consumed by the British monarchy. One of the most illuminating texts I’ve read on the early days of America was written by an outsider, Alexis de Tocqueville (Democracy in America). Tocqueville was fascinated by the prospect held in this “new” nation, so he came here from Paris when America was just 55 years old (a toddler in country-years) and captured profoundly prescient field notes of what America was trying to be, in all of its paradox and promise.
“Where are we, then? Men of religion fight against freedom, and lovers of liberty attack religions; noble and generous spirits praise slavery, while low, servile minds preach independence; honest and enlightened citizens are the enemies of all progress, while men without patriotism or morals make themselves the apostles of civilization and enlightenment! Have all ages been like ours? And have men always dwelt in a world in which nothing is connected?”
Tocqueville was arguably charmed by the social experiment he witnessed in America and also deeply concerned. On one hand, he witnessed the openness, dynamism, and experimental nature of nation-building occurring in real time. Tocqueville saw that America represented the struggle for greater equality, and it was here he witnessed the core principle of democracy as the public commitment to equality among its citizens. Yet, one of the things that floored me when I first read his work was his profound and prophetic ability to pour some very hot tea that is still scalding nearly 200 years later. Tocqueville essentially predicted that America would kill itself over two critical contradictions to democracy: racism and despotism (as a product of capitalism).
Tocqueville makes the jaw-dropping assertion that while equality is America’s inevitable pursuit, racial equality is incompatible with America’s democracy. In other words, America is both democratic and white supremacist simultaneously. In other other words, America was designed by its founders to achieve democracy through white supremacy. Whew. See? Told you. Hot tea, poured by a young Frenchman in 1835! A conversation we’re still not ready to have. This is explored exquisitely in a book called The Abolition of White Democracy in chapter 2: “The Problem of the White Citizen”. Here’s an excerpt: “Tocqueville argues that there are two possibilities regarding the fate of whites and Blacks, who ‘face each other like two foreign peoples on the same soil.’ Either they ‘mingle completely’ or ‘they must part.’ Tocqueville does not believe the first option is a real possibility. Ironically, the only thing that could possibly get Black and white people to “mingle” in democratic America is a despot (see point 2). As long as America remains a democracy, no one, he insists, would dare attempt to bring about social equality. Indeed, ‘the freer the whites in America are, the more they will seek to isolate themselves,’ from Black and Native peoples. It is not just that race is the one terrain where the march of equality will not tramp, he implies; it is that equality and white supremacy are symbiotic.” Further, whites saw no necessary contradiction between equality and white domination. A Jackson campaign slogan of that era read, “Negro’s Elevation Means Your Degradation.”
2. Despotism as an inevitability of capitalism:
This is summarized poignantly in this lengthy but fascinating article, with an excerpt here: “Tocqueville was among the first political writers to spot that a middle class gripped by selfish individualism and live-for-today materialism was prone to political promiscuity. A class of so-called citizens ‘constantly circling for petty pleasures’ could easily be persuaded to sacrifice their freedoms by embracing an ‘immense protective power’ that treats its subjects as ‘perpetual children’, as a ‘flock of timid animals’ in need of a shepherd. … Feeding upon the fetish of private material consumption and the public apathy of citizens no longer much interested in politics, despotism is a new type of popular domination: … a disciplinary power that treats its citizens as subjects, wins their support and robs them of their wish to participate in government, or to pay attention to the common good.”
Tocqueville nailed this analysis of America on its 55th birthday, and this truth has only become more entrenched ever since: with financialized capitalism, with imperial missions abroad, with proliferating militarization, etc. Tocqueville was essentially a political prophet who saw that the fundamental contradictions of American democracy would breed dysfunctions that would doom us to recreate a new form of despotism America was founded to escape. He famously said: “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.” Alright, Alexis!
Tocqueville also effectively points to the unique blend of racialized capitalism at the foundation of America that defines our race+class hierarchy — what Isabel Wilkerson’ powerfully explores as America’s “caste system” in her recent New York Times piece. An excerpt:
“While the requirements to qualify as white have changed over the centuries, the fact of a dominant caste has remained constant from its inception — whoever fit the definition of white, at whatever point in history, was granted the legal rights and privileges of the dominant caste. Perhaps more critical and tragic, at the other end of the ladder, the subordinated caste, too, has been fixed from the beginning as the psychological floor beneath which all other castes cannot fall. …Caste entitlement is not about luxury cars and watches, country clubs and private banks, but knowing without thinking that you are one up from another based on rules not set down on paper but reinforced in commercials, television shows and billboards, from boardrooms to newsrooms to gated subdivisions to who gets killed first in the first half-hour of a movie, and affects everyone up and down the hierarchy. This is the blindsiding banality of caste.”
And yet… Tocqueville also recognized that it was the precise language and practice around “rights” and “equality” that facilitated an ever-expanding access to democracy for marginalized groups. America had developed unprecedented processes for civic engagement and social formation that were not accessible to those suffocated by empire worldwide. And though it was first reserved for white Christian males for most of this nation’s history, the proximity to the possibility of greater equality through democracy has facilitated a constant expansion to more and more groups over time. In other words, democratic mechanisms themselves stimulate a commitment to social and political equality, as challenging as they are to secure: each practical concession to equality creates new demands from every remaining socially excluded group. It is this precise revolutionary restlessness, perpetual civic agitation, and constant struggle for improved conditions that incubate visions of a more equal society, which is exactly what those young men fled European empires to accomplish.
Tocqueville teaches us that true democracy always exists in the future. Democracy is a North Star. It is a precious possibility that, though America had defined its democracy to be inseparable from white supremacy, still contained crucial, original ideas that could facilitate a truer, deeper, universal equality, but it would not be easy.
“This complete equality,” wrote Tocqueville, “slips from the hands of the people at the very moment when they think they have grasped it and it flies.”
With this we can see the absolute terror that our increasing pivot to fascism represents, specifically because it is the true downfall Tocqueville predicted almost 200 years ago. We know that “Make America Great Again” is a dogwhistle to white Nationalism, but it is a particularly painful hypocrisy that conservative Americans, those that hold the grip on defending the mythology that “America is the greatest nation in the world” are consumed in a web of lies and propaganda, sinking us into a nightmare of totalitarianism. America’s democracy was founded to work in lockstep with white supremacy… but it has steadily evolved to become a more true democracy with each effort to bend this moral arc toward justice. This is why democracy’s true defenders must be seen in the lives of our nation’s abolitionists, civil rights heroes, and revolutionaries, the ones that understand America has never been great, yet believe it can be still. The ones that knew racism and capitalism must be eradicated if America is to survive.
It was James Baldwin that said it best:
“I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
This love of a country is interwoven with a fight for the promise of what it could be, and what it will never be unless we can wrench the progress we’ve made from those that have incrementally been sending us backward to a white supremacist “democracy”, and worse, to a racist+capitalist despotism.
Wilkerson features Eric Fromm, a leading psychoanalyst and social theorist of the 20th century, in her piece. He wrote of the “seductive power of nationalistic appeals to the anxieties of ordinary people” as a force that perpetuates the social hierarchies we are ensnared within. Group dominance creates group narcissism, which is made manifest in white supremacist agendas, whether in Nazi Germany or our own locally grown version, first seeded on our plantations. The dominant group “is eager to have a leader with whom it can identify,” Fromm wrote. “The leader is then admired by the group which projects its narcissism onto him.” Wilkerson adds: “The right kind of leader can inspire a symbiotic connection that supplants logic. The susceptible group, Fromm teaches us, sees itself in the narcissistic leader, becomes one with the leader, sees his fortunes and his fate as their own.” It’s no wonder Trump sleeps with a copy of Mein Kampf by his bedside.
Thus, the question of whether America is possible becomes more precarious day by day with Trump in power, with white supremacist nationalism inflamed by his presence. The longer we trap ourselves in regurgitating the empty myths of America’s presumed, previous greatness, one we’re aspiring to return to, instead of reckoning honestly with a democracy that was born with an integral contradiction conducted through racialized capitalism, we systematically self destruct. As the USPS threatens to collapse under this pressure, the next democratic institution to be threatened by privatization and corporatization (racialized capitalism’s favorite tools), we witness the crushing wheels of despotic power in real time. It is those that have seen through this and committed their lives toward freeing us from both racism and capitalism that know democracy to only be available if these contradictions that Tocqueville identified are resolved.
Not seeing this clearly, and not listening to those that do, is killing us. As Teju Cole writes, “people who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” 2020 is offering us an opportunity to open our eyes to the blinding light piercing through the fragile facade, as more people than ever join in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, as more white people break with the cruelty of whiteness for the desperate promise of real equality, as systems of oppression begin to crumble under the sacred pressure of Truth.
America’s obsession with its own egotistically-fueled mythology will be its downfall. The call is to let dead myths die, and our egos along with them, to prove Tocqueville’s prophecy wrong and rescue what just might be a truly possible America.
(Note: Tocqueville certainly had his flaws. He absolutely failed to reckon enough with the land theft and decimation of Indigenous peoples, but he did criticize the state’s role in their expulsion and extermination. He also disappointingly believed that equality should be conducted through assimilation, and despite his recognition of the evils of slavery he still held racist views. Disclaimer for all the Tocqueville buffs out there.)