On the Democratic Social State
In an interview last week, Acting Director of USCIS Ken Cuccinelli was asked whether a new Trump Administration rule that would deny green cards to foreigners likely to become a “public charge” violated the welcoming spirit captured by Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus.” He had this to say in response:
Well of course that poem was referring back to people coming from Europe, where they had class-based societies, where people were considered “wretched” if they weren’t in the right class. And [Lazarus’s poem] was written one year after the first federal “Public Charge” rule was passed.
Many critics rightly jumped to point out the blatant racism of positing a fundamental difference between poor, “wretched” immigrants from Europe in the late 19th century and their counterparts coming from Latin America today. But it is worth pausing to examine Cuccinelli’s attempt at a justification for this difference. In essence, what the USCIS director is asserting is that, contrary to what many pro-immigrant liberals believe today, America is not fundamentally a nation of immigrants, willing to accept all the world’s tired, poor, huddled masses. Rather, Cuccinelli suggests that 19th-century Americans understood their nation to be a haven only for those fleeing the caste systems (what he calls “class”) of the European anciens régimes. (It is of course worth noting from the outset that even given this somewhat more indulgent reading, Cuccinelli’s statements are still fundamentally racist, implying that socio-political divisions outside of Europe are of no concern from a democratic point of view—in other words, who cares about class-based inequalities in “shithole countries”?)
I had already decided I was going to write my first post in our series of close-readings of Tocqueville’s on the chapter entitled “The social state of the Anglo-Americans” (Democracy in America, I.1.3.). The concept of the “social state” [État social] is central to Tocqueville’s understanding of democracy in general, and has been a foundational component to the way we have thought about democracy on this blog. But it was only after hearing Cuccinelli’s rather extraordinary remarks that it occurred to me that this chapter of Democracy in America, read alongside the preceding chapter “On the origin [point de depart] and its importance for the future of the Anglo-Americans,” is in part a reflection on migration, what social values and practices European emigrants brought with them to early America. And though we can’t know for sure whether or not Cuccinelli meant explicitly to enlist Tocqueville in the Trump Administration’s efforts to restrict immigration into the United States, it will probably surprise few readers to discover that—in my view—the text suggests such an endeavor might prove difficult.
First, what does Tocqueville mean by “social state”? He begins the chapter straight away with a definition:
The social state is ordinarily the product of a fact, but sometimes of laws, and most often of a combination of the two; but once it exists, one can consider it to be the first cause of the majority of the laws, customs, and ideas that regulate the conduct of nations; what it does not produce, it modifies.
In other words, the social state is a basic normative regime that shapes or influences all key political and social relations in a given society. It might be described as something close to what Claude Lefort (himself a student of Tocqueville) referred to as le politique, the basic framework in which the more familiar contests for power known as la politique take place. It is both capable of generating new laws and customs, and influencing even social practices that would seem completely antithetical to it. There may be inequalities of wealth and status in America, but those who benefit from them have essentially the same “passions and interests” as everyone else.
Tocqueville uses a similar notion in the introduction to Democracy in America, when he describes “equality of conditions”—the absence of formal hierarchy between social groups—as the “generating fact from which each particular fact seems to descend” in American society. When, in this chapter, Tocqueville asserts that “the social state of the Americans is eminently democratic,” we can take him to mean that the most important aspects of American social and political life stem from the basic fact of the equality of conditions. So far, at least, we might find some support for the position apparently endorsed by Cuccinelli, that America is a nation founded by people fleeing hierarchal social structures as they existed in many parts of pre-revolutionary Europe.
What Tocqueville goes on to describe, however, does not appear to be a society that is thoroughly democratic in the almost metaphysical sense implied by his terminology. Though Tocqueville’s account of New England seems egalitarian enough—as he describes it, there are “neither grand seigneurs nor common people … neither rich nor poor,” and even in the smallest town the neediest are looked after, and all local administrators are elected to serve the public good—he tells a different story in his account of the Southern states. There, Tocqueville does not hesitate to refer to the people that own the large properties as aristocrats. And of course, these aristocrats were owners of slaves, whose presence gave the lie to any claim that there was an “equality of conditions in America.” So how exactly can Tocqueville conclude that the deep, sub-political character of American society is essentially democratic?
At this point, it is worth contrasting the notion of the “social state” with that of the “origin of a people.” The preceding chapter (I.1.2.) is devoted to exploring the birth of the Anglo-Americans as a people, something Tocqueville remarks is impossible for the much more ancient peoples of Europe. If it is possible to observe this origin, he writes, “I do not doubt that we would be able to discover the first cause of the prejudices, habits, dominant passions, of everything that composes what we call the national character.” If the social state is the condition that shapes all key socio-political relations, this origin is the moment in time in which a people is formed and takes on a particular identity. And at the point de départ, this newly formed Anglo-American people not only shared a common language and a common descendance from England, Tocqueville explains, but also a common experience of political rights and liberties that emerged from the religious and partisan conflicts of the English Civil War. In addition, the experience of uprooting their lives from the old world and settling in the American colonies instilled in the early Anglo-Americans a profound sense of equality, at least amongst themselves: “the emigrants had no idea of superiority whatsoever over one another.”
By introducing these two concepts at this early stage in Democracy in America, Tocqueville sets the stage for a question that will frequently arise in looking at aspects of American society: What is properly democratic, and what is simply reflective of the American character? This question is rarely an easy one to answer in Tocqueville’s work. Tocqueville often seems unsure which explanation he prefers for a given phenomenon, and often employs both interpretations. In the earlier chapter he describes the division of land into relatively small parcels as a “natural” consequence of settlement by people sharing a particular egalitarian experience. Only in the later chapter, however, do we learn that after the American Revolution laws of succession were changed so as to divide up large properties. The question nonetheless has profound implications. Democracy in America has an entirely different meaning if it is the product of a new society founded on a profoundly egalitarian social framework, or if it is the creation of a particular groups of European emigrants with a particular shared experience—an experience from which they have proven perfectly willing to exclude others.
Tocqueville does not provide a definite resolution to this tension in Democracy in America, but his notion of the social state—and its conceptual distinction from the origins of peoples—provides a tool to reject an understanding of American democracy as either fixed in time, or the sole property of a particular group of people who arrived from Europe. Despite Tocqueville’s description of a unified Anglo-American people in I.1.2, the following chapter makes clear that there were a variety of social orders established in early America, some egalitarian and democratic, some radically hierarchical and oppressive. Major political changes such as the American Revolution, along with the capacity of the democratic social state to transform everything it touches, led to the disappearance of some anti-democratic aspects of American life in places like the planter South. But as American historians have long understood, and as efforts like the 1619 Project have recently attempted to reiterate, these efforts to work towards a more complete democracy have always been incomplete, and have always been opposed by some segment of the “Anglo-American people.”
In other words, Tocqueville does not have much to say as to whether or not America is essentially a place of refuge for the world’s “huddled masses” (for that, I recommend listening to Mae Ngai‘s telling of the history of Emma Lazarus’s poem and its interpretations). But he does help us understand the distinction between the fundamental condition of democracy and national origins and identity; between how democracy is capable of operating in America, and the experiences of only some of the people who helped build it.
Photo Credit: Sue Waters, Statue of Liberty, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.