How would Tocqueville see this election?

October 31, 2012

This essay is adapted from On Politics: A History of Political Thought from Herodotus to the Present, published this month by Liveright.

Alexis de Tocqueville never witnessed an American election. He arrived in May 1831, too late for the election of Andrew Jackson to his first term as president, and left the following spring, too early for the congressional elections of 1832 and Jackson’s re-election. Still, it is impossible not to wonder what America’s most distinguished foreign observer might have made of this year’s presidential campaign – indeed, what he might have made of the entire campaigning season. Some things we can guess would have pleased him and astonished him in about equal measure.

Although he said, unconventionally at the time, that Catholicism was the most suitable religion for a democratic society, he would surely have been surprised to see a Supreme Court with not a single Protestant member, and Catholics in a 7-to-2 majority. The fact of a black president running for re-election would have astonished him even more. Such a thing would have seemed almost incomprehensible to the author of the heartrending chapter on “The Futurity of the Three Races” in the first volume of his masterpiece Democracy in America. Tocqueville saw no future for native Americans, and no solution to the problem of Negro slavery. When he died in 1859, he was full of foreboding about the future of a country visibly hastening to civil war. He was bitterly opposed to slavery in all its manifestations, but like many critics of slavery, from Jefferson to Lincoln, he thought emancipation would leave its beneficiaries unemployable and socially isolated.

Guessing which way Tocqueville might have voted is another matter entirely. Although Tocqueville praised American democracy and was one of many European observers who saw America as an essentially middle-class society, he was an aristocrat who found the need to court the favor of middle-class voters and politicians almost physically unbearable. He was also a deficit hawk, and deeply opposed to even the most tentative government measures to protect the working class against the miseries of unemployment, poverty and hunger. He learned his economics from Nassau Senior, one of the most rigid and unbending of the Manchester School of economists. When Parisian workers rose in revolt in June 1848, Tocqueville was among those who helped to put them down by brute force. It is as impossible to imagine him being moved by President Obama’s appeal to the voters to protect the social safety net as it is to imagine him wanting to discuss social policy with Todd Akin or Michele Bachmann.

And yet, it is impossible not to wonder what he might have made of us in this extraordinary year, if only because Tocqueville’s ideas have been so exploited by left and right. Modern conservatives praise his strictures on big government and his enthusiasm for decentralization, many American liberals praise his concern with association and community and everyone praises his devotion to political liberty. American politicians bask in his endorsement of their political system and overlook his contempt for the “coarse appearance” of the members of the House of Representatives. It was the Senate that touched his aristocratic heart. The official reason for his visit to the United States was to study the prison system; only devotees of a policy of “lock them up and throw away the key” much enjoy Tocqueville’s enthusiasm for the savage discipline of the prisons he visited; Charles Dickens saw that solitary confinement and a regime of silence drove prisoners mad. Tocqueville did not.

French interest in the United States sprang from the failure to bring the revolution of 1789 to a successful conclusion. French assistance to the rebellious colonies after 1776 did not reflect enthusiasm for republican government but a French strategy to recover ground lost during the Seven Years’ War, which had ended with the British seizure of French India and much of French North America. Americans saw their revolution as the inspiration for an age of political renovation: free republics would everywhere replace hereditary monarchies and aristocracies. This was not what Louis XVI’s government had in mind. The leaders of the American Revolution were not deceived, and they were unapologetic about making a quick and separate peace. Nonetheless, a liberal-minded Frenchman would feel some paternal pride in the United States, and a patriotic Frenchman would see the United States as an ally in cutting Britain down to size.

America posed a deeply interesting question. How had Americans launched a revolution and established a free, stable and constitutional government, while the French had in 41 years lurched from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy, the first republic, mob rule, the Terror and mass murder, and thence to a conservative republic, Napoleonic autocracy, the Bourbon restoration, further revolution, and an Orleanist constitutional monarchy? Up to a point, the answer was obvious; the Americans were reluctant revolutionaries; they wanted to secure the English liberties they had enjoyed until the tyrannical Parliament of George III and his ministers tried to destroy them.

Self-government was a long-established reality; the collapse of British rule was followed not by anarchy but by the citizens governing themselves much as before. Independence was not a leap into the unknown but more nearly a leap into the past of the English Civil War, when the New Model Army learned to govern itself and the country by committees answerable to the rank and file. If Washington had been Cromwell, the American Revolution might have ended in military dictatorship; but if Washington had been Cromwell, he would not have been accepted as commander in chief of the Continental army.

But what were the social and political attitudes that meant that individuals could cooperate and make self-government possible, while in another they could not; why were Americans active and ambitious and without chaos able to pursue “self-interest rightly understood,” and their French contemporaries not. A stable democratic and liberal political order demanded distinctive social, moral and economic attachments; their analysis was an urgent task. These attachments were the product of the distinctive geographical setting of the American experiment and a long colonial history. Many things ‑ from the open frontier to the absence of feudalism, to the religious allegiances of the first colonists ‑ shaped the attitudes and created the abilities that allowed Americans to make their revolution without descending into anarchy.

The new republic then reinforced the culture that reinforced it. There was a virtuous circle: the political system gave the citizens an intense attachment to the political system; their attachment helped it to function effectively, and its effectiveness made the citizens still more attached to it. Equally interesting were the indirect supports that enabled the political system to combine popular sovereignty and individual liberty. Tocqueville was particularly impressed by the role of women; they had almost complete freedom as girls, but once married were confined to domestic life where they exercised a severe psychological and moral discipline, badly needed in a raw new country.

But Tocqueville’s gifts as an observer and commentator ought not to blind us to one disastrous legacy. He bequeathed to us the belief in American “exceptionalism” that neither Obama nor Romney nor Biden nor Ryan, nor any of the hundreds of candidates for the House and Senate dare challenge. A hundred and eighty years ago, America was more classless, socially mobile, economically innovative and imaginative than any European country, let alone Russia or China. Today, the United States is a mature industrial society, with the social and political problems – education, public health, infrastructural renovation – of every other such society. Because Tocqueville was so eloquent about the unique blessings of the United States, it has become almost impossible for politicians to suggest that we have anything to learn from anyone else – whether our neighbors to the north, or Europeans. I like to think that with a further hundred and eighty years of experience, Tocqueville would have told us that “self-interest rightly understood” included a willingness to ask – say – the French how to run a national health system, or the Canadians how not to have a banking and housing crisis.


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When I first read Democracy in America, I was amazed at just how much long term forethought was placed in his thoughts. There is not a single debate in politics now, nor a single politician who can see beyond the immediate in their reasoning and appeal to the masses. America has become a popularity contest. If legislators were to ever learn from their mistakes, or outlaw concepts that were proven not to work, then they would cease to exist.

Posted by LysanderTucker | Report as abusive

Yes, the American political process has materially deteriorated.

We had a system in which intelligent and competent individuals became prosperous enough to travel to Washington for the period necessary to “see to the country’s business” at their own expense and GO HOME! Today we send a privileged “political class” to Washington periodically whose expenses of election, etc. are paid, in no small part, by those “special interests” as expect in return disproportionate fealty to their specific views.

Because their power and influence increase with “time of service” and “we, the people” have allowed them to set their own salaries and benefits, “our” representatives tend to become much better off financially that those they purportedly represent. It is quite logical that today none ever cease “running for office” and spend more time satisfying those who will help them win the next election than taking on their “real job” of being effective representatives of ALL the people and acting in the best long term interests of these United States.

A similar deterioration in function is evident in our judiciary at every level. Oaths of office have been rendered without teeth by Supreme Court decisions that make each of our robed robbers untouchable if they use the wrong law, use the right law wrongly, or maliciously, or vindictively, or with premeditation against average citizens so long as what they do is done within their authority. The inevitable result is that daily in courts throughout the land the adage “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” is proven again and again and citizen victims have no effective recourse or remedy.

Neither major political party has any incentive whatsoever to change any of this because they can so easily deploy one “interest” against another so as to deflect any and all expectation of good faith governance and thus remain where they are until they decide to retire from “the game”. “We, the people” have given over the “levers of power” so gradually that we are like the lobster being cooked by raising the temperature of the one degree per day.

Since “our representatives” are no longer accountable to us in any meaningful manner, is it any wonder they have ceased to listen to or even consider “our” interests in short or long term? Until such day as we unite and again claim back the powers our founding fathers bequeathed us, and which we have allowed to steadily slip away, we shall have no better and we deserve no better.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

I love Tocqueville, and anything that encourages anyone to read him is of value, but to suggest that:

“He bequeathed to us the belief in American “exceptionalism”

is just lame. There is no need for this type of poor scholarship.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

Strangely, there isn’t much evidence that the framers of the Constitution ever intended “our representatives” to be accountable to us, other than at election time, and only members of the lower house at that. Senators were originally chosen by state legislatures.

And even in Madison’s day, there had to be some suspicion that maybe not all of those august bodies were houses of thorough moral rectitude.

Participatory democracy works best in settings where the stakes aren’t terribly high, and the participants have a lot in common. A few New England townships, mainly. Where bigger financial interests are affected, as in some of the California proposition frenzies, it’s every bit as inspiring as a presidential primary campaign.

The measure of any government should be how well it works with people as they are, not with people as we think they ought to be. Churchill had it right: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

Posted by maximillianwyse | Report as abusive