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.