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Tocqueville's America

The French author's piquant observations on American gumption and political hypocrisy sound remarkably contemporary 200 years after his birth

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Few nations can muster the unity of Americans in times of crisis, as was shown in the aftermath of 9/11. But Tocqueville found another side to that unity. In America, he noted, "the majority erects a formidable barrier around thought. Within the limits thus laid down, the writer is free, but woe unto him who dares to venture beyond those limits....He must face all sorts of unpleasantness and daily persecution....In the end, he gives in, he bends under the burden of such unremitting effort and retreats into silence, as if he felt remorse for having spoken the truth." (One thinks of the vitriolic attacks on the writer Susan Sontag for suggesting that the 9/11 hijackers were not cowards, and deploring the "unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators.")

Indeed, the landscape has perennially been littered with politicians who could attest to the truth of Tocqueville's insight, from Barry Goldwater in 1964 to Howard Dean in 2004. But some things do change: Tocqueville would have been amazed at the blogosphere, where absolutely nobody retreats into silence.

Still, to Americans accustomed to celebrating their independence and freedom, it must come as a stinging surprise to read Tocqueville's observation that he knew "of no country where there is in general less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America." Of course, in the 1830s, a pro-emancipation visitor might have hesitated to express his views in the U.S. South. But there are places in the United States today where one might hesitate to voice loudly an unpopular opinion; what with today's partisan divide, red-state views are seldom heard in blue states.

Like Shakespeare, Tocqueville speaks anew to each generation—and, as with Shakespeare, support can be found in his pages for a multitude of opinions. During the cold war, Tocqueville's perspicacity was much admired by political conservatives, who cited his ringing declaration that "the American's principal means of action is liberty; the Russian's servitude.

"Their points of departure are different, their ways diverse. Yet each seems called by a secret design of Providence some day to sway the destinies of half the globe." But his observations about war would likely cause many liberals (among others) to nod in agreement: "I predict that any warrior prince who may arise in a great democratic nation will find it easier to lead the army to conquest than to make it live in peace after victory...."

A practicing Catholic, Tocqueville was struck by the religious aspect of the United States, which he judged to be far more dutiful than in France. He discussed this with members of all sects, and especially the Roman Catholic clergy, and found that "to a man they assigned primary credit for the peaceful ascendancy of religion in their country to the complete separation of church and state." Thus, he wrote, "As long as a religion rests solely on sentiments that console man in his misery, it can win the affection of the human race." But Tocqueville also cautioned: "Religion cannot share the material might of those who govern without incurring some of the hatred they inspire."

Sometimes it seems as if Tocqueville's piquant observations on political hypocrisy were about the Washington of today. He dryly noted both the growth of government and calls for its downsizing, and bemoaned the influence of special interests. As he observed, "There are always a host of men....[who] accept the general principle that the public authorities should not intervene in private affairs, but each of them seeks, as an exception to this rule, help in the affair that is of special concern to him and tries to interest the government in acting in that area while continuing to ask that its actions in other areas be restricted."

But despite Tocqueville's awareness of flaws and paradoxes in the U.S. system, Democracy in America is optimistic, admiring, even flattering. "I saw in America more than America," he wrote. "It was the shape of Democracy itself which I saw."

Of course, his critics maintain that he is wordy, repetitive and wrong on several counts—for instance, his prediction of a bloody war between blacks and whites in the South. (Though the Civil War perhaps came close enough to vindicating him.) But for me, seeing the United States through Tocqueville's eyes illuminated issues—the potential tyranny of the majority—that are more important today than ever. Through that tireless young Frenchman's eyes I at last understood my new homeland, and was able to take the final step toward embracing it without reservation.

 

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