I was struck by this sentence in D'Souza's Forbes piece because it seemed, well, not very Tocquevillian to me:
A half-century [after the Founders] Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of America as creating "a distinct species of mankind." This is known as American exceptionalism.
Did Tocqueville actually claim that America created "a distinct species of mankind," a new and different "species" of human being, superior to those who had come before? Here is the passage D'Souza is referring to, from Democracy In America:
[Americans] have all a lively faith in the perfectibility of man; they judge that the diffusion of knowledge must necessarily be advantageous, and the consequences of ignorance fatal; they all consider society as a body in a state of improvement, humanity as a changing scene, in which nothing is, or ought to be, permanent; and they admit that what appears to them to-day to be good, may be superseded by something better to-morrow. I do not give all these opinions as true, but as American opinions.
The Anglo-Americans are not only united by these common opinions, but they are separated from all other nations by a feeling of pride. For the last fifty years, no pains have been spared to convince the inhabitants of the United States that they are the only religious, enlightened, and free people. They perceive that, for the present, their own democratic institutions prosper, whilst those of other countries fail; hence they conceive a high opinion of their superiority, and are not very remote from believing themselves to be a distinct species of mankind. Thus, the dangers which threaten the American Union do not originate in diversity of interests or of opinions; but in the various characters and passions of the Americans.
My italics. You will notice that, pace d'Souza, far from Tocqueville asserting that Americans were a "distinct species of mankind", he was saying that Americans
are not very remote from believing themselves to be a distinct species of mankind.
And it is clear that this is, for him, if anything, a moral criticism - the gentle sarcasm of the passage above is unmissable - not an endorsement of a fact.
De Tocqueville was an educated and wise man who deeply admired and was fascinated by many aspects of American culture and democracy. But he was under no illusions that human nature had somehow changed across the Atlantic, and was a critic of what he saw as American democratic cultural mediocrity. He was an aristocrat, and a profound admirer of England, and the English constitution, as any reader of his other masterpiece, The Ancien Regime And The Revolution would understand. Tocqueville also did not see America as uniquely destined for world domination in the nineteenth century:
"There are now two great nations in the world, which starting from different points, seem to be advancing toward the same goal: the Russians and the Anglo-Americans... Each seems called by some secret design of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world."
So D'Souza simply gets de Tocqueville wrong. Providence was not uniquely American. It was Anglo-American ... and Russian! And he was above all a French patriot who wanted his own country to prosper by learning from the examples of others.
And this is not a trivial matter. For what the new right has come to assert as empirical fact is that Americans are actually a distinct species of mankind, that America has a divine blessing not bestowed on any other countries, that its inherent specialness means that if Americans torture, for example, it is somehow not torture; that if Americans invade a country, it is never an invasion but always a liberation; that if Americans occupy a foreign country for a decade, it is not an occupation; and so on.
This kind of nationalism is dangerous. It is not patriotism. It is not pride in the exceptional history and constitution of the US, which Obama has expressed and, in many ways, exemplifies. It is a kind of national idolatry in order to justify anything America does, and to demonize anyone, like Tocqueville and Obama and any educated person, who sees the imperfection and flaws of America, as well its immense and enduring and specific virtues.
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