Can We Still Hear Tocqueville?

BY SHELDON WOLIN
THE STRANGE LIBERALISM OF ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE
byRoger Boesche. Cornell University Press, $29.95.
THE BICENTENARY of the American Constitution is an embarrassing reminder that over the centuries only two acknowledged classics of political theory about “the world’s oldest democracy” have appeared. One is The Federalist, the other Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Neither was the work of an American citizen. The first was written before the Constitution had been ratified by all the states and hence before the category of American national citizenship was invented. The second was composed by a Frenchman for French readers.
These two classics have been established as the authoritative texts for the understanding of a constitutional republic—that is, of a political system that incorporates democratic forms while restricting popular power. Along with the Constitution they have formed a curriculum that has given several generations of Americans a political education with distrust of direct democracy at its core. Accordingly, the official celebration of the bicentennial of The Federalist and the Constitution and the recent sesquicentennial of Tocqueville’s Democracy are a celebration not so much of democracy but of its attenuation. In fact, although all three works were about limiting majority rule, only Democracy was for encouraging popular participation.
Tocqueville’s ideas do not, indeed, sit comfortably within the canon. Although not a disturbing writer like, say, Hobbes, Rousseau, Marx, or Foucault, he remains a remarkably perceptive one, possibly because he was the quintessential Fox, the thinker who sees many different things, often from unexpected angles. But he was also an uncharacteristic Fox, who sought always for the larger panorama, whether in his great narrative about how the Old Regime had worked to destroy itself before the revolution of 1789, or in the first epic of America, which marveled at the contrasts in a land where the “power of material prosperity over political behavior, and even over opinions too” was unprecedented, and yet “it is impossible to prevent men assembling, getting excited together, and forming sudden passionate resolves.” His genius was the moral seriousness that he brought to politics. He was possibly the last great modern writer to believe passionately in the dignity and intrinsic value of political life.
Unfortunately, Tocqueville’s Democracy has become a kind of civics manual for oligarchic rule with a democratic face, which it unifies and soothes by demonstrating that political success is the result of the high-mindedness of the few and the moderation of the many. Oligarchs have favored Tocqueville because of his basic presupposition that at its best democracy will produce mediocrity rather than excellence, “less glory, “less wretchedness,” “pleasures . . . less extreme, but well-being more general,” fewer great intellectual achievements but less “ignorance,”and “more vices and fewer crimes.” Oligarchs like the idea of a mediocre democracy because they can then assume the garb of “elites” and pose as the defenders of excellence. They can, as well, savor a moderate pessimism that does not demand radical change but allows them to deplore big government and the decline of participation, the excessive greed, the destruction of nature, the corruption of Indians, and the enslavement of blacks that are deplored by Tocqueville—and yet not recognize that there is anything profoundly problematic about the “experiment" so long as morality tames the “habits of the heart.” Many commentators have expressed the oligarchic consensus about Tocqueville by professing to find the “real” puzzle in his remark that he was a “liberal of a new kind.” This provides the occasion for a sharp (but hardly pointed) dispute over whether Tocqueville was a “conservative liberal” or a “liberal conservative”—which is a reasonable facsimile of what passes for soul-searching among American political intellectuals today.
IN THE STRANGE Liberalism of Alexis de Tocqueville, Roger Boesche gives his answer by exploring Tocqueville’s ideas in relation to the categories of liberal and conservative as these emerged in the first half of the nineteenth century. As the title of his workmanlike study suggests, he finds deep ambivalences and concludes that Tocqueville was ideologically unclassifiable and thus that there is need for a new category—“strange liberalism.” Boesche takes the strangeness of Tocqueville’s liberalism to mean the coexistence within it of liberal and non-liberal elements. While Tocqueville believed in the liberal commonplaces of his time—individual rights and legal protection, constitutional restraints on state power, the sanctity of property, abhorrence of socialism, and the blessings of liberty—he also despised the bourgeoisie, lamented the ill effects of commerce on political life, worried about the declining influence of religion on politics, emphasized the importance of tradition, extolled an occasional dose of warfare as a tonic for flabby times, distrusted a society based on individualism, and deplored a politics dominated by self-interest. Some of these non-liberal elements Boesche attributes to Tocqueville’s aristocratic genealogy; other elements, such as Tocquevilie’s advocacy of political participation, he ascribes to a combination of Rousseau’s influence and the example of New England town meetings.
Boesche wants to establish Tocqueville less as the theorist of American democracy than as a thinker shaped primarily by the concerns he shared with a roughly contemporary Romantic generation of literary figures such as Chateaubriand, Stendhal, Balzac, Musset, and Baudelaire. Their common concerns were loneliness, anxiety, homelessness, powerlessness, hostility toward the culture of the bourgeoisie and contempt for its political aptitude, and a longing for heroes. Boesche contends that Tocqueville’s conception of freedom occupied the center of his vision of politics and represented his hope for an alternative to what he perceived as the two dominant political tendencies of the day. One was centripetal, toward the subordination political and social life to a statecentered administration. The other was centrifugal, represented by the self-centered individualism that capitalism had spawned. While these tendencies seemed to be opposites, they were actually interdependent. Tocqueville feared that the two together might amount to a new despotism: in return for legitimating the acquisitiveness of the bourgeoisie the state would become an apolitical society of “self-seekers practicing a narrow individualism and caring nothing for the public good.” Contrary to what some readers have thought, Tocqueville associated despotism not with tyranny of the majority but with bourgeois greed and self-interest.
As Boesche skillfully shows, Tocqueville thought that by drawing men away from public concerns, a commercial society deepens the peculiarly modern malaise of a profound sense of individual helplessness in the face of tremendous social forces. Individuals are then ready to surrender an active political life in exchange for an administrative Leviathan that promises benevolent protection. Modern despotism would depend less on coercion by a master than on withdrawal by the citizens. Tocqueville’s alternative was participatory politics based on voluntary associations and local institutions. The practice of self-government, he reasoned, would draw individuals from the cocoon of private interests, sensitize them to common concerns, and form a new civic consciousness synthesizing the public and the private good.
Boesche’s work is a model of fairmindedness, and his analysis of Tocquevillean despotism is a distinct contribution. Unfortunately, certain methodological scruples inhibit the book and cause it to trail off uncertainly. Boesche promises us a Tocqueville who is “exciting and full of insight,” “an enticing and original thinker” who lets us “see our own world anew, with fresh eyes.” Then he takes it back, however, warning that while Tocqueville “speaks to us and to our problems,” he does not speak “with our language.” The language that Tocqueville does speak, according to Boesche, is that of French Romantic literature. His ideas are inevitably tied, therefore, to “the anxieties and aspirations of his own generation.” In accepting as dogma the intellectual historian’s insistence upon riveting ideas to their historical context, Boesche produces an implicit determinism that reduces ideas to being functions of their contexts. What is lost is Tocqueville’s theory. In its place are particular disconnected ideas that, when juxtaposed, seem unoriginal and “strange.” The promised connection between Tocqueville’s ideas and our world is never forged.
TOCQUEVILLE’S CENTRAL and abiding preoccupation was revolution. Like many persons of his age and especially of his class, he found the great revolution of 1789 at once traumatic and epic. It had cleft the world into two worlds: one past, the other present; one based on tradition, hierarchy, privilege, and inherited inequality, the other aspiring to rational politics, formal political equality, social meritocracy, and economic freedom. The death and transfiguration of the Old World he traced in his later masterpiece, The Old Regime and the French Revolution. The creation of the New World was the major theme of Democracy in America. Both works are tense with ambivalence, for despite his protestations Tocqueville was determined to retrieve something of value from the Old World. As his mentor, the famous historian Guizot, told him, “You judge ‘democracy’ like an aristocrat who has been vanquished, and is convinced that his conqueror is right.”
Others before Tocqueville bad described American political institutions and commented upon the manners of America’s citizens. What he did was to see in America the embodiment of the modern longing for a fresh beginning and a fair start for all amid infinite possibilities. He was the first to wrestle with the spectacle of a “new” society, the first to deal connectedly with the extraordinary size and natural wealth of America, with its seemingly endless land and open space, its individualism and loneliness, its disdain for authority but deference to majority opinion, its egalitarian social conditions and new aristocracy of industrialists (“one of the hardest that have appeared”), its republican legalism and democratic politics, its restless mobility and stable morality, and its reckless experimentation and love of novelty coupled with a deference to rigid political and religious notions transported from the Old World.
But he went further. “I admit,” he wrote, “that I saw in America more than America; it was the shape of democracy itself which I sought, its inclinations, character, prejudices, and passions. . . .” America was the setting where the dangers and possibilities of modern politics could be most clearly seen. Tocqueville saw in America the political project of the modern unbound self, freed from the inhibitions of tradition, inherited status, and social hierarchies and dominated by “its own inclinations with hardly any restraint on its instincts. . . .”
If, to use a later vocabulary, America seemed to be all id but flourishing nonetheless, where was superego? What combination of elements had prevented America from realizing the fate that properly belonged to libidinous democracy? How had America tamed democracy while in part realizing it?
In contrast to the smart set in today’s America, who portray democracy as an anachronism, as an irrational force that threatens national decision-making, Tocqueville associated democracy with the new and modern, the wave of the future; it was “providential fact.” Tocqueville reasoned that America was, like France, the creature of modern revolution; but unlike France, whose path to modernity was through the rejection of its feudal past, America had no ancien regime to destroy, only free institutions to preserve. France’s course had produced recurrent instability and two Bonapartist dictatorships. Thus feudalism seemed to be a natural barrier to despotism, and America seemed somehow to have hit on the formula. And so Tocqueville’s quest was for the “feudal” principles and practices that had saved the NewWorld from its populist self. His task became to contain the future, to modify democracy’s natural tendency toward egalitarian resentment tempered by incompetence. This produced a rhetorical strategy of appealing from the modern to the pre-modern, from a democratic world struggling to be born to, we might say, an aristocratic pre-modern world struggling to die. The quest produced a text that was as much a political critique of modernity as it was of democracy.
The first step in Tocqueville’s strategy was to analyze America not as the fulfillment of a revolutionary ideology but as a blend that included counter-revolutionary ingredients. Thus local self-government was portrayed as a counterweight to democracy; it had existed in the colonies before egalitarianism appeared. Egalitarianism, in turn, represented a leveling urge that naturally favored a strong central administration, which would treat everyone uniformly. But America was rescued from the consequences of modern egalitarianism by the pre-modern practices of local selfgovernment and communal self-help, as well as by the ingrained respect accorded to an unofficial aristocracy of lawyers and judges. Above all, America was profoundly lucky in not having the most crucial agent of modernization, a centralized state.
While political theory had traditionally treated democracy as a form of political power organized by and for the interests of the demos, Tocqueville adopted essentially conservative categories, many of them derived from Montesquieu, Burke, and the anti-liberal strain in Rousseau, and used them to redefine democracy to mean a political culture. Political culture stood for something deeper, more truly constitutive than formal political arrangements; it was what made institutions succeed or fail. The deep culture of American democracy consisted of social habits; religious, political, and moral beliefs; traditions of self-government; property rights; and customary institutions. All worked to modify and constrain the modernizing tendencies of democracy. By developing a self-repressive version of democracy America had rendered democracy safe for the world.
Thus America was the freest and most fickle society that had ever existed: men could roam to the point of exhaustion without meeting another soul. Similarly, they could rapidly move up or down the social scale and yet not establish any durable or inherited social privileges or status. The impulse toward change was also marked among American legislators: laws were revised at a rate that staggered Europeans. Everything American seemed limitless, a symbol of infinitude: its space, its resources, its energy, its possibilities, its freedom. But, Tocqueville insisted, change was mostly confined to superficial matters, for “while the law allows the American people to do everything, there are things which religion prevents them from imagining and forbids them to dare.”
AN ANCIENT CHRISTIAN writer once asked, “What is Athens to Jerusalem?” We might ask, What is Tocqueville’s beloved New England town meeting to Wall Street in the 1980s? The obvious reply is, Not much. If Tocqueville does not speak the contemporary language, it is because our language is appropriate to an inverted democracy, for Tocqueville, democracy was the dominant ideology of a sovereign majority. Today it is an opiate prescribed by a minority for a citizenry imagined to be as nostalgic and depoliticized as the sudsy camaraderie of a beer commercial. Instead of being the dominant force of an engulfing modernity that can be restrained only by archaic practices and beliefs, democracy is itself the archaicelement, wholly out of place in the hightech world of corporate takeovers and golden parachutes. If democracy has declined from representing modernity to representing archaism, from sovereignty to sentimentality, the oligarchic element has shed its archaic character to become post-modern: it is now meritocratic, technocratic, and managerial. Post-modern order is beginning to resemble Tocquevilie’s vision of modern despotism: “an immense, protective power . . . fatherlike . . . [keeping all] in perpetual childhood . . . the citizens quit their state of dependence just long enough to choose their masters. ...”
Tocqueville’s He’s image of a centralized and benevolent administration might mislead a contemporary reader into believing that the problem is the welfare state. It is in part that, but understood as social discipline rather than social welfare. What we are witnessing now in the panic over AIDS, drug abuse, teenage sex, and espionage is the reconstitution of society, or “private life,” into an active agency of public power. The Reagan Administration’s rhetoric about “voluntary agencies" is not about the Red Cross or church socials or spare kidneys, nor is the “privatization” of public services an attempt to decentralize political power. The neglect of public education and the encouragement of private schooling, the rise of the private healthcare industry, and the growth of private law enforcement and the construction and administration of prisons for private profit amount to an overwhelming vote of confidence in the ability of the private sector to cooperate with the official state in accomplishing the ends of political power: providing services while extending control, and extracting the ingredients of power (natural and human resources) from a citizenry fearful of being marginalized by continuous technological innovation and international competition. Tocqueville does speak our language, but unfortunately it is getting more and more difficult to hear.