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Putting Tocqueville's Remedies into Practice

Ewa Atanassow’s Tocqueville’s Dilemmas, and Ours: Sovereignty, Nationalism, Globalization is modest, yet aspirational and bold. Dedicated to her parents “who tried to hold together an impossible world” and to her daughter “hoping she might succeed,” her book is defined by an interest in Tocqueville’s theory and how his practice of politics enlightens three modern democratic dilemmas: popular sovereignty, nationhood, and globalization. 

The book, while addressing substantive issue areas, is simultaneously (and just as crucially to the overall project) an exercise in political moderation and a vindication of moderate political theorizing. Atanassow sees this present moment as an “illiberal moment,” though illiberalism is not the exclusive province of any one party. Right and Left alike “draw on current dissatisfactions with the political status quo” to contest both concrete public policies and the principles undergirding liberalism, each “[appealing] to democratic ideals” as they go. 

Atanassow argues that “a programmatic resistance to seeing the world through a Manichaean lens of stark binaries distinguishes liberal democracy from illiberal variants.” However, is it only liberal democracy and liberal democrats that are capable of a politics of prudence that requires “[weighing] competing, often incommensurable goods and corresponding dangers”? I imagine she would answer no. Therefore, what she ventures as a defense of liberal democracy well-understood is at times something broader. It is a vindication of a certain kind of politics she considers to be under threat. This politics is principled yet admits “the lack of ready-to-hand ideological answers.” It understands the trade-offs and “careful consideration and balanced judgment” required to bring theories into contact with political reality. 

Tocqueville, “a pioneering theorist of both liberal democracy and its illiberal others,” can speak to this broader conception of politics too. Despite Tocqueville’s aspirations, he was (and remains) generally recognized as an ineffectual politician. Political science, he once said, is “founded on the very nature of man, on his interests, on his faculties, on his needs as revealed by philosophy and history, on his instincts, which change their objects according to the times without changing their nature.” The “art of government” meanwhile is the “practical and militant politics that struggles against the difficulties of each day,” and “practice is often removed from theory, to excel at one is no reason at all to succeed in the other.” That said, man may “change a great deal in aspect according to the individual and the times,” but his nature is consistent and the pressing dilemmas he faces are generally enduring questions dressed in contemporary garb.  

Nationalism emerges out of the need for nations to “crystallize” their particularities in a world driven toward universal conformity.

The book therefore seeks to “bring Tocqueville’s insights to bear on the trials of the present” and model a Tocquevillian political theory that recognizes and responds to enduring tensions within democracy, liberalism, and liberal democracy without seeking either to resolve them perfectly or to force a choice. 

Atanassow structures the three central chapters—on popular sovereignty, nationalism, and globalization —round reconstructions of Tocqueville’s theory and case studies of his theory in practice. Recently, scholars have turned to excavating the relationship between Tocqueville’s philosophy—Democracy in America and The Ancien Regime and the Revolution—and his writings as a politician-cum-policy wonk, on topics ranging from abolition to welfare and industrial reform, to continental and international politics. 

As Atanassow stresses, Tocqueville emphasized the “irreducibility of the middle term” between universal and particular. However, the providential march of democracy encourages us to think universally. While conducive to equality, this works against diversity and therefore freedom. The relationship between the “universalist principle of equality” and popular sovereignty, predicated on the existence of particular communities, is therefore the first of the three substantive areas she examines and the ground of the other two. Glossing Tocqueville’s account of the dogma of popular sovereignty in Democracy in America, she concludes that Tocquevillian democratic sovereignty is not merely about security and economic prosperity, but rather it is “inseparable” from a people’s self-understanding, from “questions of identity and feelings of belonging,” hence the importance of a shared moral foundation. 

This leads her to nationalism and nationhood. Nationhood “is the ethos that defines a given society and grounds its constitutional order” and is necessary for every society – aristocratic or democratic – “in order to exist.”  In democracies, the ways of life that undergird nationhood are set by the “moral vision of the majority.” Unlike nationhood, nationalism, she argues, is distinctly modern and “only possible in an egalitarian society.” 

Atanassow develops Tocqueville’s account of participatory democracy and the “spirit of the city” as an antidote to both individualism and to the darker sides of national pride. Pride is inevitable, “an integral aspect of the human condition… a theme that runs through all of his works.” What democratic nations must avoid, it seems, is an “identity crisis” born out of too much or too little pride in national identity. Proper national pride must be both stimulated and “above all instructed.” As the chapter’s case study demonstrates, this is of particular importance on the international stage, particularly but not exclusively in theaters of war. 

This is because trade may be war by other means. Globalization, the last dilemma she turns to, reflects a market-driven process of assimilation akin to what Tocqueville observed as the effects of the equality of conditions. Nationalism emerges out of the need for nations to “crystallize” their particularities in a world driven toward universal conformity; globalization is one face of that drive. It is in this chapter where Atanassow most thoroughly addresses Tocqueville’s approach to international relations, colonization, and the clash of Western European colonizers with non-white cultures. As she does so, she highlights how Tocqueville offers a “direct riposte to Montesquieu” and “anticipates” Marx and Engels in demonstrating that “trade was more efficient than military violence in dispersing and annihilating native cultures” – including that of the Native Americans in the United States. 

This is perhaps one of the more fascinating insights she offers: “Calling into question a fundamental tenet of classical political economy, his American analysis prompts us to recognize the destructiveness of economic affairs on human diversity. It suggests that in the realm of international relations, trade could be equally – perhaps more – devastating than war.” Trade is war by other means. 

Citizens, by living together, must be the origin of “ongoing efforts to sustain the sense of common fellowship and to reimagine ‘We the People.’” 

This is not a libertarian Tocqueville advocating doux commerce, but a Tocqueville conscious of trade’s trade-offs for national identity and national security. Tocqueville’s view of future history seems less the end of history and a triumph of liberal internationalism, than one of ongoing contestation involving both “global convergence” and “recurrent differentiation.” Therefore, the “global democratizing process” should not be considered “synonymous with Westernization.” Tocqueville is content to live with contestation, because the tensions flow from “anthropological givens” of human equality and difference. 

She leaves, however, the best for last. The high stakes of applying Atanassow’s approach to Tocqueville become even clearer in the final chapter, where she addresses Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s widely acclaimed 2018 How Democracies Die. While affirming their “multiple affinities” with Tocqueville, she offers a critique of their account of democratic backsliding: “While assuming that democracy is worth saving, Levitsky and Ziblatt omit to explain why this is the case or indeed what it is they mean by ‘democracy.’” By asking elites to “stop treating each other as enemies and to embrace the spirit of cooperation and compromise,” Atanassow writes, Levitsky and Ziblatt think backsliding can be stopped and democracy saved. She rebuts: 

And yet, can a society whose health signally depends on the civility and enlightened will of elites be properly called democratic? If one questions that ‘the people’ can have the power to shape their government, in what sense is one still a defender of democracy? Is it possible to defend democratic norms or work toward their preservation yet deny popular agency and the responsibility that comes with it? 

She urges us to face questions “Levitsky and Ziblatt gesture at but leave out”: what liberal democracy is, why it deserves preservation, and what underlying assumptions make it possible or desirable. Tocqueville helps us with this because, like many today, he takes as a starting point that “democracy has come to be viewed as the only legitimate political order,” but he recognizes better than many today that “democracy and liberalism are analytically and historically distinct.” Their union is conditional. It does not serve the cause of fighting against liberal democratic backsliding to conflate the two. 

In light of Levitsky and Ziblatt, Atanassow then restates her case for a Tocquevillian approach to contemporary dilemmas. Liberal democracy requires both diversity and equality, though the progress of equality often means a “loss of a shared sense of membership” which is a “sine qua non” of the political community. The “shared sense of being part of the same people” is fundamental to political solidarity but it is also deeply human. Political movements which stress national pride do not have to be dangers to liberal democracy but can instead offer “[opportunities] for its renewal” in the chance to tell and retell stories of nationhood. This requires, however, that liberal democrats tell good stories, stories that reflect and respect both equality and particularity. 

Lastly, if a liberal world order requires something like “substantive integration” of nations, rather than respect of national identities, it would entail “a significant encroachment on or the abolition” of national freedom and dignity. The “technocratic governance” likely necessary to achieve uniform compliance to universal, shared ideals means a shrinking “space for choice and action” that erodes democratic politics. “The great threat Tocqueville points to is not only the tyranny of this or that particular formation, or local outbreaks of illiberalism, but a global discrediting of the sovereignty of peoples and of democratic politics as such. Globalism then, no less than nationalism, is a source of moral and political danger.” She therefore aims to revindicate, on liberal democratic grounds, the importance of the nation against the demands of globalism and technocratic government.  

She concludes that a better liberal politics would not try to do away with these problems, for to do so would be “undesirable and inevitably inhumane,” nor would such a politics rest its hopes on the leadership of elites, as she suggests Levitsky and Ziblatt do (whatever sympathies Tocqueville would also have with the project of elite formation). Atanassow’s solution, to the degree she offers one, is far more democratic and far less programmatic. Citizens, by living together, must be the origin of “ongoing efforts to sustain the sense of common fellowship and to reimagine ‘We the People.’” 

To some, this may be a profoundly unsatisfactory solution. Then again, she does not intend to solve these problems decisively. Like the theory and politics she aims to model, it is modest in its ambitions. It does not deal in black and white and is by design not programmatic. However, in aspiring to maintain scope for nations to negotiate their own answers to these modern democratic dilemmas, Atanassow’s solution is refreshing, striking, and quietly bold.