The Capacity for Self-Government

Alexis de Tocqueville arrived in the United States in the late spring of 1831. His official business was an investigation of American prison reforms as a potential model for France, but his gaze was considerably broader and deeper. Tocqueville’s nine-month visit resulted in Democracy in America, a towering achievement that looms even larger in a time like ours, when political attention spans seem to last no longer than the latest trending topic.

This post, intended as the first in a series, attempts to consider today’s controversies through a Tocquevillian filter—which is to say from the standpoint of what makes the difference in whether we live our lives in freedom, civility, and prosperity, or in mankind’s default misery.

Back then there was much to observe on the national political landscape that could have consumed Tocqueville’s attention. In 1832 there was a presidential election, and it was a clash of antebellum titans: Henry Clay, then of the National Republican Party, against the incumbent Andrew Jackson. One could easily have focused on the equivalent of today’s typical debate question: “Henry has called Andrew a mere military chieftain. John [Quincy Adams] said something similar. What do you think, Thomas [Hart Benton]?”

Or, Tocqueville might have attempted to make sense of the constitutional crisis emerging during his visit over the federal “tariff of abominations,” which the South Carolina legislature would declare void not long after he returned to France. In the same way, one might start a discussion about President Obama’s serial efforts to expand executive power beyond any recognizable boundaries—a good discussion to have, if not comprehensive enough to address the troubles of our day.

What Tocqueville did, rather than choosing between the high partisan debate over the tariff and nullification, or the low partisan debate over Jackson’s fitness for office, was inquire into the nature of American democracy itself. He saw it as part of a 700-year movement in the broader European world toward the equality of conditions, a providential fact to be reckoned with, whatever one’s private views on democracy. For Tocqueville, democracy was more than a method of selecting leaders. Its overarching  claims would tear down the most firmly established political and social orders, reconstituting fundamental institutions like the church and the family, and carrying all arguments concerning justice before it.

Tocqueville shows us the full reach of democracy to dignify and elevate human choice. When we speak today of the trajectory of history or the claims of democracy, we do so far too often for insincere partisan purposes, reasoning backward from our conclusion to give the moment’s mission a grandeur it so rarely deserves and acting as if history and philosophy are but tools of ideology, rather than its principal correctives. We limit rather than liberate.

Tocqueville’s effort presupposes that one can examine the ideas and artifacts of political history, and arrive at a faithful likeness to the truth. He never denies that partisanship is a necessary part of politics, but shows that it is essential to examine politics philosophically. In his time, politics was in danger of being reduced to mere partisanship; in ours, the reduction to partisanship is even that much more pronounced.

The author of Democracy in America was aware that his approach was not likely to earn him instant popularity: “I finish by pointing out myself what a great number of readers will consider as the capital defect of the work.” The defect? That “This book follows in no one’s train exactly; by writing it I did not mean either to serve or to combat any party; I set about to see, not differently, but farther than parties; and while they are concerned with the next day, I wanted to think about the future.”

What did the future hold? First and foremost, a wide array of opportunities for common people to shape their political future like never before. More and more, men in a democratic age could examine and judge matters of public consequence—evaluating even the merits of democracy itself. Yet this new authority would come with no promise that they would be able to see and to judge things well. “The future liberty of the species” depended upon democratic citizens getting politics right.

With so much at stake, the Frenchman came here to study the place where the democratic revolution had advanced the farthest—that is, where he might see the flower while his native country yet revealed only the shoot. Never in doubt as to who would win among the friends and foes of democracy, he hoped to shape the type of victory won—to “instruct,” “revive,” “purify,” “regulate,” and “modify” the French democracy.

Our (hyper-)partisans do not divide today over the merits of democracy, yet their unwillingness to examine democracy carefully, never mind to “instruct,” “revive,” “purify,” “regulate,” and “modify” it, has all but disarmed us in the battle for responsible self-government. Tocqueville, looking past the parties, shows us how to take human sight and judgment seriously and how, albeit imperfectly, to direct them in ways that make democracy a more certain blessing.

Today’s dysfunctional politics is much less likely to be improved by the next Twitter zinger, clever set of talking points, or even thoughtful working paper than an effort to restore the moral seriousness to our political choices—to remind ourselves that the case for democracy rests on the capacity of mankind of self-government, and that the capacity of mankind for self-government is as much an empirical claim as a political dogma.