TOCQUEVILLE 2012: Quick Thoughts on the 175th Anniversary of What’s Still the Best Book on Who We Americans Are.
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote the best book ever written on America and the best book ever written on DEMOCRACY. The first volume was published in 1835, the second in 1840.
Alexis de Tocqueville was born into a French aristocratic family after the French revolution that had overthrown the French hereditary aristocracy and replaced it with various forms of republics and empires.
So Tocqueville lived in a kind of privileged moment. He could look back to the aristocracy and aristocrats with all their virtues and vices, and he could look forward to the progress of democracy and democrats with all its virtues and vices. His greatness as a writer was being an aristocratic critic of democracy and a democratic critic of aristocracy.
He wasn’t quite as fair-and-balanced as, say, FOX news. He thought that aristocracy excelled at individual greatness, and democracy excelled at justice—at reflecting politically the truth that all human beings are born equal, a truth he thought was introduced into the world by Christianity.
Tocqueville finally chooses democracy over aristocracy, for two reasons. Whatever his personal views, it’s clear enough that the will of our Creator—reflected in what we really know about who we are—is on the side of justice over greatness. And, in any case, the future is with democracy. There’s no going back to aristocracy, because aristocracy depended on illusions about who we are that we now know are untrue.
There’s no going back, we now know, even to the wonderful world of DOWNTON ABBEY, where the servants, some of them at least, with respect and even some love served their Lord as their natural superior. No one, we democrats know, deserves to rule over another on the basis of allegedly superior virtue, just as we now know that it’s degrading for an employer to treat an employee with the paternalism of a Lord. We just can’t believe in Lords and such today, although we’re still classy enough—ladies and gentlemen enough– to cringe when tabloid photographers knock themselves out trying to catch members of the English royal family with their clothes off.
So the job of the political actor and the political writer is to make democracy as compatible as possible with human liberty—with liberty understood as the flourishing of the various forms of human individuality or human excellence.
Tocqueville came to America because he heard it was the most democratic place in the world—and so the place where the future is most clearly found. He had also heard that in America, contrary to the fears of all those European aristocrats, democracy and liberty actually work well together.
Here’s what Tocqueville found in America, to his surprise. Everyone is middle-class. That doesn’t mean everyone has the same amount of money and other material resources. In a middle-class country there’s plenty of economic inequality, but the point is most of that inequality is very temporary. The economic wheel of fortune is spinning all the time, and so hardly anyone is really secure—like the aristocrats used to be—in their wealth and social status. So one thing among many that makes the Occupy movement these days so lame is our top 1% is mostly stuck in a constantly revolving door.
So from an aristocratic view: Being middle-class is both good news and bad news.
The good news: Everyone is free in a way that only aristocrats once were. Nobody can tell you how to live or what to do.
The bad news: Everyone has to work. There’s no leisure class that feeds off the work of others. You are, of course, technically free not work, if you’re willing to embrace the freedom not to eat.
So in America we’re free like aristocrats to work like slaves. Well, not exactly like slaves of course, because we’re all working for ourselves. Nobody’s above and nobody’s below having to work for himself.
The Americans, we can say, are very judgmental about work.
That why Tocqueville was able to notice that the love of money animates every human heart in America. He didn’t mean that mainly as a criticism. If everyone loves money, then everyone will knock him- or herself out earning some through work. And if everyone works hard, the country will get really rich, richer than any place in the world ever had been.
Maybe what was most amazing—in a good way—about America to Tocqueville is that he had never seen a whole people both so free and so prosperous and living in such comfortable circumstances.
Not only that, it’s just, up to a certain point at least, that everyone has to care about money. A middle-class country, we can say, is a meritocracy based on productivity. The history of America is caring less and less about race, class, gender and so forth, less about who you are in terms of background and all, and more and more about what you can actually do for yourself.
So Tocqueville concludes that when it comes to PROSPERITY and JUSTICE you can’t beat America. And so other countries actually ought to imitate America. On these two fronts, other countries have in fact imitated America. There are differences between European social democracies and the American middle-class democracy with a minimalist welfare state. But the differences aren’t that great—certainly the causes of the shared prosperity (even today) and the principles of justice are similar, if not identical.
There are always downsides. Consider education. Tocqueville observed that, in America, almost everyone had a primary education. Everyone could read and write. Those basic skills were indispensable for everyone who has to work for himself. But Tocqueville also found no higher education worth noticing in America. The American mind itself had become middle-class—existing somewhere in between ignorant illiteracy and high culture, the culture that distinguished aristocracies at their best.
At first glance Tocqueville’s observation that there’s no higher education in America is obviously untrue. Many, probably most, 20-year-olds today are in college. But if higher education means reading the great books in their original language or theoretical physics, there might be less higher education than ever in America today.
Fewer and few college students are choosing the ol’ traditional liberal arts majors: the stat is less than 10% and dropping almost like a rock. More and more are choosing soft-techno majors with immediate career applications—like exercise science or public relations or marketing or turf management or computer science.
And the liberal arts, of course, have never been more under attack for being unproductive, for not preparing young people for today’s middle-class world of work.
The best programs in cutting edge theoretical science are, to be sure, found in our country. But the most advanced students are too rarely from our country.
So here are two things Tocqueville recommended that maybe we should be doing better than we are: Those Americans who are pursuing an education for writing for a living—from journalists to novelists—should read the Greek and Roman authors in their original language—to keep ordinary English from becoming too technical and shallow. And we should really talk up the study of theory—from philosophy to theoretical physics—for their sakes. Even technology slows to a crawl if we don’t keep an eye on its theoretical foundations.
You BIG BANG THEORY fans might cringe at the thought of some campaign based on the premise that we need more Sheldon Coopers. But we really do. But we need philosophic writers attuned to the whole history of Western philosophy and theology—such as Flannery O’Connor (surely the funniest and deepest Georgian of all time)—just as much or even more.
What we really need, of course, is a Flannery O’Connor (instead of the Lena Dunham of the good but gross and unsubtle and in general could-be-a-lot-better series GIRLS) coming up with scripts for an HBO series.
I must quickly add that there’s nothing wrong with techno-majors and middle-class jobs. People have to make money to take care of themselves and their own. People have interests and should act accordingly. The problem comes when we think people have interests and nothing more. AYN RAND isn’t completely wrong, but the problem comes when young people think, having read nothing better, that AYN RAND is completely right.
When people relate too exclusively in terms of interests, they become, Tocqueville explains, emotionally isolated, locked up in themselves. Tocqueville called that self-centered apathetic indifference to others INDIVIDUALISM. Individualism not only keeps people from being the active citizens that democracy requires to resist the various forms of tyranny. Individualism, Tocqueville observes, sometimes makes Americans much more unhappy—more sad and anxious—than they should be in the midst of their fortunate circumstances. The excesses of sophisticated American individualism is what we see mocked, of course, on clever shows like SEINFELD—a show full of pathetic, unhappy people who’ll never be relational enough to reproduce.
So Tocqueville says that, in America, the spirit of liberty depends on the spirit of religion. He talks up not only our constitutional founding but our first Founding with the Puritans. The Puritans were pure egalitarians who came up with many of our democratic institutions. They were all about not only educating people for work but educating their souls. Everyone should be able to read not only to earn a living but to read the Bible—to discover for themselves the whole truth about their origin and destiny as beings created in the image of God. In America, we’ve taken pride in our public schools, but we used to know—and still do in the South—that what kids learn there needs to be completed by Sunday School.
The Puritans, by being concerned with the souls or irreducible greatness of everyone, were kind of about an aristocracy of everyone.
For the Puritan Christians, it’s true, everyone had to work. There are no aristocrats excluded from the consequences of sin. But everyone also needs and deserves leisure. And that’s why, Tocqueville noticed, the Americans were so insistent that nobody work on Sunday. Sunday is for reading about, hearing about (through sermons), and talking about the whole truth about who you are. When we Americans surrendered Sunday to the busyness of commerce, we gave up, to some extent, on the deep source of civilized human enjoyment.
Tocqueville doesn’t fail to remind us of the downside of the Puritans. They were, well, too Puritanical. They were true intrusive and meddlesome; they were too much the extreme opposite of the apathetic indifference, the live and let live attitude, of individualism.
So the Puritans, by turning the laws found in the Old Testament into civil law and by criminalizing every sin, were often not only ridiculous but tyrannical.
Who can deny that the Americans are distinguished by both being very middle class and very Puritanical, and the two qualities kind of balance each other out when America works best? We have two reasons for believing all men are equal—they’re equal in their freedom and in being equally children of God. And so, at our best, we have been all about both educating people for work and educating them as beings with souls.
Sure, we’re too Puritanical in one way when we adopt meddlesome and tyrannical laws like prohibition. We can even become so Puritanical about health and safety that people in New York City no longer have the freedom to buy really large sodas—even on their monthly trip to the movies.
But our Puritanism—our high and religious love of equality—gets us somewhat over our indifference and gets us associating with one another to help others in need. Americans, studies show, are a lot more charitable—and a lot more about voluntary caregiving—than the less Puritanical Europeans. It’s our singular spirit of religion that explains the American charity we see in the film THE BLIND SIDE. And it explains a lot about the generous voluntarism that animates that singularly American institution THE UNITED WAY.
So, from Tocqueville’s view, we can thank ourselves—our love of freedom and our hard work—that we’ve flourished in such a magnificent way as the middle-class country. But, thank God, we’ve always understood ourselves as more than middle-class beings, too. That means that we remain about caring for one other, and we’re good enough at it that we rely on government a lot less than more individualistic or indifferent people would in caring for those genuinely in need. That category of being needy, vulnerable, and lonely includes us all to some extent or another.