Perspective | Tocqueville’s ‘Democracy in America,’ read anew in 2020, feels prophetic — and in some ways, hopeful

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It was not, however, wholly forgotten. The historian Henry Adams, for instance, professed deep admiration for its insights and, in the 1930s, the book began to be rediscovered. After World War II, a freshly translated edition led to ever-increasing attention, in part because Tocqueville’s observations possessed bipartisan appeal. Like Scripture, his pages could supply an apt quotation to support almost any political or legal argument. Today “Democracy in America” is acknowledged by both liberals and conservatives as the best book ever written about our system of government and our national character.

As it happens, until this month, at least one supposedly hotshot literary critic — hangs head in shame — had never read this classic. But as this fall’s presidential and legislative elections began to heat up, while divisive health, civic and judicial crises continued to rage, one could hardly imagine a more relevant time to see what this French visitor had to say about the American political experiment.

In the commanding translation by Arthur Goldhammer for the Library of America, Tocqueville declares that his book simply aims “to familiarize the reader with the laws of the United States.” In its many pages, he duly explains the advantages of a political system both regulated by checks and balances and divided between state and federal governments, devotes his most brilliant chapter to the sociological impact of the republic’s “three races” — the exploited and abused Native Americans, the enslaved Blacks and the mainly Christian Anglo-Europeans — and repeatedly stresses our country’s peculiar intertwining of religious zeal and jingoist patriotism. After noting that the laws governing inheritance provide an essential key to understanding human affairs, he goes on to critique the American’s inordinate love for money. Though praising our pioneering restlessness and drive, as well as our willingness to assist neighbors in trouble, he nonetheless worries that democracy too readily fosters intellectual and social conformity, resulting in a culture of complacent mediocrity.

Throughout, Tocqueville employs a striking range of styles. He can be lyrically romantic: “The Indian knew how to live without needs, suffer without complaint, and die with a song on his lips.” Yet he can also deliver the rhetorical equivalent of a punch to the gut: “Seeing what is taking place in the world, might one not say that the European is to men of other races what man himself is to animals? He makes them serve his needs, and when he cannot bend them to his will, he destroys them.” More than once, the well-educated aristocrat reveals a knack for the epigrammatic put-down: Describing American education, he writes “I do not think that there is any other country in the world where . . . the ignorant are so few and the learned still fewer.”

At times, Tocqueville’s analyses can grow quite technical — he was a lawyer, after all — and he often sets up exhaustive comparison-contrasts between the United States and France, or between an austere, industrious New England and a lassitudinous South sapped of vigor by reliance on slavery. In his political savvy he tempers the ideals of the philosophe with the no-nonsense intelligence of a Don Corleone: “Independence of the press is the most important, indeed the essential, ingredient of liberty.” Democracy exhibits a perennial “difficulty in vanquishing the passions and silencing the needs of the moment for the sake of the future.” “Despotism corrupts the person who submits to it far more than the person who imposes it. . . . Courtiers are always vile.”

While Tocqueville was wrong about some things — the federal government did not grow weaker over time — he regularly exhibits a Nostradamus-like prescience about certain aspects of 2020. “In nearly all the states that have abolished slavery, voting rights have been granted to the Negro, but if he goes to the polls, he puts his life at risk. He can complain that he is oppressed but all his judges will be white.” Seeking an example by which to illustrate Congress’s power, he shocks the somnolent reader into attention: “Suppose that the President of the United States has committed a crime of high treason.” Elsewhere he outlines what happens when a sitting president is up for reelection:

“As the election approaches, the chief executive thinks of nothing but the battle to come. . . . The president, for his part, is consumed by the need to defend his record. He no longer governs in the interest of the state but rather in the interest of his reelection. He prostrates himself before the majority, and often, rather than resist its passions as his duty requires, he courts favor by catering to its whims. As the election draws near, intrigues intensify, and agitation increases and spreads.”

Oddly enough, such passages of Realpolitik instill a modicum of optimism about our country’s future. Tocqueville viewed Andrew Jackson as an ignorant yahoo totally unfit for the nation’s highest office — and we nonetheless survived his presidency and others far worse. We can do it again.

Nobody ever writes about “Democracy in America” without citing the uncanny prophecy at the end of volume one, and I don’t intend to break that tradition. “There are today two great peoples on earth . . . the Russians and the Anglo-Americans. . . . The American’s principal means of action is liberty; the Russian’s servitude. Their points of departure are different, their ways diverse. Yet each seems called by a secret design of Providence some day to sway the destinies of half the globe.”

Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.

Democracy in America

By Alexis de Tocqueville. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer

Library of America. 928 pp. $37.50

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