L'Amérique, Mon Amour
Along with the Bible and Moby-Dick, Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America has got to be one of the world's least-read classics. Sure, a lot of people dip into it in college, and the more assiduous among us learn that there is no better way to spice up a poli-sci term paper than with a Tocquevillism or
two. But life is short, and 900-plus pages on the glories of Jacksonian democracy are long, which is why almost everyone reads a chapter here or there and leaves it at that.
This is unfortunate, because reading Democracy in America the way it was meant to be read, i.e., from cover to cover, can be a valuable exercise in demythologizing. Tocqueville's book is not all bad. It is interesting on the subject of slavery and the plight of the Indians, and its discussion of the contrasts between the Virginia and Massachusetts Bay colonies is downright insightful. But its shortcomings are impossible for all but the most ideologically blinkered to ignore. Although Arthur Goldhammer, the distinguished translator of the Library of America's new edition, dutifully praises Tocqueville's prosestyle for its "almost paradoxical combination of solidity and grace," the truth is that Democracy in America is windy and repetitive. If Roddy Doyle thinks James Joyce could have used a good editor, then Tocqueville could have used an entire team. Democracy in America is also humorless and, oddly enough for what is at least on some level a travel book, nearly devoid of local color. Anyone interested in the actual look and feel of the pre-Civil War United States would be better off consulting Dickens's American Notes or, even better, the highly amusing Domestic Manners of the Americans, a travelogue by a Tory Englishwoman named Frances Trollope (mother of the novelist Anthony Trollope), so acerbic that it still raises patriotic hackles.
Politically, Tocqueville gets a few things right about the country he toured for nine months in 1831-32, but considerably more wrong. He reported that slavery was in retreat at a time when it was undergoing its most furious expansion, that democratic sentiment would prevent a weak federal government from interfering with individual states wishing to go their own way and that slavery in the South would likely end in some sort of racial Armageddon (in contrast to the Civil War, in which whites and blacks fought jointly against the Southern slavocracy). Because he saw democracy as arising out of the middle class, for whom he felt the aristocrat's characteristic disdain, he believed that the society it gave rise to would never be more than mediocre. Democratic nations, he wrote, would never produce great leaders or great writers or develop a taste for martial glory. During the cold war, pundits loved to cite Tocqueville's prediction that the emerging mega-states of America and Russia would one day "sway the destinies of half the globe." Now that the world has gone from two superpowers to one, that forecast no longer seems so impressive.
So why all the praise for an often woolly-headed work that is not even that well written? One reason is that Democracy in America is immensely flattering toward its subject, and Americans love to be flattered. To be sure, Tocqueville found much to criticize during his visit. He thought Americans carried patriotism to absurd extremes, that their obsession with money was a bore and that racism was even more appalling in the North than in the South. On the other hand, not only did he praise American democracy to the skies, he wrote as if America had a veritable patent on the genre. For Tocqueville, the infant United States was democracy in the same way that the infant Soviet Union would define socialism for many observers in the 1930s.
But even more important than Tocqueville's description of American democracy was his discussion of how it had emerged. Despite his aristocratic background, Tocqueville believed popular self-government was the wave of the future. But as a member of a family decimated by the Terror of 1793-94--his own father's hair had turned white at age 22 waiting to be guillotined, while the same experience had reduced his mother to a nervous invalid--he was terrified of the popular revolution needed to bring it about. His fascination with America stemmed from his belief that, the Revolutionary War notwithstanding, it had arrived at the first without passing through the second. Rather than building democracy from the ground up, a process that struck him as necessarily bloody and perilous, it had fallen into one that was ready-made. Democracy in America quotes reverently from the Mayflower Compact, in which the Pilgrims vowed to form themselves into "a body of political society, for the purpose of governing ourselves." To Tocqueville, this was popular sovereignty in embryo. Rather than lopping off the heads of the aristocracy, the Pilgrims merely had to plant the seeds of democratic self-government and watch them grow. Democracy was able to unfold organically in a way that was impossible in less benign environments.
"The great advantage of the Americans is to have come to democracy without having to endure democratic revolution and to have been born equal rather than become so." So Democracy in America sums up popular sovereignty's Immaculate Conception in the New England wilderness. What's more, America's was not just non-revolutionary, but anti: "Men in democracies"--which is to say in the United States--"change, alter, and replace things of secondary importance every day but are extremely careful not to tamper with things of primary importance. They like change but dread revolutions." In Europe, democracy was assumed to be radical. In America, it was assumed to be the opposite. The more democratic the society, the less taste it would have for anything smacking of fundamental upheaval.