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If Tocqueville Could See Us Now
In a new book, the political journalist and columnist Richard Reeves retraces Alexis de Tocqueville’s remarkable 1831-32 journey through America. Reeves's conclusion: Tocqueville not only deserves his reputation as the greatest observer of our democracy—he is an incomparable guide to what is happening in our country now.
June/july 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 4
Of course I wanted to explore America in my time, but I wanted to do it within a structure. I wanted a structure that would both challenge me and force me to do it. I had seen too many good people just go out wandering about the country, talking to people and then coming back to write it all down. For me, it was not just a matter of talking to people but of testing observations, ideas, and conclusions against Tocqueville’s masterful set of documents. Of course you’re just stunned by the fact that if you ask the same questions that he asked in 1831 of people in somewhat similar positions, you get the same answers for all practical purposes. Americans today, talking about politicians, say almost word for word the same negative things Tocqueville heard about Daniel Webster and Sam Houston and Davy Crockett. You suddenly realize that there is something called an American. And you also realize that a lot of what you have read and written in your own lifetime is just nonsense. People are not changing all that much, they are not being radically altered by the circumstances of the moment—they are Americans doing what Americans have always done. One of the most extraordinary sentences he wrote appears in an essay that was not published until after he died. He describes standing in the wilderness at Saginaw Bay—where the city of Saginaw, Michigan, is today—and he said a little romantically that there was nothing between there and the Pacific Ocean. Of course that wasn’t literally true. Santa Fe existed, as did Los Angeles, but he accepted the English version of history and he said, “It’s this nomad people which the rivers and lakes do not stop, before which the forests fall and the prairies are covered with shade, and which, after having reached the Pacific Ocean, will reverse its steps to trouble and destroy the societies which have formed behind it.” What he was talking about is precisely what’s going on in America today—that’s what the frost belt versus sun belt or East versus West controversy is all about. We are troubling and destroying the societies behind us, whether it’s the New York subway system or the manufacturing plants in Detroit, and it’s all part of our national character. Our national character is to move on—use it and move on—and it should have been perfectly predictable that we would do that. We will debate for fifty years rebuilding the Northeastern cities, but we won’t do it.
Is that what you meant when you said that if you ask the same questions you get the same answers, whether you or Monsieur de Tocqueville is the questioner?
The answers are often similar, although our conclusions may vary on some things. But I agree essentially with Tocqueville’s view of the American character, which as far as I can define it is a belief in the very basic rhetoric of the country—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and a few other documents, all of them evolved from the King James version of the Bible. Americans believe in majority rule—just watch our children at play: they decide by voting what game to play, whether the ball was fair or foul. Other people don’t do that. Take equality of opportunity: Americans believe in a system where if everybody has the same shot, the best will survive. Americans believe that the government that governs least governs best. They believe that. They violate it all the time and they have violated it throughout history, but that piece of rhetoric is part of our essential character.
Is it a corollary that part of the American character is that Americans need to feel good about themselves and about their leaders?
I don’t think they have to feel good about their leaders—I could argue that they have to feel bad about their leaders so long as they feel good about themselves. Tocqueville said that Americans are told from birth they are the last best hope of mankind. They are told they are better than other people—it is both our strength and our weakness, our glory and our shame, that we really believe that. He spotted that then, and it sure as hell doesn’t look different to me.
Tocqueville and Beaumont needed a reason to get out of France, so they cooked up a plot to study American prisons.
If you talked to Europeans during the Watergate period, many would ask why we were getting so excited—these things go on all the time. And yet Americans were outraged.
Yes, we believed that the problem with Watergate was that it was not open—we believe in openness. That sounds like a new value but it’s also an old value with us. Tocqueville was appalled by something that appalls Ronald Reagan today, and that is that we conduct the public’s business in public, and we are the only society in the world to believe in that.
But what do the reactions on the part of the American public to Watergate or the reaction to bribes paid by American companies overseas say about us? Many businessmen would say that’s the price of doing business. But Americans can’t seem to stomach that. They forced President Reagan to back off his initial human rights policy, which was basically to downplay human rights. Do all those things tell us something about Americans?