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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
The key lies in our belief that we are better than people in other parts of the world. We have always looked at Europe and Asia as being decadent—in 1832 as well as in 1982. It’s true that in private we will not only accept but will encourage and thrive on antisocial, unethical behavior—but once it becomes public, our code is that it has to be dealt with. Other societies do not necessarily believe that. There is a public cynicism in other societies that is not part of ours. Perhaps it never developed because we had no pressing enemies for such a long time. We believed we were different and better.
Yet Americans tolerated slavery and racism—how does that square with what you said?
Well, it doesn’t square, and we haven’t been able to resolve it yet. John Quincy Adams told Tocqueville that race was a cancer gnawing at America, and I don’t disagree. I think that we have not even come close to resolving it. We have rejected the worst option: Tocqueville talked about a race war along the Gulf of Mexico where blacks and whites were about equal in number. Of course, whites would win—because whites would come from other parts of the country to guarantee their victory. And he saw very clearly that we were literally destroying the Indians—"making them disappear” was his phrase—because they stood in the way of “progress.” He wrote also of an option for dealing with freed blacks, which was essentially to practice a classical colonial policy: pick off the smartest, strongest, and toughest leaders among blacks and essentially co-opt them—make them part of the majority society so that the remaining black minority is left with only brute force as a means of survival. And that’s exactly what we have done and what we are doing right now. People like Maxine Waters, the majority leader of the California Assembly—she’s black—told me stories of how blacks are moved up and out before they become dangerous to the white majority. Every day we are paying a price because we endanger everything in the country by our inability to deal with what Tocqueville—and Jefferson, too—thought was our inherent racism.
How did you decide whom to interview in your retracing of Tocqueville?
If there was a clearly equivalent person, a counterpart in the same place, like the mayor or governor of New York—I almost always searched him out. John Quincy Adams, whom Tocqueville interviewed, was an embittered ex-President, so it was pretty clear to me that the equivalent person in the United States today was Richard Nixon. The conversations echo across the years. Adams says that slavery is the root of almost all the troubles of his country and time and of all his fears for the American future. Nixon answers the same questions by saying that the fundamental racism is still there, that it will always be there. Then, like Tocqueville, the lines of inquiry I was pursuing at any given time led me to certain people, and those people led me to others. In some cases I chose my subjects by generic description—the greatest merchant in Louisville, for example. This time around, the Mayor of New York, Ed Koch, did exactly what his predecessor, Walter Bowne, did—both gave dinners and both invited only their own cronies to answer a visitor’s questions.
Was there any worry on your part that Tocqueville interviewed the elite of this young nation—did you worry that by following his path you would get a distorted and essentially elitist view?
I had an advantage that he didn’t have—I am an American. He had the advantage that it was all strange to him and therefore more striking. So I think I knew something about how the majority of Americans live, but if you’re going to talk about ideas and you neglect to talk to elites, then people are going to tell you the same thing over and over again. A politician generally has an ordinary mind and is going to see the world in a certain way because of his perception of his role. The same is true of an auto worker or whatever—unless he is extraordinary. Extraordinary people are going to take things to different levels, so you search them out.
Tocqueville visited twenty-four states. Why did you limit yourself to his route and not take in the West?
I originally intended to travel through the Western states. I had worked out an arc from Houston up the Pacific Coast coming out in Alaska, which would have been easy because I was living in Los Angeles at the time I was doing the traveling. But about halfway into the project I realized that I thought there was only one American—Tocqueville and I agreed on that—and that regional differences were minimal. The man whom I interviewed three years ago as the greatest merchant in Louisville now lives in New York City. The editor of the Baltimore American whom I interviewed is now the editor of the Dallas Times Herald. They are the same people, I thought, everywhere in America.
Look at surveys of voter attitudes—it’s certainly fair to say that New Yorkers tend to be more liberal than, say, people living in Houston. Aren’t they different?
I don’t see any great differences. I think they are on either side of a line that is conservative rhetorically and liberal operationally. I didn’t even see any difference between middle-class blacks and whites in any part of the country.
Yet earlier you talked about racism—so you certainly saw differences between blacks and whites.