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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
Well, he was stunned the day he got here to see that there were five banks in Newport, which was a little town. He was always stunned by the commerce of the Americans and what he called their “breathless cupidity. ” I think what struck me most and would strike him as an astounding phenomenon would be the presence of women at West Point—women at the military academy of the most powerful military nation in the world. Of anything I saw, I think that tells the most about America and where it’s going and what it is.
Wasn’t it his view that women were squaws?
He thought American women were docile. He talked about women making America great because mores are what determine how a society is—and women control mores with an emphasis on morals. He found America was not a very promiscuous place compared with Europe, and he thought that women determined this. He talked about American women as being dull extensions of their husbands, and wrote joking letters to his sister-in-law asking why she couldn’t be more like American women and not bother anybody. It is interesting that he did not mention women in his first volume. But he got married between his first and second volume and then he started to mention women and he asked the question: If this kind of relentless drive for equality in America continues, won’t the real revolution come when it encompasses women? But he thought that the end point was much, much farther away than in fact it was.
Tocqueville talked about the inherent conflict between equality and liberty—between democracy and a republican form of government. Did you find that same inherent conflict in your journey?
He saw democracy much more in conflict with liberty than I did, but we both agree that the great American passion is for equality. He felt that people would always give up liberty for a little more comfort, a little more equality. But I think Americans have a pretty good sense of what liberty is, and they want that too.
The founding fathers believed that their republican form of government could always keep democracy in check through the division of power, by being sensitive to and balancing the power of factions. Did Tocqueville think they were right?
He thought egalitarianism would have to win out in the end and that the ability of leaders to lead would wither. But when he was here he felt most power rested with the individual states and that it would be very hard for that power to become centralized. He was wrong. The Civil War and subsequent wars pushed us into centralized government. And the federal courts ordered the central government into action during the civil rights strife from 1953 to the present. He could not have foreseen how a republican form of government could deal with the race problem, because, as he said, “It is impossible for a people to rise above themselves. ” But Americans did that in regard to race—the majority decided that the treatment of the minority was intolerable within the confines of American rhetoric, and the federal courts were used to change the government of America forever.
Have the attitudes of Americans toward government changed since Tocqueville visited us?
No. In Tocqueville’s day Americans thought politicians were bums, and the people still think politicians are bums. People who go into politics are self-selected and they tend to have certain self-interested characteristics in common. Tocqueville, who looked down on American politicians, was appalled. He deduced that the political second-rankers were demagogues who didn’t care about anything except their own futures. He asked how the country could survive with leadership like this and was told that only if Americans had to live under one demagogue would there be trouble—but that mediocre politicians cancel each other out. I totally believe that whatever problems there are on the political leadership level of the country, they are overwhelmed by the concourse of individual wills and energy that actually make up the United States of America. That is our secret and the genius of our democracy and freedom. This country can absorb almost anything, and it has certainly proven it can absorb mediocre politicians.
Do you see a group such as the Moral Majority as a temporary or as a fundamental phenomenon?
I think of it as a permanent—absolutely permanent—force in America that peaks intermittently. One of its peaks was the revival movement when Tocqueville was here. I tend strongly to disagree with Tocqueville’s view of religion in America. Because he was a Catholic and because he was a Frenchman who came from a country where everyone had the same religion, he tended to see Catholicism as the center of a great Christian culture. To him America was moving toward a kind of Unitarianism that, to a Catholic, meant a belief in nothing. But Tocqueville was wrong then and is certainly wrong now. The magnetic center of the American religious universe was once New England Puritanism and frontier revivalism; it has evolved into the establishment, main-line, Protestant churches and the fundamentalists who always react to modernism. The Moral Majoritarians are always going to be with us and they are going to rise and fall depending on what other forces in the society are doing, whether those forces revolve around Darwin or Freud or Marx or liberal Democrats. The fundamentalists rise like a counterbalance—not necessarily an unhealthy thing. They keep America on a certain course.