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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
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.
How about President Reagan’s New Federalism and talk of returning powers to the states—is that consistent with what you see as the movement of our history, or is that a temporary phenomenon?
No, I think we will debate that forever. When I was a kid it was called States’ rights. There’s no difference between Reagan’s proposed New Federalism and States’ rights that I can see. I think that debate will go on throughout the history of this republic but will become more and more hollow as time goes on because I think more and more of the government’s functions will be centralized. It’s an inevitable trend.
If you look at the life of Freud or Christ or Marx or even Adolf Hitler, one could conclude that they illustrate the power of an idea or a set of ideas to move people and nations. If you look at Tocqueville—this frail figure, dead over a hundred years—what ideas did he bequeath to the world that have altered human behavior?
I don’t think he has moved the world on the scale of those you have named. In his own lifetime he was certainly a great success and he did become foreign minister of France for a few months. What he did do was make a significant leap in the development of analytical tools to deal with political and sociological phenomena. He really was far ahead of his time, but others learned very quickly from him and advanced human knowledge. For us, the great thing is that he saw America whole. You cannot read Tocqueville without agreeing that he knows who we are. And that will be his great value to Americans as long as there are Americans.
In a non-Freudian way, how did the experience of living with Tocqueville change you?
Fewer things that I used to think were important are as important to me now. For instance, to make a living I am a newspaper columnist. But I did not read the papers this morning because I know in general that nothing can happen in the United States on any given day that’s going to change the way it is or the way Americans are.
I’ve got some news for you then. Your mortgage rate went up this morning.
That changes my life but it does not change the fact that this is a roaring commercial society in which the people who control pools of money will exploit everybody else to the extent that they can before everybody else comes back with the hammer of political power to keep them within some kind of sane limits.