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Rethinking Tocqueville

His view of U.S. democracy wasn’t entirely rosy
February 21, 2012

Almost two centuries after he traveled around the United States studying its people and government, the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville remains one of the most influential of all commentators on American politics. His two-volume masterwork Democracy in America, published in 1835 and 1840, retains “the uncanny glamour of scripture, cited by all who wish to say something about democracy and its prospects or America and its destiny,” writes MIT professor of history emeritus Arthur Kaledin in Tocqueville and His America: A Darker Horizon, released last year by Yale University Press.

And because Tocqueville often related the strengths of the U.S. government to the optimism and vitality of the country’s culture—“Every day in America is new,” he wrote—he allows Americans a double dose of self-flattery: the U.S. government works because of the qualities of its people. Yet he was not as sanguine about American democracy as the popular image of his work suggests, Kaledin asserts.

“Tocqueville from the start also saw cultural and social tendencies that he thought would weaken American democracy,” ­Kaledin says; for instance, he thought “populism would gradually lead to an anti-intellectual culture and to mediocrity in political leadership.” Tocqueville was also, Kaledin says, uneasy with the extent to which American culture “heavily emphasized material values over all others.”

Although Tocqueville was impressed with Americans and their expectations of equality and participation in politics, he also had concerns. Consider one of the most influential Tocquevillean ideas: that Americans’ propensity to form associations promotes a healthy civic sphere. Yet Tocqueville was also keenly aware of U.S. “hyperindividualism”; Americans have “no traditions, or common habits to forge links between their minds,” he wrote, “and they have neither power nor the wish nor the time to come to a common understanding.” In such a situation, he believed, productive politics would become more difficult.

Kaledin’s interest in ­Tocqueville grew out of his work teaching American history at MIT. By looking beyond Democracy in America to Tocqueville’s notebooks and letters—entirely available to scholars only in recent decades—he produced an interpretation of the Frenchman’s work very much grounded in his life.

Tocqueville was born into an aristocratic French family in 1805, and his parents were nearly guillotined during the French Revolution. While he was relatively receptive to the idea of popular government, he always had profound “apprehensions about the prospects for democracy,” Kaledin notes.

What would Tocqueville have made of America today? Kaledin writes that he “would have been impressed by evidence of advances toward equality in a multicultural, multiethnic society.” Still, he adds, given “the current political and cultural disarray of American life,” he would “at best have remained caught in the doubt that seemed to be his fate.”

Recent Books From the MIT Community

Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World
By Catherine Tumber, Department of Urban Studies and Planning research affiliate
MIT Press, 2011, $24.95

Dispersed Radiance: Caste, Gender, and Modern Science in India
By Abha Sur, lecturer in women’s  and gender studies
Navayana Publishing, 2011, $26.00

Radioactivity: A History of  a Mysterious Science
By Marjorie C. Malley ‘62
Oxford University Press, 2011, $21.95

Leadership Craft, Leadership Art
By Steven S. Taylor ‘82
Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, $95.00

Down New Utrecht Avenue
By Edward C. Barrett, senior lecturer in writing and humanistic studies 
Press Wafer, 2011, $14.00

Mr. g: A Novel about the Creation
By Alan Lightman, adjunct professor in writing and humanistic studies
Pantheon, 2012, $24.95

Walter Benjamin, Early Writings 1910–1917
Edited and translated by Howard Eiland, lecturer in literature
Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2011, $27.95

Alice Bliss
By Laura Harrington, theater arts lecturer
Penguin, 2011, $25.95 (cloth)/$15.00 (paperback)

Please submit titles of books and  papers published in 2011 and 2012  to be considered for this column.

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