What Tocqueville Would Say Today

“What Tocqueville Would Say Today,” with Delba Winthrop, Hoover Digest, Summer 2001, No. 3, pp. 179-188.


Russell Baker once said that in our time people cite Tocqueville without reading him even more than they do the Bible and Shakespeare. Every American president since Eisenhower has quoted him, no doubt without reading him, and some of our professors, to say nothing of lesser citizens, have picked up their habit of fishing for what they like and throwing back the rest in Tocqueville’s great work Democracy in America.

It’s no mystery why everyone wants Tocqueville’s support: his work is both the best book on democracy and the best book on America—two subjects that for Americans, at least, are inseparable. We cannot fail to be interested in a book so renowned, but because of a certain laziness whose source is our partisanship, we fail to read it through or read it carefully, lest we come on something difficult to accept. The purpose here is not to invoke Tocqueville in a vain attempt to transcend partisanship, a possibility he rejected; but perhaps he can do something to raise the awareness of both liberals and conservatives and get them to see that their own party, not just the other party, has questions it needs to face.

We address liberals and conservatives rather than independents. Most thinking people are either liberals or conservatives, and most independents, instead of standing above party as they believe, actually pick from both parties unthinkingly, trying to have their cake and eat it too. Tocqueville’s first lesson to our independents is the inevitability of partisan opinion. For “in all free societies,” he says, there exists a set of two opinions “as old as the world.” One wants to restrict “popular” or “public” power, the other to extend it indefinitely.

Clearly, the parties of Tocqueville’s France were not the same as America’s today. Back then one party, nostalgic for the traditional order of hierarchy and religion, bitterly rejected the postrevolutionary order in toto, and the other party, zealously championing the revolution’s principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity, set itself in opposition to everything—bad or good—associated with the Old Regime. Despite the differences one may find, Tocqueville in fact has a good deal to say about the central doctrines of present-day conservatives and liberals—self-interest for conservatives and community for liberals. Let us see what he would say to current promoters of these hot ideas.

Hoover Digest