THE TOCQUEVILLE FRAUD
11:00 PM, Nov 12, 1995 • By JOHN J. PITNEY
It's a shame that politicians are using a knockoff product when the real thing is so fine. Democracy in America offers profound analyses of the roles of religion, morality, and voluntary action, though its insights are subtler than the purple prose of the counterfeit.
Why does faux Tocqueville thrive? It took only a modest effort to expose the quotation as a phony, so how could it have circulated so widely for so long? We could make a nasty crack about politicians who cannot tell Alexis de Tocqueville from Maurice Chevalier, but that would be irrelevant since they seldom write their own material anyway. The lyrics of politics come from staffers, whose tight deadlines often keep them from checking original sources. When they need a quotation (or a statistic or an anecdote), they lift it from a speech or an article by somebody else. That somebody probably got it from another piece, whose author got it from . . . you get the picture. Bad information tends to linger and spread.
Here is a personal brush. In 1992, I served on the staff of the Republican platform committee. We came across the "America is great" line in an old Reagan speech. Though we could not verify it, we still wanted to use it in the platform, so we attributed it to "an old adage."
Of course, after decades of repetition, it has in fact become an old adage. It just isn't Tocqueville's.
John J. Pitney, Jr. is associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California.