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Tocqueville's Democracy

Mansfield and Winthrop produce the best edition of the best book on America

Oct 23, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 06 • By DANIEL J. MAHONEY
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As Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop suggest in the remarkable introduction to their new translation of Democracy in America, almost everyone claims Alexis de Tocqueville for their side these days.

For the Left, Tocqueville is primarily a philosopher of community and civic engagement, a critic of bourgeois materialism, and an advocate of democratic citizenship. For the Right, he is a prophet who foresaw the dangers of the nanny state and the egalitarian excesses of democratic societies.

Part of the difficulty in reaching a clear understanding of Tocqueville's Democracy in America is that there exists a fair share of truth -- and a fair share of falsity -- in both these renderings. The partisan distortions of the Left are more fundamental: ignoring Tocqueville's real, if qualified, admiration for aristocracy, his profound respect for religion, and his criticism of the "passion for equality." But, for its part, the Right too often confuses Tocqueville's criticism of big government with an attack on government itself, and tends to ignore his eloquent arguments in defense of political liberty and even national greatness.

The partisan appropriators of Tocqueville have this in common: They have transformed Tocqueville into a partisan in American political battles. They forget that, with Democracy in America, Tocqueville conceived himself to have written a book principally about democracy, rather than just America. This aristocratic liberal came to North America in 1831 to discern the democratic future that awaited Europe and -- eventually, he believed -- the whole world. He was the first political philosopher to make democracy his central and abiding concern.

In the young American republic, democracy, understood as equality of conditions, seemed to have reached its extreme limits. For Tocqueville, the decency of American laws and mores showed that there was no need to despair of democracy, even as he saw the unique threats to human freedom and dignity posed by democracy's seemingly unstoppable march. Tocqueville approached his subject matter, "the democratic revolution," with what he called "salutary fear." His "holy enterprise" was nothing less than the preservation of liberty and human excellence in an egalitarian age. In contrast to both the uncritical admirers of democracy and its reactionary critics, he refused to be either a flatterer or a disparager of the new democracy.

The result, Mansfield and Winthrop argue, is that Democracy in America stands as the "best book ever written on democracy and the best book ever written on America." In a way no one else has, Tocqueville demonstrated the superiority of American practice to modern democratic theory.

What we need, here at the beginning of the century, is a fresh examination -- one that begins from Tocqueville's own concerns and not from our desire to use him for our political battles. Mansfield and Winthrop (the translators are a married couple as well as distinguished political theorists and Tocqueville scholars) have contributed immeasurably to that task by providing hundreds of notes identifying events, allusions, and names that are no longer familiar, and by providing an accurate and readable translation of Democracy in America, one far superior to the old editions.

Henry Reeve's early translation of Democracy in America was marred by his British preference for aristocracy, which colored his translation throughout and brought forth a re-proach from Tocqueville himself. George Lawrence's translation from the 1960s is fluid and eloquent but strewn with errors and inconsistencies. Tocqueville often wrote in short, almost aphoristic paragraphs, somehow managing to combine sparkling elegance with intellectual depth. The Mansfields' faithful rendering of his style allows English readers to appreciate for the first time Tocqueville's approach.

Mansfield and Winthrop provide as well a comprehensive, eighty-six page introduction. The equivalent of a small, dense, and rewarding book, it is the best introduction to Tocqueville's life and thought available -- particularly helpful in clarifying Tocqueville's relation to Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Pascal, the three great thinkers with whose books he said he spent some time every day.

From Montesquieu, Tocqueville learned a distinctively modern form of prudence, one that rejected both the classical quest for the best regime and the early modern reliance on abstract principles derived from a prepolitical state of nature. But Tocqueville saw the need to go beyond Montesquieu's liberalism. Montesquieu was the philosopher of commerce, who believed that the free exchange of goods and ideas would humanize manners and morals. He was confident that commerce, in conjunction with the separation of powers, would be sufficient to guarantee human freedom in the modern world. Tocqueville, by contrast, feared that the mildness introduced by excessive material well-being would contribute to the enervation of the human spirit and give rise to a new despotism. For all of his admiration for Montesquieu, Tocqueville believed that a "new political science is needed for a world altogether new."

The "conservative" Tocqueville rejected the "radical" Rousseau's extreme formulation of egalitarian principles as well as his nostalgia for the ancient city. But Tocqueville nonetheless had great admiration for the author of The Social Contract, for he learned from Rousseau the inadequacy of the one-sided emphasis on self-interest in modern political thought.

Tocqueville's debt to Pascal is perhaps the most fundamental. From the seemingly non-political Pascal, the very political Tocqueville learned spiritual depth and confirmation of his own experience of the fundamental "restiveness" of the human soul. Tocqueville's description of the restlessness of the Americans in the midst of their well-being, of the unhappiness that accompanies the "pursuit of happiness," seems to be "a page torn from the Pensees of Pascal" (to quote Pierre Manent's felicitous formulation).

The second volume of Democracy in America even contains eloquent Pascalian reflections on the greatness and misery of man. But Tocqueville could not rest content with a Christian critique of human pride. He saw Pascal, the critic of human pride, as himself a representative of human greatness, of the "ardent, haughty, and disinterested love of the true." And he feared human greatness in all domains would have difficulty finding a place in the new democratic dispensation. But Tocqueville, unlike Pascal, also found greatness in politics. He believed political liberty allowed human beings to escape their misery and isolation and find a kind of nobility in civic endeavors.

As Mansfield and Winthrop suggest, Tocqueville's deepest insight was into the self-radicalizing propensities of democracy. Democracies always strive to become "more democratic." For Tocqueville, democracy was more than a political regime. It was nothing less than a new order of humanity. Its founding principle was the sovereignty of the people: the application of individual and collective consent to every aspect of human life. Tocqueville saw that democracy "democratizes" aspects of life such as the family, religion, and the intellectual life -- which were once considered to be "natural" and hence, in crucial respects, beyond politics.

Tocqueville is rightly regarded as a prudent defender of liberal or constitutional democracy. But he is also a sharp critic of the fundamental assumptions underlying modern political theory. That theory begins "by positing autonomous individuals living in a state of nature" who leave the state of nature, enter civil society, and agree to its conventional laws, customs, and moral rules. But Tocqueville's analysis reveals how the notion of human autonomy not only persists in democratic civil society, but begins to transform human hearts and minds on an unprecedented scale. Democratic man increasingly inhabits a "state of nature" within civil society, undirected by any governing moral or intellectual authority. He affirms his autonomy and denies the legitimacy of tradition as well as of intellectual and religious authority. But he soon finds that the burden of groundless choice is too much to bear. Democratic man begins to rely on increasingly abstract "general ideas," as well as to take his bearing from "public opinion," since one is able to defer to common opinions without recognizing the superiority of anyone in particular. Mass conformity is deeply rooted in the psychology of democratic man.

Not knowing what or how to choose, democratic man succumbs to individualism or apathetic withdrawal from public responsibilities. He becomes vulnerable to "mild despotism" and willingly accepts the supposedly benevolent commands of experts and administrators who promise to relieve him from the burdens of too much choice (Tocqueville anticipated Philip Rieff's "triumph of the therapeutic" by over a hundred years).

Democratic philosophers, for their part, preach a "pantheism" that denies the uniqueness of man, conflating the human with what is above it and below it. And "democratic historians," Tocqueville suggests, increasingly deny the possibility of individual choice and attribute everything that happens to grand social, economic, and historical forces. Modernity begins with man's excessive self-assertion and ends with his self-enslavement. Tocqueville captures this paradox better than any other student of modern politics and philosophy, and thus his work is worthy of our continued reflection.

Does this mean that democracy is its own worst enemy? Tocqueville seems to suggest as much. But Mansfield and Winthrop show that, for Tocqueville, the remedies for the illnesses promoted by modern political theory can be found, at least to some extent, in democratic practice. It is not a question of rejecting democracy but of refusing the "democratic dogma" that speaks in its name. Such "schools of freedom" as the township, the judiciary, and associations provide practical illustrations of the limits of individual autonomy and the human need for reliance on others. Even the morally inadequate doctrine of "self-interest well understood" can enlarge human hearts by teaching men that it is in their interest to collaborate with others. Religion and family may be continually transformed by democracy but they are permanent and salutary reminders of the limits of individual independence and thus important "parts of self-government."

Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop's splendid edition of Democracy in America reminds us that American practice can be better than the modern theory that informs it -- both because practice need not be fully transformed by theory and because "practice tends to correct theory." Thus Tocqueville is both liberating and sobering. He allows us to appreciate that America is more than a modern regime and therefore not destined to succumb to either mild despotism or moral nihilism. Yet he also warns us that democratic intellectuals will not accept the legitimacy of beliefs and practices that are not in accord with the "logic" of democratic consent and individual autonomy.

A current example is the recent assault on the Boy Scouts for their refusal to acquiesce to the moral legitimacy of homosexuality. The Boy Scouts, we are now sternly told by self-appointed spokesmen for democracy, are enemies of freedom and equality. Tocqueville's work allows us to see that the "culture wars" are not simply a product of 1960s radicalism. They are rooted, rather, in the permanent tension between theory and practice at the heart of American democracy -- a tension that no one has better elucidated than Alexis de Tocqueville.