Tocqueville's Political Economy

By Richard Swedberg | Go to book overview

Chapter Six
POLITICS IN A DEMOCRATIC ECONOMY

FROM EARLY ON Tocqueville dreamed of becoming a politician, and it is clear he hoped that Democracy in America would be his entry into political life. The French admired their authors in the 1800s and found it natural that they also should play a role in public life, so his calculations were not vain.1 And when the first volume of Democracy in America was published in 1835, to great acclaim and proclamations that a new Montesquieu had been born, his hope of having a political career seemed about to become reality.

In one of the chapters in his celebrated book Tocqueville compares the politician or legislator to the captain of a ship: “The legislator is like a navigator on the high seas. He can steer the vessel on which he sails, but he cannot alter its construction, raise the wind, or stop the ocean from swelling beneath his feet.”2

The captain on this ship of state may well have been Tocqueville himself as he looked ahead in the 1830s to his future as a politician. And the ship he was steering was France, which had to make its way securely from the Old World of Aristocracy to the New World of Democracy on a journey that all modern nations had to undertake.

A stormy passage was to be expected, especially for France, which had already endured more than one revolution. But for Tocqueville the danger that accompanied political life was part of what made it worthwhile. He had come to admire and even desire the stormy periods of history when political passions were aroused. Only in these circumstances, he believed, would people be shaken out of their natural lethargy and do what was truly extraordinary and worthwhile. Revolutions were dangerous—but they made people forget their own narrow economic interests and behave in a truly disinterested manner.

Tocqueville's idea of the cleansing and elevating role of what he called “the political passions” (“passions politiques”) occupies a very important role in his political thought, and it had an impact on practically every political topic he touched on. In Democracy in America, for example, he distinguishes between “great parties” and “minor parties”: the former arouse passions, bring forth great men, and make people act in a disinterested way, and the small parties are mediocre, boring, and appeal to peo

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