POLITICAL ENGAGEMENT AS
TOCQUEVILLE, ATTENTION DEFICIT, AND ENERGY
That constantly renewed agitation introduced by democratic government
into political life passes, then, into civil society. Perhaps taking everything
into consideration, that is the greatest advantage of democratic govern-
ment, and I praise it much more on account of what it causes to be done
than for what it does.
—Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
IN THE TAST CHAPTER I focused on Hannah Arendt, the most influential proponent of political engagement’s intrinsic value, and found Arendt’s argument inconsistent and unpersuasive. Now I turn to Alexis de Tocqueville as the most influential proponent of political engagement’s instrumental value. Tocqueville’s political works support my conception of political engagement as a combination of attention and activity, an investment of mental focus and physical energy that are closely related, instrumentally valuable resources for effective democratic governance. Tocqueville’s insights into attention and energy and their importance for sustainable self-government comprise one of his more original, and overlooked, contributions to political theory.1 Often misread as an unqualified enthusiast for so-called civic engagement in America, Tocqueville actually distinguishes between political and social engagement, explains why political attention and energy will probably flag in most liberal democracies, and suggests a number of avenues for resisting those tendencies.2 Here I explore Tocqueville’s analysis of political engagement and the obstacles it faces when citizens are free to invest their time and resources as they like.
1Énergie is the term Tocqueville uses throughout his works, meaning roughly the same in French as in English. “Attention” simply describes the concept of mental focus or regard that Tocqueville uses many different terms to denote, including the French nouns attention and regard and the verb s’occuper.
2 Most notably in Bellah et al. (1985) and Putnam (2000).