After Tocqueville: What Are the Prospects for Global Democracy When the American Model Is in Such Disrepair?

By Williamson, Chilton, Jr. | The American Conservative, September 24, 2007 | Go to article overview

After Tocqueville: What Are the Prospects for Global Democracy When the American Model Is in Such Disrepair?


Williamson, Chilton, Jr., The American Conservative


FOR NEARLY TWO centuries, historians have debated whether Alexis de Tocqueville, the author of Democracy in America (the first volume of which was published in 1835, the second in 1840), had an essentially liberal or conservative view of democratic government. There is no question, on the other hand, that Tocqueville believed--he was explicit about this in his writing--that democracy, whether for good or for ill, represented the social and political future, the end toward which Christendom was striving with, he thought, the blessing of God.

Hugh Brogan, Tocqueville's most recent biographer, argues that the Tocqueville of Democracy in America was not the Tocqueville who wrote The Recollections or the last, unfinished work, The Ancien Regime and the Revolution. The youthful enthusiast for democracy came in middle age--he died in 1859, aetat. 54--to regard equality as a threat, not a boon, to civilization. For this loss of faith, Brogan chastises his subject over hundreds of pages.

However that may be, no one--so far as I know--for 200 years has challenged Tocqueville's reputation as a prophet; no one has gainsaid his insight that the future belongs to democracy. Yet the future is by nature an historical concept, racing through its metamorphosis into the past. Presumably, Tocqueville expected the coming democratic age to last for centuries. Still, he was too good an historian, endowed with too fine a political mind, to have anticipated a concept so ahistorical, so antipolitical, and so palpably silly as the notion of "the end of history"--that moment at which every nation on earth will presumably have attained Western-style democracy--that has shown much appeal for our own time.

So the question is: how long should we take Alexis de Tocqueville's "future" to be? There are signs that, the current rage for "global democracy" to the contrary, the democratic age, though not yet finished, may be drawing to a protracted, uncertain close.

One of these signs is the extent to which America has come to approximate more and more closely what Tocqueville, writing in his most pessimistic vein, foresaw as its possible future condition. Brogan criticizes what he considers Tocqueville's tendency, on occasion, to caricature aspects of democratic life in the United States of which he disapproved--for instance, the alleged regimentation of thought and opinion in the young democracy. What European nation of that era, Brogan demands, could match intellectual freedom as it existed in America in 1831? Yet here is what Tocqueville has to say on the subject in Democracy:

   [T]he majority has enclosed
   thought within a formidable fence.
   A writer is free inside that area, but
   woe to the man who goes beyond
   it. Not that he stands in fear of an
   auto-da-fe, but he must face all
   kinds of unpleasantness and everyday
   persecution. A career in politics
   is closed to him, for he has
   offended the only power that holds
   the keys. He is denied everything,
   including renown. Before he goes
   into print, he believes he has supporters;
   but he feels he has them no
   more once he stands revealed to
   all, for those who condemn him
   express their views loudly, while
   those who think as he does, but
   without his courage, retreat into
   silence as if ashamed of having told
   the truth.

Brogan insists that passages such as this one should be read as careful attempts on the part of the author to satisfy and mollify elements of the French Right during the July Monarchy. Whether or not that reading is a fair one, and whether Tocqueville's description corresponds truly with freedom of expression in the United States in the early 19th century, it certainly offers a close fit with that at the start of the 21st.

   Again: "Princes," Tocqueville writes,
   made violence a physical thing, but
   our democratic republics have
   turned it into something as intellectual
   as the human will it is intended
   to constrain. … 

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