Our Tocquevillean Moment: The great 19th-century observer of America’s democratic revolution has much to teach the tumultuous new century.
September 30, 2012
To say that we are living through a time of momentous change, and now stand on the threshold of a future we could barely have imagined a quarter-century ago, may seem merely to restate the blazingly obvious. But it is no less true, and no less worrisome, for being so. Uncertainties about the fiscal soundness of sovereign governments and the stability of basic political, economic, and financial institutions, not to mention the fundamental solvency of countless American families, are rippling through all facets of the nation’s life. Those of us in the field of higher education find these new circumstances particularly unsettling. Our once-buffered corner of the world seems to have lost control of its boundaries and lost sight of its proper ends, and stands accused of having become at once unaffordable and irrelevant except as a credential mill for the many and a certification of social rank for the few. And despite all the wonderful possibilities that beckon from the sunlit uplands of technological progress, the digital revolution that is upon us threatens not only to disrupt the economic model of higher education but to undermine the very qualities of mind that are the university’s reason for being. There is a sense that events and processes are careening out of control, and that the great bubble that has so far contained us is now in the process of bursting.
By harping on the unprecedented character of the challenges we face, however, we may allow ourselves to become unduly overwhelmed and intimidated by them. Although history never repeats itself, it rarely, if ever, presents us with situations that have absolutely no precedent, and no echoes. We have, in some respects, already been here before. “In times of change and danger when there is a quicksand of fear under men’s reasoning,” wrote the novelist John Dos Passos in the tense year of 1941, “a sense of continuity with generations gone before can stretch like a lifeline across the scary present.”
So let me propose, as a lifeline for our own era, that we consult a figure who has served Americans well in the past: the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–59), one of the most eminent European social and political thinkers of the 19th century, and still an incomparable analyst of the virtues and pitfalls of modern democratic societies. The first part of my title not only refers to the man and his unique biographical context, but also uses his name to label something more general: a particular kind of pivotal moment in human history, something that he both described well and experienced fully—a moment of profound social transition in which an entire way of life is in the process of being inexorably transformed, but in which the precise shape of this transformation is yet to be fully determined.
Tocqueville was the child of an aristocratic French family, many of whose members had suffered death or devastation at the hands of the French Revolution. As a consequence, he was haunted all his life by the specter of revolutionary anarchy, and of the tyranny such a sweeping social revolution would inevitably bring in its wake. But such fears never led him to advocate the wholesale restoration of the pre-revolutionary French social order. He was an aristocrat at heart, but not a reactionary. Instead, his apprehensions led him to examine intently the change that was coming, in the hope of directing it to a more felicitous end.
A concern with the characteristics of modern democracy is the guiding preoccupation of his Democracy in America (1835–40), the work for which he is best known among American readers. Tocqueville was only 26 years old when, accompanied by his friend and sidekick Gustave de Beaumont, he came to the United States in 1831. He was ostensibly traveling on official business for the French government, to study the American prison system. In reality, he was intent upon “examining, in details and as scientifically as possible, all the mechanisms of the vast American society which everyone talks of and no one knows.” Tocqueville intended to write a large and path-breaking book about America, which he hoped would make his intellectual reputation and launch him on a successful political career in France.
The resulting book, published in two successive volumes, turned out to be perhaps the richest and most enduring study of American society and culture ever written. Democracy in America envisioned the United States as the vanguard of history, a young and vigorous country endowed with an extraordinary degree of social equality among its inhabitants. In America, one could gaze upon “the image of democracy itself, of its penchants, its character, its prejudices, its passions”—and having so gazed, could perhaps take away lessons that would allow leaders to deal more intelligently and effectively with the democratic changes coming to Europe.
Tocqueville was firmly convinced that the movement toward greater social equality—which is what he meant by “democracy”—represented an inescapable feature of the modern age, a hard fact to which all future social or political analysis must accommodate itself. Indeed, one could say that the great recurrent motif in Tocqueville’s writing was this huge, sprawling historical spectacle, the gradual but inexorable leveling of human society on a universal scale. “To wish to stop democracy,” he warned, would be “to struggle against God himself.”
A leveling democratic regime would have sweeping effects in every facet of human life: not merely in politics and institutions, but also in family life, in literature, in philosophy, in manners, in mores, in male-female relations, in ambition, in friendship, and in attitudes toward war and peace. Tocqueville was interested not only in the outward forms of democracy but in its innermost effects, the ways in which a society’s political arrangements, far from being matters that merely skate on the surface of life, have influences that reach deep into the very souls of its members.
He accomplished this analysis, mostly in the book’s second volume, by contrasting the form that each of these facets of life take on, first in aristocratic societies, then in democracies. The result was a coherent and memorable image of a strikingly middle-class society: feverishly commercial and acquisitive, obsessively practical-minded, jealously egalitarian, and restlessly mobile. Tocqueville saw many things to admire in this energetic, bumptious democracy—but also much to fear…