Monday, November 2, 2015
Not much has changed in the US - On de Tocqueville's Democracy in America: Note for a lecture, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United"
Nicholas Lezard finds Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America is as relevant and accurate today as it was 150 years ago
Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville
Buy Democracy in America at Amazon.co.uk Public domain
Friday 2 April 2004 18.57 EST
Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville, translated by Gerald Bevan (Penguin Classics, £12.99)
The surprisingly large number of readers who chuckled over Toby Young's How to Lose Friends and Alienate People may at points have been puzzled by his references to, and quotes from, a French chap writing about America more than 150 years ago. What was particularly remarkable was that the quotes were not out of place; they worked.
This is the marvellous characteristic of Democracy in America: it is still relevant, and everyone can find something in it that is recognisably correct. Leftwingers claim it as a prescient endorsement of community values, and applaud its misgivings about unbridled capitalism; conservatives revere it as full of insight into individual liberty, and about the failings of human nature and government. Political theorists love its generalisations; historians, who are antagonistic to theorists, love its panoramically detailed picture of America in the early 19th century. Scholars love its range and reliability; and the general reader likes it because De Tocqueville's prose rips along.
This is partly because of his own character. The basic line on De Tocqueville is that he was an aristocrat by birth and inclination, and became a democrat with the application of intellect (which reminds me pleasingly of "Conservative by inclination, Labour by experience", the self-definition provided by David Niven's character in A Matter of Life and Death ). This being a time when democracy was very much at the experimental stage, his willingness to examine the fledgling phenomenon involved a certain amount of integrity, an abandonment of prejudice, or of dishonest inclination. And he stuck to the principles he worked out for himself. He has been compared to Montesquieu and Rousseau, but the former has moments of almost mindless conservatism, and the latter is too often interested in himself at the expense of the evidence in front of him. Neither fault applies to De Tocqueville.
Take, for instance, his position on the racial divides in America: he thought the treatment of the natives shameful in the extreme, a disgrace which almost amounted to genocide; and slavery disgusted him not only in principle, but, as he took pains to discover and then point out, it was economically inefficient, to put it mildly. At the same time he was not impressed by the treatment of former slaves in the supposedly free states, and his clear-headed pessimism reverberates down the ages.
As does so much of this book. I asked an American to flip through it to see if she could find anything flat-out wrong: she couldn't. So much of it holds true, or roughly true, today. You simply cannot find a better book about the American character, or the influence of egalitarianism on the psyche. He tells us why Americans have such an odd attitude to pleasure, why they assent, or will assent, to the benign despotism of a relatively considerate government, and how the electoral system may produce aberrant results. After the flatly arresting sentence "Religious insanity is very common in the United States," we get a one-line paragraph: "We should not be surprised at this." He then goes on to explain why. Yet he also puts his finger on the American fondness and respect for hard work, probity and personal decency - all springing from the ideals of the new society that was forming under their noses.
"Democracy in America will continue to be read with profit as long as the United States survives as a republic and, indeed, as long as democracy endures," wrote one American professor recently, adding that it was "arguably the best book ever written not only on America but also on democracy itself". Of course, America may well now be heading, in a big hurry, to a post-democratic position; so the book only became out of date on September 11 2001. Even so, you couldn't call it irrelevant. It is so enlightened, so uncannily accurate, that it is impossible to gainsay even now.
This edition was actually published in America last year. You will notice the American spellings have been retained. Fair enough. One hopes the Americans appreciate it.