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'On Tocqueville' examines the life and work of one of America's most prescient observers

Alexis de Tocqueville was only 25 when he visited the United States in 1831 but his book remains influential to this day. 

"Amongst the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of conditions.” So begins "Democracy in America," the best-known work by the French aristocrat, political philosopher, and politician Alexis de Tocqueville, who popularized the term “tyranny of the majority.” In today’s post-Occupy, post-Great Recession United States, this opening line shows what a different set of connotations America held for a 19th-century European readership. The book has remained influential to this day, not only for its outsider's perspective on the democratic culture of the young American nation but for how resonant many of its observations are in today's political and economic climate.

In Alan Ryan’s new examination of the famous French thinker, On Tocqueville, he shows how the ideas of his contemporaries and near-contemporaries Montesquieu, Benjamin Constant, and François Guizot combined to inform his depiction of a United States where basic material equality was “the fundamental fact from which all others seem to be derived.” From there, Alan moves on to discuss Tocqueville’s feelings on French imperialism and his analysis of the causes of revolution, followed by a selection of lengthy excerpts from his most famous text.

Tocqueville was only 25 when he visited the United States in 1831, and "Democracy in America" was published when he was 30. As a young French nobleman whose parents narrowly avoided death in the period of republican terror during the French Revolution, whose relatives ranged from Jacobins to followers of the proto-socialist Gracchus Babeuf, America seemed to Tocqueville like a great, volatile experiment in political and civic equality, whose ultimate outcome was uncertain but fascinating to contemplate.

Tocqueville believed the world to be on the cusp of “a great democratic revolution” whose epicenter was the burgeoning nation that had so recently shaken off the British colonial yoke. Indeed, he wrote “under the impression of a kind of religious dread” at the prospect of the democratic, egalitarian society whose advent he predicted with such certainty. Tocqueville believed that democracy’s advance proceeded hand in hand with a steady march toward material equality, which he said “possesses all the characteristics of a divine decree.”

For this reason, Tocqueville was fascinated by the power and confidence of the American middle class, which produced a government he saw as “favorable to the political power of lawyers ... [who] belong to the people by birth and interest, to the aristocracy by habit and by taste.” Given that 43 percent of members of Congress today belong to the legal profession, this observation may not have been entirely inaccurate. Ryan points out how this follows from the influence of French political philosopher Montesquieu, particularly his belief that societies based on “commerce” were more peaceable and subject to the rule of law than those based on classical conceptions of “virtue.”

Ryan notes that Tocqueville’s love of democracy did not prevent him from applauding the French invasion and colonization of Algeria. Tocqueville believed “the French needed a national project to bring the country together, and the conquest and settlement of Algeria could be it.” Unlike the United States, Tocqueville saw the fundamental inequality of French society as a major obstacle to social cohesion. “What France would get from success in Algeria was national glory, an increase in self-confidence and solidarity,” Ryan writes.

This lack of French social cohesion was something Tocqueville studied at length after his experience in America, and Ryan summarizes his views as being a form of modern social science’s “reference group theory.” As Ryan puts it, new Americans “who compared themselves with their poorer, more confined European selves felt happier than their objective conditions warranted,” whereas even a growing French middle class felt stymied by their inferiority to their country’s massively wealthy and powerful aristocratic establishment.

Ryan points out that Tocqueville didn’t see America’s democratic, egalitarian revolution as unquestionably positive, however. "Democracy" ends on an ambiguous note: “The nations of our time cannot prevent the conditions of men from becoming equal; but it depends upon themselves whether the principle of equality is to lead them to servitude or freedom, to knowledge or barbarism, to prosperity or to wretchedness.”

Looking at our world, with its combination of hyper-wealthy international oligarchs, stagnating middle classes in the rich world, and rising middle classes in the global South, it’s hard to say how Tocqueville would view the outcome of the changes he witnessed in his time. Perhaps he would see the growing disparity between the ultra-rich and the rest as a harbinger of revolution, or the crest of the democratic wave. Maybe he would see leveling inequality between countries as foreshadowing a new global middle-class polity. What’s certain is that he would evince the same curiosity and reverence for the uncanny forces remaking our societies as he did for those that shaped his own, tracing the patterns he could, and expressing earnest wonder at those beyond his reach.

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