Thinking with Tocqueville: Courage not Ambition, Moderation not Pessimism

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Alexis de Tocqueville

Over the past years, I have been asking the students taking my modern political thought class to write an essay imagining what Tocqueville might have said if he visited America today. This open-ended assignment invites them to select a few major concepts from Democracy in America and apply them to our contemporary context. Since there are no fixed answers, my main goal is to stir their imagination and make them think for a moment “like” and “with” Tocqueville.[1] When explaining the assignment, I always remind them that the young Frenchman was only a few years older than them (he was twenty-six year old when he arrived in New York!) and had a great intellectual ambition but almost no first-hand political experience. Tocqueville tried to create a new political science for a new world, as he famously put it in the introduction to Volume One of Democracy in America (1835).  He offered a new way of analyzing social and political phenomena, one that went beyond the method used by his contemporaries (including Marx). If Tocqueville came to America with several preconceptions about the fundamental nature and the direction of modern society (which he acquired in part by attending Guizot’s lectures on civilization in Europe and France), he was, however, open to new experiences and willingly embraced new conceptual challenges. America taught him a few unexpected lessons about the equality of conditions, civil society, pluralism, religion, centralization, participatory democracy, the democratic mind, and the limits of affluence.

All these issues loom large in Chilton Williamson Jr.’s After Tocqueville: The Promise and Failure of Democracy (ISI Books, 2012), a meditation on the troubled nature of our contemporary democracy that draws inspiration from Tocqueville’s analysis although at times it has more in common with Robert Bork’s strictures against liberalism and modern society. A native of New York City, Mr. Williamson is a former literary editor of The National Review and author of The Conservatives Bookshelf and several other books such as (most recently) Mexico Way and The Education of Héctor Villa. Despite his East Coast origins, Mr. Williamson is very much a Western man who moved in 1979 from New York to Wyoming from where he has been trying to make sense of a world gone mad (in his view). From his western outpost surrounded by beautiful landscapes and beloved horses, Mr. Williamson has written many articles in which he has sought to explain what it would take to re-enchant the modern world.

He has few illusions about the state of our country and democracy (“This is not the America described in Tocqueville’s book, nor is it the American Republic envisioned by James Madison,” p. 93) and believes that the Right has been losing steadily to the Left, which, in his view, “was dedicated  from the first to destruction, from the church and monarchy down” (p. 114). The conclusion to one of his essays, “What’s Wrong with the World” explains why the Western civilization and the United States are under imminent threat: “Organic development, not Hegelian synthesis, is what characterizes free societies, true societies, real societies, as distinguished from incoherent ersatz ones, such as the United States has grown into over the past century and a half. If anarcho-tyranny and libertine-Puritanism make no sense, that is because the nation that developed them fails to make sense, as well.”[2]

Mr. Williamson believes that if Tocqueville were to pay us a visit, he “would be shocked and scandalized by the United States today” (p. xix). He would discover a country suffering from social, political, and military obesity and ravaged by political correctness and self-censorship, a nation that continues to live in a world of dreams and is close to its final demise. In fact, Williamson argues, Tocqueville would note that “the American Republic is a republic no longer and that the American federal democratic system is being wrecked and delegitimized by political and administrative centralization, bureaucracy, the imperial presidency, judicial tyranny, the erosion of civil liberties, the growth of a police state, corruption in government, the influence of interest groups and of lobbies, the power of money in electoral politics, and the irresponsibility of the two-party system” (p. 10).

The indictment list is daunting and no one can afford to ignore the problems raised by Mr. Williamson. At the heart of his book lies the idea that “we must rid ourselves of large ideas and grand syntheses and devote ourselves to the ‘restitution of man’ on which the return of democracy depends” (p. 228). This may sound appealing to some but, were Tocqueville to visit us today, I doubt he would see America through the same lenses that pit the forces of light against the agents of darkness.

For one thing, he would probably refrain from using Mr. Williamson’s (ideological) definition of democracy as “a shorthand for universal bliss,” “a synonym for utopia” (p. 73), and “a false religion” (p. 74). Democracy in America is hardly a clear-cut indictment of modern democracy even if it is not an unqualified endorsement of the latter either. In fact, as James T. Schleifer demonstrated in a classic study,[3] one can find many (nineteen?) meanings of “democracy” in Tocqueville’s book. His alleged lack of precision in defining democracy (along the fundamental distinction between democracy as a form of society and a form of government) was a self-conscious strategy, as it is evident from reading the drafts and notes in the recent Liberty Fund critical edition of his work. Tocqueville distrusted deterministic accounts of history and never lost hope in the future of democracy and freedom, although toward the end of his life he came to espouse a darker view of America as the country was edging toward civil war.[4]

Unlike Mr. Williamson who speaks to a (mostly) conservative audience,[5] and dislikes the word liberalism, and laments (in a Burkean tone) the disappearances of a bygone past, the Frenchman had a unique ability to address various forward-looking constituencies and speak different languages, left and right. Tocqueville was fully aware of the wide appeal of his book and took delight in it, even if he disliked political categories and declared himself a “liberal of a new kind” who proudly followed no rigid doctrine and had no party behind him.[6] In 1837, Tocqueville confessed to his English translator, Henry Reeve: “Independently of the serious interest I take in the opinions others may hold of me, it delights me to see the different features that are given to me according to the political passions of the person who cites me. It is a collection of portraits that I like to assemble. To the present day, I have not yet found one of them that completely looked like me. They absolutely want to make me a party man and I am not in the least; they assign me passions and I have only opinions, or rather I have only one passion, the love of liberty and human dignity.”[7]

I suspect Mr. Williamson sympathizes with Tocqueville’s confession even if, in the end, it is obvious that he does not fully share his middling sensibility and forma mentis.[8] Mr. Williamson may very well claim that his book is “neither for nor against democracy” (p. 228) but his perspective is far from being moderate, as is the case with Tocqueville. The reader of Williamson’s book realizes that many of Tocqueville’s topics and concerns overlap with the issues affecting our lives today. To be sure, Tocqueville warned against the all-consuming obsession with money, the increasing relativism and commercialization of life, the excesses of equality and liberty, and the general abasement of mind and taste brought forth by the rise of the middle class.[9] Some of these topics are discussed in After Tocqueville.

Mr. Williamson believes that we are witnessing the inevitable end of a long historical age which made possible the rise of democracy. He agrees with Tocqueville on the need to preserve a certain balance between aristocratic and democratic elements in modern society and much like his famous predecessor, he perceives before himself very few things worth loving or hating and many things worth despising. He laments the fact that, by becoming subservient to industrial interests, politics had changed its end, being demoted to the ancillary status of the administration of economic questions or to a mere dispute over purely commercial and industrial interests. For Mr. Williamson, this seems the ultimate stage of democracy, “the triumph of ideology in politics,” which (in his view) coincided with the election of President Obama in 2008.[10]

A major difference between the two authors has to do with their intellectual and political agendas. Much more than Mr. Williamson who seems to despair of modern democracy because of its tendency to promote selfish individualism, managerial bureaucracy, and a new form of tyranny, Tocqueville found the task of moderating democracy intellectually rewarding and politically challenging. He clearly stated his goals not only in the carefully crafted introduction to Democracy in America but also in the equally important preface to Volume One of The Old Regime and the Revolution.  “Today,” he wrote in the latter, “humanity is driven by an unknown force which we can hope to moderate, but not to defeat.”[11] This force poses a number of significant threats to freedom including an excessive preoccupation with private interests, narrow individualism, isolation, all of which make possible the appearance of a new form of soft, democratic despotism.

These topics are also discussed in Mr. Williamson’s book. Yet, while the latter would probably agree with Tocqueville’s claim that the primary task of those called to govern modern society is “to instruct democracy, to revive its beliefs if possible, to purify its mores, to regulate its movements,”[12] he does not seem to offer a clear political agenda for promoting the knowledge of democracy’s true interests in order to limits its blind instincts. To put it mildly, Mr. Williamson does not seem very hopeful about our contemporary political scene. He has a low opinion of the Internet (for fostering a specious form of equality and creating a fictitious universe) and fears multiculturalism and the ongoing demographic changes which, he warns, are bringing a dangerous ethnic and racial alteration of Western democratic politics (the danger of a Muslim takeover of the Western culture is discussed in chapter 10). Finally, Mr. Williamson has little faith in the modern man and the public sphere, allegedly characterized by political incoherence and cognitive dissonance. He distrusts the politics of human rights and criticizes even the Vatican for its “platitudinous verbiage concerning ‘human rights’ and ‘the dignity of man’ and ‘human development” (p. 147).

The question remains: is modern democracy really doomed, as Mr. Williamson would have us believe? Several pages in After Tocqueville dwell on the cultural and intellectual effects of unchecked and uneducated democracy. The author criticizes democracy as “inherently anti-traditional” (p. 103), relativist and atheist (p. 94), and insists that the democracy of the Left (in the guise of “advanced” liberalism) is a “false religion” marred by pride and self-righteousness (p. 115). Like Tocqueville, he seems to be concerned with the quality of the human soul as much as with political institutions. Yet his analysis suggests different solutions to the problems of mass democracy and mass society which are “by nature hedonistic, selfish, and narcissistic” (p. 224) and is no longer a society in the real sense of the term.

For his part, Tocqueville encouraged pluralism and diversity and saw himself called to play the role of a trimmer keeping the ship on an even keel. Variety is disappearing from within the human species, he noted, and the same manner of acting, thinking, and feeling is found in all the corners of the world. In a note written for himself (but never published), he wrote: “Ambition is not more moderate, but effeminate. It is not ambition that is small, courage is. Ambition is rather vulgar than small. Vulgar, this is the true word of my chapter.”[13] In yet another note that was found after his death, he confessed that he loved liberty, but not democracy and that he despised the mob.

Some of us are likely to find Tocqueville’s diagnosis and prescription much more convincing precisely because of its sense of balance and judicious moderation, two qualities absent from Mr. Williamson’s book. Tocqueville understood that the new social democratic state produces great goods but also gives birth to a number of dangerous tendencies that can be countervailed through wise institutional crafting. “These seeds, if left to grow unchecked,” he argued in a letter to a reviewer of his book, “would produce, it seemed to me, a steady lowering of the intellectual level of society with no conceivable limit, and this would bring in its train the materialism of mores, and finally, universal slavery. I thought I saw that mankind was moving in this direction, and I viewed the prospect with terror. It was essential, I thought, for all men of good will to join in exerting the strongest possible pressure in the opposite direction.”[14]

As this superb passage clearly shows, Tocqueville never despaired of the possibility of moderating and educating democracy. This does not seem to be the case of Chilton Williamson Jr. who believes that we have lost our “will to be civilized” (p. 101) once we have taken the road to serfdom (i.e. the welfare state). While the picture of America and the modern world he offers in his latest book should not be dismissed too easily as yet another conservative and nostalgic lament, one thing is sure. Despite its title, it has little in common with Tocqueville’s moderate and balanced approach to democracy. If the latter were to visit America today, it is likely that he would write a book that would have been very different from Mr. Williamson’s dark reflections on the promise and failure of modern democracy.


[1] As Robert Nisbet once pointed out, “it is in a way a high tribute to Tocqueville that at no time has there been, or is there likely to be, anything called Tocquevilleism.” Robert Nisbet, “Many Tocquevilles,” The American Scholar Winter (1976-1977), p. 65. Also see François Bourricaud, “Les ‘convictions’ de M. de Tocqueville,” The Tocqueville Review/La revue Tocqueville, 7 (1985-1986), pp. 105-115.


(accessed on November 24, 2012).

[3] James T. Schleifer, The Making of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000), pp. 325-339.

[4]  See Tocqueville on America after 1840: Letters and Other Writings, edited and translated, with an interpretive essay, notes, and appendices by Aurelian Craiutu and Jeremy Jennings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[5] It is surprising that in a conservative book like this one praised for its “limitless” erudition (the phrase is taken from an endorsement from the back cover), the name of a prominent conservative thinker such as Michael Oakeshott is never mentioned. In reality, Oakeshott’s conservatism does not fit well the ideological nature of many variants of contemporary American conservatism whose outlook remains somewhat parochial. Two other European conservative thinkers who are still underappreciated in America are Wilhelm Röpke (1899-1966) and Gustave Thibon (1903-2001).

[6] I note in passing that, while liberalism appears on the index of Williamson’s book on p. 256, it has (with the possible exception of “aristocratic liberalism”) only negative connotations: anti-Christian, anti-monarchical, a dangerous doctrine, an enemy of Western civilization, etc. In reality, there are many forms of liberalism and the European variants are different from the Anglo-American ones. For a good overview on this topic, see J. G. Merquior, Liberalism, Old & New (Boston: Twayne, 1991).

[7] Letter to Henry Reeve (March 22, 1837) in Alexis de Tocqueville, Selected Letters on Society and Politics, ed. Roger Boesche, trans. Roger Boesche and James Toupin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), pp. 115-16.

[8] On Tocqueville’s moderation, see Aurelian Craiutu, “Tocqueville’s Paradoxical Moderation,” The Review of Politics, 67: 4 (2005), pp. 599-629.

[9] “The greatest malady that threatens a people organized as we are,” Tocqueville wrote, “is the gradual softening of mores, the abasement of the mind, the mediocrity of tastes; that is where the great dangers of the future lie. … One cannot let this nation take up easily the habit of sacrificing what it believes to be its grandeur to its repose, great matters to petty ones” (Tocqueville, Selected Letters, p. 151).

[10] The same can be said of the radical libertarianism of the Tea Party whose ideological doctrinairism cost the GOP a few important seats in the recent elections of November 2012. Mr. Williamson limits himself to comparing the Tea Party to a populist movement (pp. 162-65) but refrains from going further. Sarah Palin’s low-quality populism would have also deserved a more trenchant critique in his book.

[11] Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the Revolution, trans. Alan S. Kahan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), vol. I, p. 87; emphasis added.

[12] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. Eduardo Nolla, trans. James T. Schleifer (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010), vol. I, p. 16; all emphases added.

[13] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. IV, p. 1121, n. j; emphasis added.

[14] Letter to Silvester de Sacy as quoted in André Jardin, Tocqueville (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1988), p. 273.