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. 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.
“I have only one passion, the love of liberty and human dignity.”
~Alexis de Tocqueville
Democracy in America had a great ambition: to offer the blueprint for a new science of politics in the service of freedom. The famous claim made in the introduction to the book speaks for itself: “A new political science is needed for a world entirely new” (DA, I, 16). To this effect, Tocqueville brought about a new way of analyzing social and political phenomena that opposed rigid deterministic theories of political and social development. Many political events, he believed, could not be accounted for by theories pretending to explain or foresee the development of societies. In the footsteps of Montesquieu, Tocqueville recognized that all societies are diverse and pluralistic in composition, molded by a complex mix of constantly evolving factors including history, physical environment, culture, and laws. No general theory of politics could adequately capture this complex amalgam and predict the development of society: “Antecedent facts, the nature of institutions, the cast of minds and the state of morals are the materials of which are composed those impromptus which astonish and alarm us.”