May 7, 2014

De Tocqueville as Prophet

Michael Barone who has read far more of deTocqueville than I have writes  Tocqueville Said This Would Happen

The eminent political scientist Harvey Mansfield has called Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835) “the best book ever written on democracy and the best book ever written on America.” And with good reason. Tocqueville was eerily prescient. He foresaw the possibility of civil war. He mused about the possibility that the world in the twentieth century would be dominated by two great powers, one democratic and one despotic, America and Russia: the Cold War. He also foresaw that a democratic nation could descend into what he called a “soft” despotism. In that respect he anticipated the conservative critique of the growth of the federal government and many of the public policy initiatives of the past hundred years.
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Tocqueville’s vivid picture of soft despotism appears almost abruptly, at the end of the second volume of Democracy in America (1840). Up to that point, his depiction of democratic America is mostly (though not entirely) positive.
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"I do not fear that in their chiefs [Americans] will find tyrants, but rather schoolmasters. . . . I think therefore that the kind of oppression with which democratic peoples are threatened will resemble nothing that has preceded it in the world; our contemporaries would not find its image in their memories. I myself seek in vain an expression that exactly reproduces the idea that I form of it for myself and that contains it; the old words despotism and tyranny are not suitable. The thing is new, therefore I must try to define it, since I cannot name it.

I want to imagine with what new features despotism could be produced in the world: I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others: his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them and does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and if a family still remains for him, one can at least say that he no longer has a native country.
Posted by Jill Fallon at May 7, 2014 10:01 AM | Permalink