"Who gives a fuck about Tocqueville?” It was March of 2015. Anne, Jody, and I were sitting in a restaurant near Jefferson Station, drinking wine. This was our third or fourth meeting in the planning stages of our 360 cluster and I had just revealed my initial cut at a course to be titled “Arts of Freedom.” A couple of other patrons turned their heads at Anne’s question.
Surprised, I stammered a response. “Well, Tocqueville coined the term ‘arts of freedom’; his portrait of early America shows the country at its best and at its worst. This lays the groundwork for confronting the structures of slavery and its aftermath as well as how these might be resisted.”
Anne pressed the point. She just didn’t think anyone would be interested in Tocqueville. My surprise only grew. As a political theorist, my instinct was to respond to any problem through genealogy: looking for points of origin, past responses, to a history that could offer new perspectives on the present. “The canon” – the generally agreed-upon but always shifting set of historical texts said to form a discipline – of political theory served as resource for this work, a reservoir into which I could dip when needing sustenance for thinking through a problem. But now someone was questioning the adequacy of the canon.
To elaborate my intuition about Tocqueville: I began with Tocqueville not because he has the right answers but because he identified the key problems facing an America divided by race and also committed to democracy. For me, Tocqueville’s focus on moeurs, on the “habits of the heart” that could simultaneously support the most robust egalitarianism in the history of the world and the most exploitative and longstanding system of slavery in the history of the world – this focus on how people could hold these contradictions in their thought and action was astounding. Tocqueville did not blame American political institutions, as many today might bemoan polarization or money’s influence on politics or gerrymandering. Instead Tocqueville pointed his finger at Americans themselves and worried about their susceptibility toward self-delusion. He pointed out that democracy depends on us and our evasions of reality undermine democracy.
Part of what conspires against democracy is its very egalitarianism, according to Tocqueville. Given the belief in the equality of all persons, all opinions quite easily come to be treated as equally valuable. The tyranny of the majority becomes more likely when the members of the majority abjure the responsibility to judge for themselves; when opinion homogenizes it also solidifies and rigidifies. This is why Tocqueville saw local government and institutions such as the jury as so important: these gave ordinary citizens the opportunity to judge for themselves, to practice political judgment; these institutions also brought citizens into close contact with other citizens skilled at making such judgments, be they lawyers or judges or the leaders of the community.
It’s not elitism according to Tocqueville that some are better than others at making judgments – it’s a simple fact. But Tocqueville’s radical vision of American democracy is that everyone could judge well and, moreover, that everyone need judge well for democracy to work. His final long chapter “on the three races” in America suggests a degree of pessimism about the Americans’ ability to do this – and he predicts the Civil War thirty years before it would take place – but doesn’t diminish the necessity of citizen judgment for successful democracy.
My teacher’s teacher, Sheldon Wolin, described political theory as a project of vision. In his magnum opus, Politics and Vision, Wolin writes that this vision has two dimensions. First, political theorists seek a clear vision of political things; we try to give an account of political reality. But second, political theorists also seek to envision political realities not yet realized. Political theorists are, in other words, seeing but also dreaming, confronting but also prophesying beyond the present conditions of political life.
We’ve talked about how Tocqueville sought to describe the America he saw. He mostly does so, although we could have spent more time examining how much he focuses his account of America only on a small portion of it as well as some of his famous misstatements about the actual organization of American government. (Many a historian has made hay of Tocqueville’s errors; I just don’t find such policing very interesting.) Wolin’s description of political theory, however, calls attention to the visionary dimension of Tocqueville’s project: Tocqueville may mostly describe America but he also does so in a way that suggests a better, brighter America. We harped at length on Tocqueville’s failure to condemn institutional and cultural racism in America, but his treatment of the subject suggests a vision of democracy that must overcome such divisions. Tocqueville pictures a democracy of radical equality, where ordinary people “count,” not merely as voters to be strategic activated come election season but as co-creators of the political order that supports them – as local leaders, as members of juries, as readers of and contributors to the media, and so forth – and Tocqueville recognizes that to realize this equality one must overcome the prejudices of that society, the barriers to genuine political equality that hamper the polity’s effectiveness and beneficence for all.
Tocqueville thus articulates the fundamental struggle to realize equality in a democratic society and puts the onus directly on its citizens (and, one should also say, inhabitants more generally). Tocqueville doesn’t provide a solution but he does show how the radical democratic vision of an organization like SNCC fits into a larger picture of how democratic life can achieve itself by making ordinary people into leaders of their communities. Tocqueville does not engage in the polemics of Michelle Alexander against “the new Jim Crow” but he anticipates this problem and laments the hypocrisy of Americans who claim they are democrats and yet support and foster a punitive society dedicated to exclusion of whole classes of people from the demos. Tocqueville anticipates the Civil War after which DuBois writes and in doing so Tocqueville worries about the ability of a racist society such as America to realize the promises of democracy. Tocqueville is not fully adequate to the problems of twenty-first century America but his inadequacies elicit our participation in imagining and articulating how democracy in America might come about.
If it’s not clear already, I take Tocqueville as important because he inspires while also challenging my own political vision of radical democratic resurgence. While I praise groups like Black Lives Matter, Tocqueville returns me to the limits of national organizations that do not begin with the highly localized arts of freedom that can develop the capacities of democratic citizens. While I find hope in the unapologetic protests of undocumented people, Tocqueville warns of the tyranny of an untutored majority standing against such claims of inclusion. And while I support prison abolition, Tocqueville chastens my faith that citizens in democracy can learn to forgive those who cross the will of the majority.
And yet from another angle, when I despair about the prospects of American democracy at a time when it seems much more to resemble a plutocracy riven with hate, oppression, and exclusion, Tocqueville reminds me of the extraordinary hope that imbued the American experiment. If I decry the racism of the Founders and the broken system they created, Tocqueville forces me to see that experimentalism has always been part of American democracy and that any vitality and creativity in the polity has come from ordinary citizens. It’s Tocqueville who would point us to the likes of Alexander Crummel rather than Booker T. Washington, to leaders like Ella Baker and Septima Clark rather than Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. It’s Tocqueville who despite his aristocratic heritage could marvel at how America flourished because of the efforts of ordinary people – and Tocqueville who emphasized the explicit limits of that flourishing, the democratic deficits that he saw as threatening the existence of the polity. Who gives a fuck about Tocqueville? I do – and you should too.