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"Who Gives a Fuck About Tocqueville?"

jschlosser's picture

"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.



jschlosser's picture

Here are the two questions I wanted to consider in light of my essay:


1. How can historical examples inform or inspire our political visions (if at all)?


2. What would better help us to formulate and bring into being political goals?


jschlosser's picture

Sheldon Wolin, whom I mention in the essay above, died last week. His obituary in the New York Times (link) quotes another Wolin student, Nicholas Xenos, describing Wolin's work in ways that echo my own descriptions of political theory:


“The book revitalized political theory by making its history relevant to an analysis of the present,” Nicholas Xenos, a student of Professor Wolin’s and a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, wrote in an email. “It challenged the behavioralists, for whom history was increasingly irrelevant. It also provided a way to criticize the present using the concepts and vocabulary that since antiquity had sustained concern for what he called ‘the possibilities of collectivity, common action and shared purposes.’ ”

Anne Dalke's picture

“The literary canon is the legacy of honourable failures”  (Zadie Smith, “Failing Better,” 2006).

So, in my memory of this exchange, no one turned to look ;)

And why would they? We were @ the Vintage Wine Bar on 13th Street, a hot spot where the hot topics really weren't pedagogical ones, as mine was -- as in, why would varieties of 21st century students be interested in (and/or: how to get them interested in?) the reflections of a 19th century Frenchman? Why would folks aghast at the re-inscription of the color line in 2015 want to spend time with a writer who failed to condemn institutional and cultural racism in America?

My question was less about Tocqueville than about the students who would be reading him. WHO were the people who would care about what Tocqueville has to say? What would they come to our classes already interested in? How best to draw out those interests, expand and complexify them…?

My question came out of my own experience in repeatedly teaching courses like "Big Books of American Literature" and "Major Texts of the Feminist Tradition." I’ve always, myself, been a lover of big books and major texts. But over the years I had noticed that fewer and fewer of my students were….

Fewer of them were the sort of voracious reader that I’ve always been. Fewer of them valued texts as texts. Those written long ago felt especially far away to them, inaccessible. So I started to play with the chronology. Instead of slogging slowly from Melville to Whitman, I’d begin with some contemporary play or film of an older story. Instead of swimming from Wollstonecraft to Woolf, I’d start with Woolf and go backwards …. trying all the while to start with the students, or @ least to locate my class in a place closer to where I thought they might be, and then work back to the texts that I thought might give them insight into -- and ways to change -- the world they live in now.

Joel heard this story, and its happy ending was his decision to begin his class this semester with Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, as entrée, a compass directing our students back to Tocqueville….

And/but/so what I also want to say now is that my challenge was not only pedagogical but also canonical, aiming, via Tocqueville, at revisiting the old debates about just what-to-teach-and-why. How much time to spend on the classical texts? Why orient our classes around them? An important guide for me, in this regard, was Paul Lauter’s essay on “Caste, Class and Canon,” which calls into question conventional hierarchies of taste, in subject matter, genre, language, imagery….

I do think that Joel’s experimental essay is beautifully argued, and that Tocqueville displays all these qualities he catalogues. But following Lauter’s line of analysis, I also think that the parameters of Joel’s argument can be stretched. Some of the stretching agents are the concept of women as agents, the experience of slavery, the inter-mixture of multiple cultures, the networks of urban areas and high technology, the challenges of climate change, of large population migrations, of the flux of time, of relativity…

Tocqueville was a white, European male, who focused on rural and small city life, and was attached to traditional notions of Greek -> Jeffersonian democracy, as well as to the traditional notion that the present is built on the past.  He doesn’t address what the theory of evolution has taught us, since his time, about the unsurprisability of sudden, unpredictable change, the inevitable consequences of a large number of simple interactions among simple things. I don’t hear Tocqueville addressing many of unwieldy issues central to our lives today -- some of them unprecedented -- and, given the limits of time, of a semester, I’d be loathe to give too much weight or time to the older, smaller world he describes and circumscribes (as Joel says, “he focuses his account of America only on a small portion of it….”).

Given the complexity of our world, I don't think we can ever construct an adequate canon. Class reading lists are a zero-sum game: for every writer added, another is dropped.  And the debates about which writers to include are heated because we all believe (I mean all we profs believe) that if we don’t assign it NOW, our students won’t ever read it, not in their lives.

As Joel says, “Tocqueville is not fully adequate to the problems of twenty-first century America.” And -- since no one is -- I’ve shifted from canonical texts that students should master, to focus more on modes of inquiry and interpretation, especially on those that question known modes of doing things. I no longer valorize individual texts (like those written by Tocqueville), which now seem to me to matter less than habits of reading and ways of thinking. Learning from Katie Canon to come to class "not thinking of a territory to be covered, but with a compass to point the meta-logical direction,” I’ve moved away entirely from courses constructed around any sort of recognizable “canon.”  

Given 14 weeks, given the wide, wide range of texts about the arts of freedom, given even Joel’s wonderfully articulate rendering what Tocqueville says that seems so important …. I’m still not quite convinced that our students include themselves among those who now give a fuck about Tocqueville. (I’d be very interested to hear if they do…?)

And I just can’t resist ending this response with a reference to the recent announcement of the newly, irreverently renamed “WTF” week of initiation @ Bryn Mawr….

adixon's picture

"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"

Are all narratives equally valuable then as well? Treated as equally valuable? How does one (by which I mean a prof) assign value to texts relative to other texts?  The planning discussion for the Play in the City course gave me some insight into how difficult it is to not just rely on the canon to answer this question.