Alexis de Tocqueville:
The Man They Love to Quote
or All for Tocqueville
and Tocqueville for All
Here's something to ponder. Why has the 19th Century French historian Alexis de Tocqueville been quoted so frequently by American political figures as disparate in their views as Newt Gingrich and Hilary Rodham Clinton? Alexander Haig and Richard Holbrook? Dan Quayle and Gary Hart?
Because Tocqueville wrote a behemoth, two volume, 1000 page tome entitled "Democracy in America", that's why. It's a good title. This is America and we're a democracy. If you had to write a speech, or an article or even a book about the United States, and you wanted to do some research, you might just reach for a big book called "Democracy in America". Chances are you'd find something quotable. Tocqueville covered a lot of ground. Actually, he covered all the ground.
"Democracy in America", written after a visit to the United States in the 1830's, was Tocqueville's assessment of the social, political and cultural ramifications of democracy on the lives of Americans. It seems today as if he prophesied the effects social equality would have upon the human condition with alarming accuracy.
But the accuracy itself was provisional, the result of an abundance of potentialities, which is why culling "Democracy in America" for suitable quotes isn't much of strain no matter who you are, when you were born or what you believe. It is sort of like the five endings shot for the season finale of the sitcom "Friends." Given that many choices, one of them is bound to air.
And he's got a fancy name, you know? Foreign. Aristocratic. Americans love foreign aristocrats. Always have. And a name with a "de" in it is especially good. Alexis "of" Tocqueville. He is known throughout Tocqueville. Quoting Alexis de Tocqueville says: I'm a smarty. Unless of course you are Dan Quayle, who in a speech in Singapore pronounced the author's name "TOCK-a-vil" rather than "TOKE-veel".
In any case, "Democracy in America" has a chapter on just about everything--the constitution, political parties, local government, war, the press, religion, women and the equality of the sexes (yikes--plenty here for those Southern Baptists.), science, industry, morality, manners, and family, etc. I think Pia Zadora could find a quote here.
As I flipped through the indexes of new non-fiction books at the Barnes & Noble on Lex and 86th, I encountered, well, a ton of Tocqueville. The new Nixon biography, Richard Holbrook's "To End a War", Charles Adams' "Those Dirty Rotten Taxes", Gary Hart's "The Minute Man", "Bobby Kennedy, The Last Patrician", and George Will's "Bunts" (about, yes, baseball)-- all, somehow, found room for a little Tocqueville. Surprisingly, though, he was not invoked in "Strong Women Stay Slim".
Perhaps some future oeuvre by President Clinton, who has been known to conjure our boy Alexis in the past, could be called the felicitous "How Democracy Renders the Habitual Intercourse of the Americans Simple and Easy."
What's odd about Tocqueville's popularity in America is that he is not exactly complimentary to Americans. The caste system of the European aristocracies was still deeply ingrained in him as the only cultural order capable of producing greatness. Equality engendered conformism, mediocrity; it was incompatible with personal liberty, the kind of liberty that allows men (I'd like to add "and women", but he didn't) to say and write what they think. A chapter on the arts is titled "The Example of the Americans Does Not Prove That a Democratic People Can Have No Aptitude and No Taste for Science, Literature, or Art." Why, thank you. Nice double negative. How about this: "Nothing conceivable is so petty, so insipid, so crowded with paltry interests, in one word, so anti-poetic, as the life of a man in the United States." Funny. I haven't come across that quote again anywhere.
Tocqueville is a favorite of the Speaker of the House. I know this because the abridged edition of "Democracy in America" I purchased for this article has a red sunburst on the front inscribed with the words "...Newt Gingrich's...required reading." Abridged Tocqueville is kind of like watching "That's Entertainment!" for a class on the history of film but, hey, if it's good enough for Newt, it's good enough for me. As Tocqueville said, "In the United States, the majority undertakes to supply a multitude of ready-made opinions for the use of individuals, who are thus relieved from the necessity of forming opinions of their own." Dumbing things down for mass consumption? That's democracy!
But if your subject is equality of the masses, here's an even more expedient way to impart the lessons of Tocqueville. Read "The Sneetches" by Dr. Suess. It's an allegorical tale about the illusory benefits of having a star tattooed on one's stomach. It portends the lessening influence of aristocracy in the new world order and yet at the same time addresses Tocqueville's great fear that the "tyranny of the majority" will lead to the destruction of the individual. And it can be read in one sitting.
"That day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches, and no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches. That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars, and whether they had one, or not, upon thars."
Interpret this as you would your Tocqueville, loosely.