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Columns

A One-Way Conversation with Tocqueville

By Talia M. Blatt, Contributing Opinion Writer
Talia M. Blatt ‘23 is a resident of Currier House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville traveled around the United States in the mid-19th century, meeting with prisoners and politicians alike, and writing observations about American culture and governance that would become his two-volume work “Democracy in America.”

Tocqueville prized the conversations he had as a stranger in a strange land: “The stranger often learns by the hearth of his host important truths, that the latter would perhaps conceal from a friend; with the stranger you ease the burden of a forced silence; you are not afraid of his indiscretion because he is passing through.”

Like many of my peers, I spent most of last week compulsively reloading various news sites and anxiously monitoring every development in American democracy. Reading Tocqueville’s leisurely, distanced perspectives on the same subject roughly two hundred years earlier was both disorienting and calming.

I have written about the importance of engaging with strangers from different generations. Cross-century interactions seem equally valuable — and Tocqueville, I think, would agree. But though Tocqueville was at times prescient, the ways in which he missed the mark can be just as interesting.

Reading Tocqueville on elections and American democracy was a reminder that little of our current moment is new. Tocqueville thought a lot about the presidency of Andrew Jackson, whom he viewed as a vacuous populist. “Strong due to a support that his predecessors did not have, he tramples underfoot his personal enemies wherever he finds them, with an ease that no President has found,” he wrote, “on his own responsibility he takes measures that none before him would ever have dared to take; it even happens that he treats the national representation with a sort of almost insulting disdain.”

I would not be the first to compare our current — and soon to be unemployed — president to the infamous 19th-century populist. In many ways, Andrew Jackson’s election prefigured Trump’s: Both men were elected by personality more than policy, and campaigned against elitism despite their personal wealth.

More to the point now, both called foul on elections they lost (Jackson with a perhaps more legitimate grievance in 1824), had love-hate relationships with the courts, and embodied invigorated party polarization.

Modern critics of Jackson highlight the Indigenous genocide he committed, his support for slavery, and his economic policies, which were largely responsible for the Panic of 1837. But Tocqueville was more concerned with what many consider Jackson’s greatest and lasting achievements: broadened enfranchisement and public participation in democracy. Tocqueville feared the United States would become subject to a “tyranny of the majority,” and praised backstops like the Electoral College and indirect election of senators for preventing complete majority rule.

Tocqueville’s criticisms fit with his overarching fear in “Democracy in America” — which he described viscerally as a “religious terror” — of an uncontrolled social leveling, something he believed was inevitable. “So the gradual development of equality of conditions [{democracy}] is a providential fact; it has the principal characteristics of one: it is universal, it is lasting, it escapes every day from human power; all events, like all men, serve its development,” he worried.

Tocqueville’s vision of democracy, while profoundly disturbing to him, is strangely comforting to us now. He believed in democracy as a telos, as something embedded in our nation’s genetic material; he saw a march toward equality that ebbed and flowed but always moved in the same direction.

In some ways, last week’s election seems evidence of this postulate: Americans repudiated Trumpist authoritarianism with the largest popular vote total in history. Election day itself went surprisingly smoothly; record-breaking turnout in the face of a pandemic ostensibly aligns with Tocqueville’s commentary on the unmatchable democratic impulses of Americans.

But this result was anything but providence: It was the product of a lot of time and labor, particularly from local organizers and activists. And as Republican victories in both houses of Congress made clear, it was a result that could have gone the other way. Continued Senate and Electoral College disconnect from the popular vote also suggests that Tocqueville’s saving graces will be the primary drivers of tyranny in years to come.

Tocqueville was fascinated by presidential elections, which he saw as routinely destabilizing: “The President is absorbed by the care to defend himself. He no longer governs in the interest of the State, but in that of his re-election; he grovels before the majority; and often, instead of resisting its passions, as his duty requires, he runs ahead of its caprices,” he wrote. “The entire nation falls into a feverish state; the election is then the daily story of the public papers, the subject of individual conversations, the goal of all moves, the object of all thoughts, the sole interest of the moment.” This certainly feels like an apt description of the last few weeks.

But I disagree with Tocqueville’s view on the final stage of presidential elections: “It is true that as soon as fortune has decided, this ardor dissipates; everything becomes calm, and the river, once overflowing, retreats peacefully to its bed,” he wrote.

I hope, and believe, that the river will not retreat peacefully. The demands for more complete equality and representation are continuing past election day, and unlike Tocqueville, I say: Rage on.

Talia M. Blatt ‘23 is a resident of Currier House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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