The Colonial Sublime
Non to Tocqueville!

America’s favorite Frenchman is not what he seems.

Published on: April 3, 2018
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  • Jeff77450

    Interesting. As a result of reading this article my knowledge of de Tocqueville is increased by an order of magnitude, which is to say that I knew very little about him.

    This isn’t the least bit profound but we’re all products of the times that we live in. Historical figures should be “judged,” if indeed they should be judged, within that context. “Great men have great flaws.” The Founding Fathers, Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill had views that today would be considered virulently racist but were the unremarkable norm at the time that they lived. The important thing about a “great” man or nation is “the net-net.” Winston Churchill is widely reviled in India for refusing to use ships needed for the war-effort to relieve the Bengal famine of 1943. I understand where they’re coming from but there’s no doubt in my mind that Western Civilization and the Free World is far better off because of him.

    Got on a tangent, my apologies. Anyway, my view of de Tocqueville is now somewhat tarnished but the value of _Democracy in America_ is undiminished.

  • QET

    Why is this writer’s sketch of Tocqueville the “real Tocqueville”? Other than his bare assertion, I see no evidence that the writer’s preferred representation of Tocqueville has any greater reality to it than the abolitionist Tocqueville who “both condemned African-American slavery and Native American dispossession, and did so eloquently,” and who acknowledged that certain European behavior in the New World had “dishonored the human race.”

    As for Algeria and the Arabs, having just finished Edward Said’s Orientalism I can safely say that there was not a single European writer to be found anywhere in the 19th century who did not harbor the very views Tocqueville is indicted for. Had there been such a one, Said surely would have mentioned him/her. Instead, Said takes great pains to demonstrate how even Europeans who appeared on the surface to see Arabs and their cultures humanistically in fact were harborers and purveyors of the same “Orientalism” Tocqueville is here charged with.

    I care little what Tocqueville’s reputation among the French intellectual caste is, and his shortcomings in human virtue are fair fodder for ad hominem polemic, but his understanding of the insidious logic of “equality” was second to none.

    • D4x

      “Why is this writer’s sketch of Tocqueville the “real Tocqueville”?” Good question QET. You were not in the comment thread for Ben Judah “Why I’ve Had Enough of George Orwell: Orwell is a terrible role-model for an age that needs more serious people honestly grappling with complexity.” Published: Nov 20, 2017 I did not bother with Ben’s subsequent TAI post on J. K. Rowling, because I have never bothered with her Harry Potter series. And, admit I never bothered with de Toqueville except in snippets, remembering his observations on the tendency of Americans to form associations in civil life when I was trying to find ‘communities of interest’ for a research project in political gerrymandering.

      Based on Ben’s attempt to discredit Orwell, looks like Ben’s mission in life is to ‘disappear’ the influence of writers whose work has influence, by applying presentism criteria. No different that the Monument Wars against Robert E. Lee (Confederate!), or, American Presidents from Thomas Jefferson (slaveowner!) to William McKinley (imperialist!).
      My concern is that Ben Judah gets paid to write this tripe, and may have influence on impressionable young minds, an influence to encourage trial by mob. Truly disturbing that the art and discipline of critical thinking really does seem to have been discarded.

      I just finished Hudson Institute’s Arthur Herman’s “1917: Lenin, Wilson, and the Birth of the New World Disorder”.
      Ben Judah surely wants to discredit that kind of ‘great man’ influence history, especially one that is meant to stimulate the reader into looking at history from a different perspective, not indoctrinate.
      If nothing else, Ben sure knows how to take the joy out of reading if every author comes with warning labels printed in the margins.


      • QET

        He is entitled to his opinion, of course, but what he is doing is merely “unmasking” Tocqueville in the manner described by Karl Mannheim. That is to say, he discredits the man rather than the ideas. Or, he discredits some of Tocqueville’s ideas on how Oriental (again, to use Said’s classification) societies are to be enlightened by European societies, and wants us to understand that as therefore discrediting all of Tocqueville’s work, including Democracy in America, which is a non sequitur. And to the extent he wants to discredit, or believes he has discredited, Tocqueville’s understanding of “equality,” well, in that case he is simply in error.

        • D4x

          Thank you – my ignorance of ‘theorist’ writings. e.g. political theories, and philosophy, shows. I like Mario Diana’s corollary from this thread: “rather than criticize the message—malign the messenger! Then, sometime in the near future, the hope is that no “decent” and “sensitive” person will even dare mention his name, and when some “deplorable” does so, he will be shut down immediately from the knee-jerk social opprobrium.”

          I also applaud MD’s term: “progressive totalitarianism”. Just finished my self-tutorial on American presidential history 1896-1919. Now back in India, late 1990’s. Need a long break in offline reading from anything about Turks, or ‘woke’ progressives.

          • QET

            Didn’t see MD’s comment before typing my reply!

        • KAM

          Precisely. To what, exactly, are we saying “Non”? That Tocqueville’s progressive credentials are not up to date in the 21st century?

          With respect to the ideas in Democracy in America, this is just a long ad hominem.

  • FriendlyGoat

    Natives of other countries can be most helpful in making worthwhile observations about America, but Alexis is 185 years out of date. Most of American life is not much like American life in the 1830’s. We need critical input of a more recent nature. One who I like is Simon Winchester, a Brit who traveled and wrote in the USA off and on for decades, on assignment for several publications. He became a U.S. citizen in 2011 and wrote a thoughtful book about America in 2013 entitled, “The Men Who United The States”.

    • Joe Eagar

      Have you read the book? Lots of things that apply to today, from the way cheap labor impoverishes everyone (Toqueville was struck by how richer the free states were than the slave ones), to the necessity of racial integration.

      • Tom

        Of course he hasn’t. de Tocqueville is well-liked by conservatives, which in his mind means de Tocqueville has nothing relevant to say.

    • Anthony
      • FriendlyGoat

        Yes, probably. But, the tax code and the Supreme Court would not be lost to the degree they now are. It has not yet dawned on most people how long the junk tail will wag.

        • Anthony

          The junk tail enabled by Media “both siderism” (such helping to undercut the effective use of public authority as well as abetting the erosion of our national political capacity). Regrettably, this occurs with (currently) little political costs to the Randians.

          • Tom

            The Randians are a rather smaller band of fanatics than the anti-Randians.

          • Anthony

            Maybe so but the ones I reference have GOP leadership positions in congress.

          • Tom

            And usually aren’t Randians.
            Meanwhile, the anti-Randian fanatics ran things for eight years or so. Didn’t work out real great.

          • Anthony

            Tom, as I’ve mentioned to you before home schooling and precosity have their place but experiencing life and living some years beyond computer screen and parochialism avails appreciation (and respect) for difference. I suggest you you examine Ayn Rand derivation before casually using ascription.

          • Tom

            Anthony, I was public schooled. I hope you know what they say about assumptions.

          • Anthony

            There was no assumption, just a reference to an old exchange; my point remains though – and I remember Public Schools as fine institutions to acquire both character and instruction; obviously, you were well served.

        • Anthony

          I read this, thought of you and decided to share (no other purpose):

          • FriendlyGoat

            Thanks. As time goes by, more and more professional writers and publications are catching up to the religio-catastrophe that actually produced Trumpism, and that’s a good thing.

            Separately, Corker, Flake and Collins could have derailed the Trump train, and they all had good personal reasons to do so. BUT—–what happened? They enabled the cult too, and only mouthed around about their criticisms, caving at every opportunity. A sickening result.

          • Anthony

            The seasoning for Trumpism precedes DJT (an opportunistic vessel). And yes there has been (and was) a “Great Republican Abdication.” Some critics have called it an imagined ideological compatibility (where there’s a belief that overlap of policy preferences exists) or holding the party line. Nevertheless as you infer, despite some hemming and hawing most Republicans leaders closed ranks. Now, here we are. And, you’re welcome.

          • Anthony
          • FriendlyGoat

            From that piece, near the end:

            “America can’t afford more political paralysis. One side or the other must win. This is a civil war that can be won without firing a shot. But it is a fundamental conflict between two worldviews that must be resolved in short order.”

            It’s fundamentally over. Conservatives won. How do we know? The tax code and the federal courts are eviscerated. Any fix for that? Not for years to decades, IMHO. Obviously, taking back one or both houses of Congress in November would be a mitigation of future damage. But SEVERE damage is already done and will be playing out for a LONG time into the future.

          • Anthony

            I can appreciate your short-term pessimism. But prediction both politically and socially are generally human contingent. That is to say, we don’t “know the unknown unknowns.” Nevertheless, the long opinion piece attempts to give comparative analysis by way of California political reorganization since Wilson. Whether example scales nationally is beyond my pay grade to portend. Yet I think the piece avails you another point of view on our current political environs. Personally, I find the piece enjoyable and have not seriously pondered its contents applicability – perhaps I’ll reread and reply to you with a more fined tuned consideration.

  • Joe Eagar

    Democracy In America is worth it’s weight in gold for its detailed account of 19th century American elite thought alone. You might as well say we should close all the schools because “people were racist!”

  • Anthony

    Tocqueville believed things were getting better and worse all the time.” (Peter A. Lawler)

    Character and instinct trump intellect and experience in politics.” (Alexis de Tocqueville)

    More Alexis de Tocqueville Analysis (consideration) here: and here:

  • Mario Diana

    If Tocqueville regularly kicked his dog, I couldn’t care less. This essay is more of that “problematic” slander from the “woke.” Tocqueville’s sociological observations are as interesting and as relevant as ever. The real “problem” is that he criticizes progressivist totalitarianism: meaning, the all encompassing nature of politics in a centralized society. But, rather than criticize the message, malign the messenger! Then, sometime in the near future, the hope is that no “decent” and “sensitive” person will even dare mention his name, and when some “deplorable” does so, he will be shut down immediately from the knee-jerk social opprobrium.

    Sorry, but some of us are on to you.

    • hecate9

      Actually, De Tocqueville could not have criticized “progressivist totalitarianism”- whatever that is. There was none in 1830 in America, which was at that time a very decentralized government. In fact, he worried that America was so loose and decentralized in governance that it wouldn’t hold together (and it almost didn’t). He got much more wrong about America than he got right, but what he did criticize was American culture. He disapproved of the cultural “leveling” in a society with little stratification. “Where are the men of quality? Where is genius?” Americans were materialists- all they cared about was making money. Their saving grace, however, was the social capital Americans enjoyed and which allowed them to compromise and problem-solve.
      The conservative idea which he DID raise- and for which he should be remembered by conservatives- is that equality for all may threaten the liberty of some- and that this is worrisome. Fear of the “tyranny of the majority” didn’t originate with Tocqueville (whose generation had witnessed the Terror of 1793), but he was the first “observer” to frame the problem in the context of “field work” done in the modern world’s first laboratory of democracy.
      As a man and a politician, Tocqueville was all the things Judah says he was- a man of his time, and perhaps not a very good man (by our standards). But he should be remembered for his critique of democracy and his warnings of the perils (at least for Europe) of unbridled equality. These arguments still ring true for Burkean conservatives and their libertarian cousins.

      • Mario Diana

        I recall Tocqueville being impressed with the mediating institutions of American life—the churches, the local schools (no Department of Education, then!), and every kind of civic organization. He thought that this could stand as a bulwark between a centralized state, which has the ever present tendency to grow and eventually encompass more and more aspects of the lives of its citizens. So, while he doesn’t criticize progressive totalitarianism by name, and while the term “progressive” (in the sense that we use it) was not yet coined, the bent of progressives today is exactly some of what he was criticizing.

        Since you suggest by the phrase “whatever that is” that you have no clue, let me be clear. Progressives, since before Woodrow Wilson, are for centralized government, a strong executive, and management by bureaucrats—what they call “experts.” Moreover, as we see characteristic of progressives today, just about every aspect of life is to be considered political. I hope you’re not distracted by goose steps and incessant flag waving, and imagine that that is the essence of totalitarianism. Totalitarianism is when all is considered political. For all the fretting about “handmaids” and the threat of theocracy, the only “religion” that currently threatens to grab the U.S. by the throat is the Church of the Woke.

        So, I stand by what I wrote. Tocqueville said a lot. Included in what he said is what I recounted in my original post. And I stand by my characterization of the original essay, too.

        • hecate9

          I agree with your first paragraph.
          In your second, you choose to redefine “totalitarianism” in a strange way. “When everything is political” in NOT a commonly recognized definition of the term. You’re free to do this of course but it makes it harder for others to take your statements of fact seriously. From the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics: “Totalitarianism: A dictatorial form of centralized government that regulates every aspect of state and private behaviour.” By this definition, America has never been-and probably could never be- a totalitarian political system. Our governance is too decentralized, the vetocracy and checks and balances too great- as F. Fukuyama has examined in great detail in Political Order and Political Decay.
          Perhaps you’re suggesting a “totalitarianism” in a cultural sense? As in “The Liberal elites dominate our culture?”

          • D4x

            Recommended post-Fukuyama reading:

   “1917: Lenin, Wilson, and the Birth of the New World Disorder” By ARTHUR HERMAN Reviewed by Tom Carson / January 4, 2018
            “[…] World War I looks increasingly like our own anxious era’s origin story.
            Welcome to the overarching premise of Arthur Herman’s “1917: Lenin, Wilson, and the Birth of the New World Disorder.” It stands out in the glut of revisionist histories timed to World War I’s 100th anniversary, not least because it’s a terrific read. Even when you want to quarrel with Herman’s interpretations, he’s a whiz at organizing his complicated materials for maximum narrative clarity and dramatic effect. His provocative pairing of Lenin, the Soviet Union’s inventor, with Woodrow Wilson, the most intransigently high-minded of U.S. presidents, as the joint architects of the chaotic planet we know today is never boring,

            […] Linking twentieth-century American liberalism to twentieth-century totalitarianism is an old game among conservative intellectuals, but Herman’s originality is all in personalizing things by rooting his case in the similarity of Lenin’s and Wilson’s psychological makeup and depicting both as fanatics.

            If that requires playing fast-and-loose with ideological categories on occasion, Herman certainly goes about it nimbly. Among other ploys, he habitually identifies Wilson as a capital-P “Progressive,” not merely a Democrat; while Wilson himself wouldn’t have objected to the label, Herman rather scurries past the fact that it was a catchall term for reformists back then, with prominent proponents in both parties. The effect is to make unwary modern readers see Wilson as much more of a left-winger than he was, setting up broad-brush claims on the order of Herman’s sweeping assertion that Wilson saw the war as an opportunity “to realize his Progressive dream of a nation that responded to the agenda and needs of government — as opposed to the other way around.” (Really? How very Leninist of him.) On the flip side, Herman breezily equates the Bolsheviks’ creation of a state security apparatus to enforce ideological conformity with “what would come to be called ‘political correctness,’ ” which is really pretty disgraceful as drive-by calumnies go.

            In other words, you’d do well to take his more extreme elaborations of his schema with roughly a pound of salt. That frees you up to enjoy his book’s considerable virtues, from its lively storytelling — lots of quasi-cinematic cross-cutting between capitals — and zesty plunges into the intricate political maneuverings that Lenin ruthlessly mastered and Wilson obstinately held himself above, to Herman’s frequently acute insights into how both men’s minds worked. […]”
            “1917: Lenin, Wilson, and the Birth of the New World Disorder”
            Hardcover $20.60 | $29.99

            Add to Bag

          • QET

            I don’t know about this. It strikes me that the progressive effort has been to centralize and to do away with “checks and balances.” Tocqueville had this to say:

            But in the United States the majority, which so frequently displays the tastes and the propensities of a despot, is still destitute of the more perfect instruments of tyranny. In the American republics the activity of the central Government has never as yet been extended beyond a limited number of objects sufficiently prominent to call forth its attention. The secondary affairs of society have never been regulated by its authority, and nothing has hitherto betrayed its desire of interfering in them. The majority is become more and more absolute, but it has not increased the prerogatives of the central government; those great prerogatives have been confined to a certain sphere; and although the despotism of the majority may be galling upon one point, it cannot be said to extend to all.

            Since 1830, and especially in the last 50 years, these statements have become less and less true.

            He also made these statements:

            In small nations the scrutiny of society penetrates into every part He could not have foreseen how this condition of small nations could become effective in a large country with the advent of the Internet.

            The second characteristic of judicial power is that it pronounces on special cases, and not upon general principles. . . .The political power which the Americans have intrusted to their courts of justice is therefore immense, but the evils of this power are considerably diminished by the obligation which has been imposed of attacking the laws through the courts of justice alone. If the judge had been empowered to contest the laws on the ground of theoretical generalities, if he had been enabled to open an attack or to pass a censure on the legislator, he would have played a prominent part in the political sphere; and as the champion or the antagonist of a party, he would have arrayed the hostile passions of the nation in the conflict. But when a judge contests a law applied to some particular case in an obscure proceeding, the importance of his attack is concealed from the public gaze, his decision bears upon the interest of an individual, and if the law is slighted it is only collaterally.

            He did not foresee the evolution of the judiciary into a body that created rights based on general principles and theoretical generalities, nor the ultimate political effect of allowing Marshall’s diktat concerning the role of the judiciary (the effect being to place it beyond “check” or “balance” by the other branches).

            We can dispute whether the meaning of “totalitarianism” is static or dynamic. The OED has been known to change its definitions. But I think of it as a tendency more than a completed state, and I think it inarguable that as a tendency it is in the ascendant among the progressive Left.

  • frankgado

    The assertion that Tocgueville was virtually unknown and unfashionable in the United States until 1963 is simply untrue. As an undergraduate (195458), I read Tocqueville for one of my courses and he was widely referred to by other professors and guest lecturers. As a graduate student concentrating on American literature, I often heard Tocqueville’s observations quoted. Both at Dartmouth and at Duke, the bookshops had Democracy in America on their shelves for display to the public as well as in the sections of the stores devoted to courses.
    Where Ben Judah found warrant for such an incorrect statement is quite beyond me.

    • Salon

      From the article:
      “He was saved from obscurity in 1938 by the historian George Wilson Pierson. In the throes of the Great Depression, and perhaps not by chance at a moment of crisis in faith in American exceptionalism, Pierson reconstructed Tocqueville’s journey in Tocqueville and Beaumont in America, to great acclaim. This placed him on the radar for the greatest moment of American triumphalism of all: the search to make sense of a destiny now manifested in 1945. New editions of Democracy in America appeared in 1945 (Knopf), 1947 (Oxford), 1951 (Henry Regnery), 1954 (Vintage) and 1956 (New American Library). This flurry of editions were quickly placed on the reading lists of the emerging fields of American Studies and Western Civilization, and soon became a cornerstone of U.S. politics in a liberal arts education.”

  • SanFrancisco Professor

    I read de Tocqueville for the flashes of insight in almost every chapter. Doesn’t everyone? “The American plants an orchard, and when the trees are ready to bear fruit, he moves on.” (Quoted roughly from memory.) One might as well fault Mark Twain for failing to provide a Unified Field Theory. My hero Orwell’s Grand Plan never stopped being socialism. He confused, to the end, his naive, romantic Woodstock Festival experience of war in Catalonia, with what socialism would be without capitalists or Stalinists. But you can’t read three pages of Orwell without having to put the book down and think about some sudden insight.

    • QET

      You can’t possibly be a San Francisco Professor! 🙂

  • JohnnyClams

    Facile garbage.

    Gobineau–isn’t that they guy Woodrow Wilson followed too?

  • jcb

    I had not known about Tocqueville’s role in the 1847 Report on Algeria, so I thank Ben Judah’s article for that information. But based on upon Judah’s other mischaracterizations of Democracy in America, I’d want to investigate more fully before concluding that T was a full throated anti-Arab imperialist. He was, if nothing else, one of the most conflicted thinkers in the history of political theory. He was always implicitly comparative, weighing the advantages and disadvantages of carefully observed alternatives. And he was anything but uncritical of the aristocracy in Europe in which he had been raised and educated, and which was always his (ambivalent) standard of judgment.

    Tocqueville is not the only writer to have his work appropriated by anti-Marxists or conservatives for purposes separate from his own intentions. (Thomas Malthus, Charles Darwin, and Max Weber are others.) Still, DinA is one of the most perceptive works even written about the United States. Its new popularity after WW2 lay less in providing cover for conservative anti-egalitarians like Hayek, and more with pervasive concerns raised about conformity and mass culture in modern society in the 50s, as exemplified by the work of David Riesman. Depicting T as a conservative required ignoring his admiration for the counterpoint to tyranny of the majority: the fellow-feeling among classes that was absent from aristocratic European society. He admired the effects of democracy on social mobility and on women’s status; he admired local government. He was critical of slavery and Indian removal. And his criticisms of democratic majoritarianism, such as they were in the Age of Jackson, bear some reconsideration in the Age of Trump.

  • Jake Goldsmith

    Aron was not a Gaullist. His long correspondences with de Gaulle, radio addresses, articles, etc, clear that up easily.
    He did not shrug off the colonialism of Tocqueville either, and wrote admirably about Algeria.
    So thin an understanding of Aron, an often forgotten, easily misread figure, is insulting. His Memoirs can be read for free and easily clear up these malformed accusations.
    Otherwise, the late Tony Judt’s essay on Aron in The Burden of Responsibility is by far and away a better assessment of the man than this comparatively paltry association.
    Perhaps the author of this article would care to retreat and read Aron and his Memoirs, and wider work, before trying to smuggle him in to an also poor assessment of Tocqueville which he seems to make more so because of later individual’s own misinformed purposes and ‘conservatism’, which Aron did not uphold

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