ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE ON AMERICAN POLITICAL PARTIES

In addition to working my way through the papers of Abraham Lincoln this summer, I am also revisiting Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.  I regularly assign portions of it in my classes, but it has been years since I last systematically read it, so I have read a number of biographies of Tocqueville in the last month and am now looking at Tocqueville’s classic itself.  Because Tocqueville deals so extensively with American politics, in this election season I thought I would share with you some passages that might strike you as relevant.

Tocqueville posed for this portrait around 1850, nearly two decades after his American odyssey.

Tocqueville posed for this portrait around 1850, nearly two decades after his American odyssey.

To remind you, Alexis de Tocqueville was a young French aristocrat who visited the United States in 1831 and 1832, ostensibly to study the American penitentiary system.  After traveling across the country and conducting more than two hundred interviews with Americans of all classes, he returned to France to meditate on what he had seen and heard.  He then recorded his reflections in two volumes, the first published in 1835 and the second five years later.

Tocqueville believed that democracy represented the wave of the future, and he admired a great deal of how it functioned in the United States, but he found cause for concern as well.  As he wrote in the introduction to volume II, “Since I am firmly of the opinion that the democratic revolution to which we are witness is an irresistible fact, and one that it would be neither desirable nor wise to oppose, some readers may be surprised to discover how often I find occasion in the book to be quite severely critical.”  It is best, then, to think of Tocqueville as a sympathetic critic of American democracy, and that is how he wanted his readers at the time to perceive him.  As he put it, “People do not receive the truth from their enemies, and their friends seldom offer it.  That is why I have told it as I see it.”

And so when American readers rushed to buy Democracy in America in translation, they found more than a few observations that were less than flattering.  An example would be Tocqueville’s chapter on “Parties in the United States” in volume I, part II.  The author began by defining two categories of political parties.  “Great parties” are those that “dedicate themselves more to principles than to consequences” and to ideas more than specific leaders.  “Such parties generally have nobler features, more generous passions, more genuine convictions, and a franker, bolder manner than others.”

In contrast, “minor parties are generally without political faith.  Because they do not feel ennobled and sustained by any great purpose, their character bears the stamp of self-interest, which clearly manifests itself in every action they undertake.  They always become hotly passionate for coldly calculated reasons; their language is violent, but their course is timid and uncertain.  Their tactics are squalid, as is the goal they set for themselves. ”

You can decide for yourself whether today’s Democratic and Republican parties qualify as “great” or “minor” parties.  Writing in 1840, Tocqueville had no doubt about the state of things 176 years ago: “America has had great parties in the past,” he noted, “but today they no longer exist.”

"County Election," by George Caleb Bingham, 1852

“County Election,” by George Caleb Bingham, 1852

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