I just got back from sitting under a shade tree at a nearby forest preserve, where I passed the hours of a muggy afternoon alternately dozing, slapping at bugs, and reading the final chapters of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. It was great.
Although Tocqueville completed his classic 176 years ago, it’s filled with observations that are as timely in 2016 as they were in 1840. Reading, as I was, with the just-completed Republican National Convention fresh in my mind, here are three of Tocqueville’s observations that jumped off the page:
In light of the total abandonment at the RNC of any pretense of reforming social security and other entitlements, I was struck by this passage:
Standing as I do in the midst of ruins, dare I say that what I fear most for generations to come is not revolutions? . . . I tremble, I confess, that [citizens] might eventually allow themselves to become so entranced by a contemptible love of pleasant pleasures that their interest in their own future and the future of their offspring might disappear. [vol. II, part III, chap. 21]
In thinking about Donald Trump’s claim on Thursday night that he went into politics “so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people that cannot defend themselves”; about his vague promises that “crime and violence will soon come to an end,” that “trillions in new wealth” will come pouring in, and that new jobs will “come roaring back; about his less than humble pledge that “I’m going to make our country rich again” and “I alone can fix it”; and finally, about his repeated exhortations to the convention to overlook the lack of specifics and simply “Believe me, believe me, believe me,” my mind turned to this passage:
When I think of the petty passions of men today . . . what I fear is not that they will find tyrants among their leaders but rather that they will find protectors. . . . Our contemporaries are constantly racked by two warring passions: they feel the need to be led and the desire to remain free. Unable to destroy either of these contrary instincts, they seek to satisfy both at once. They imagine a single, omnipotent, tutelary power, but one that is elected by the citizens. They combine centralization with popular sovereignty. . . . They console themselves for being treated as wards by imagining that they have chosen their own protectors. [vol. II, part IV, chapter 6]
Finally, in listening to the thunderous applause given to a man who promises to solve all our problems while cracking down on freedom of the press, rounding up and evicting eleven million residents, and imposing a religious test for immigration, among other things, these solemn words from Tocqueville eloquently capture my deepest concerns:
As for me, I confess that I have no confidence in the spirit of liberty that seems to animate my contemporaries. I see clearly that nations today are turbulent, but I have no clear evidence that they are liberal [i.e., committed to freedom], and I fear that when the agitations that are rocking every throne in the world are over, sovereigns may find themselves more powerful than ever. [vol. II, part IV, chap. 5]
One of the themes of Democracy in America is that it is human nature to be tempted to sacrifice freedom in exchange for security and comfort. I heard a lot of applause on Thursday night for a strong man who promised, by virtue of his self-described unparalleled brilliance, to eliminate crime, injustice, poverty, terrorism, and all domestic and global threats to American peace and prosperity. What I didn’t hear was any serious discussion of what costs this might entail in terms of liberty, or how any of Trump’s promises might be achieved without clothing our aspiring protector with unprecedented power.