Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

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.

Trump Convention


  1. Where in the constitution do you find the explicit granting of the power to redistribute private wealth at the point of the government’s gun? Remember, the only powers granted to the Federal government in the constitution were explicitly defined and every power not explicitly defined was specifically withheld. Just because our government has been involved in this does not make it constitutional. In fact, a lot of what our government currently does is outside the bounds of the constitution.

  2. I found the the image of the protector that comes from the de tocqueville quote to be a critical reminder of the dangers we now face in America. It reminds me of my major professor(T. Harry Williams at LSU) who wrote a book on Huey Long. Long positioned himself on the left but he was a politician who positioned himself as an authoritarian protector. I would not have voted to Long in the 1930s but would have probably supported FDR. I am a Christian social conservative who feels adrift in a world of amoral ambiguity. There was no real mention of religious liberty, traditional marriage,or realprotection of conscience in Trump’s speech at the Convention(mention of the Johnson Amendment on churches and politics would seem to be a small bone thrown to Christian conservatives). Instead, there was just rhetorical flourishes of “I am your voice” accompanied by rhetoric about “protections” for working class Americans. I myself believe that we must assist lower income Americans(from whom I come) with major increases in coverage and amounts of the earned income credit. We must follow a policy of federalism and pluralism which allows communties the flexibility to operate in the world without governmental or business pressures(e.g the condemnation of RFRA laws in Indiana by both the big business community and the federal government). We need an active policy of subsidiarity coupled with governmental actions to assist individuals with job training, relocation allowances and intelligent revisions of our immigration laws to limit low income migration even while we search for a consensual solution to the illegal population which is already in the United States. We do not need a South American Caudillo or strong man who would threaten our constitutional liberties or a busybody leftist nanny state which would threaten our religious liberties by negating the First Amendment. Trump would use executive power to attain his goals which would be dangerous to our constitutional protections. We need to work in smalller communities to catechize our young people and develop an ethic of Christian communtarianism.

  3. Great post! I suppose the dangers inherent in democracy have always been there and were much debated in the early days of the Republic. I don’t think we’re quite so introspective these days.

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