Count me among those who are still reeling from the outcome of Tuesday’s election. Eventually, I want to write about what it all means, but I’ve got to do a lot of thinking. Our social-media-driven age demands instant analyses—the simpler and shallower the better—and as Baylor University’s Alan Jacobs has observed, almost the only response that’s unacceptable is the plea for more time to think and ponder and reflect before pronouncing. I don’t care.
For now, all I can do is share what I read in my notes this morning from the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I spent much of the past summer with that nineteenth-century Frenchman. I read three biographies about him, devoured his letters from America, and lingered for weeks over his two-volume classic Democracy in America, surely the most trenchant conservative assessment of American politics ever penned.
As a historian, I believe there are many good reasons to pay attention to the past, but one of the most important of those is the possibility of entering into a life-changing conversation about perennial human questions—“a conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.” Alexis de Tocqueville needs to be one of our conversation partners. He has much to say to us, if we are willing to listen. And we do stand in need of a distinctively conservative critique, given that neither major party in America today is either able or inclined to offer one.
So what would Tocqueville think about the outcome of Tuesday’s election? I’d be blowing smoke to say that I know for sure. But below are some observations that Tocqueville shared after his visit to the United States in 1830-1831. I find them eerily prescient. You can read them and decide for yourself.
- “Generally speaking, only simple conceptions can grip the mind of a nation. An idea that is clear and precise even though false will always have greater power in the world than an idea that is true but complex.”
- “What democracy lacks . . . is not always the capacity to choose men of merit but the desire and taste to do so. . . . I am satisfied that anyone who looks upon universal suffrage as a guarantee of good choices is operating under a total illusion. Universal suffrage has other advantages, but not that one.”
- “Our contemporaries are constantly wracked 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 console themselves for being treated as wards by imagining that they have chosen their own protectors.”
- “For my part, I own that I have no confidence in the spirit of liberty which seems to animate my contemporaries. I see plainly that the nations of this age are turbulent, but it is not clear to me that they are freedom loving.”