Democracy in Tea Party America

BERKELEY – When the French politician and moral philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville published the first volume of his Democracy in America in 1835, he did so because he thought that France was in big trouble and could learn much from America. So one can only wonder what he would have made of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida.

For Tocqueville, the grab for centralized power by the absolutist Bourbon monarchs, followed by the French Revolution and Napoleon’s Empire, had destroyed the good with the bad in France’s neo-feudal order. Decades later, the new order was still in flux.

In Tocqueville’s imagination, at least, the old order’s subjects had been eager to protect their particular liberties and jealous of their spheres of independence. They understood that they were embedded in a web of obligations, powers, responsibilities, and privileges that was as large as France itself. Among the French of 1835, however, “the doctrine of self-interest” had produced “egotism…no less blind.” Having “destroyed an aristocracy,” the French were “inclined to survey its ruins with complacency.”

To the “sick” France of 1835, Tocqueville counterposed healthy America, where attachment to the idea that people should pursue their self-interest was no less strong, but was different. The difference, he thought, was that Americans understood that they could not flourish unless their neighbors prospered as well. Thus, Americans pursued their self-interest, but in a way that was “rightly understood.”