Tocqueville ’21: Pondering the Future

20 January 2021

We held our first editorial meeting the morning after the attack on the US Capitol. This is a blog dedicated to exploring twentieth-first century democracy, and while much about the democratic world we live in feels uncertain, one thing we can be sure of is that democracy in America and beyond is undergoing some profound transformations. 


Tocqueville concluded in the final lines of Democracy in America that his book was “not precisely in anyone’s camp: in writing it I did not mean either to serve or to contest any party; I undertook to see, not differently, but further than the parties; and while they are occupied with the next day, I wanted to ponder the future.” We’ve collected here some of our brief thoughts on what Tocqueville can help us understand about the current moment, as well as some of the historical parallels that are shaping how we will be pondering the future for 2021 and beyond.


Jacob Hamburger: Well before Trump loyalists stormed the US Capitol on January 6, I had begun to question what exactly we’re supposed to be doing on this blog. Tocqueville famously described democracy as a “providential fact” in history, spreading across the globe like a virus incurable by vaccine. 2020 seemed to suggest otherwise—that perhaps the country that had inspired Tocqueville’s prediction of an eternal democratic future was losing its taste for the whole thing. I don’t need to rehearse here all the ways in which the American electoral system has always ignored the will of the majority, but this year, Americans couldn’t even be bothered to keep up appearances. Even before the pandemic hit—think of the bungled Iowa Caucus results last February—it was clear that outmoded infrastructure could not guarantee that all votes were counted. Meanwhile, between plans to sabotage mail-in voting and frivolous legal challenges after the fact, the Trump GOP made explicit its indifference to electoral outcomes. In this sense, the January 6 insurrection was the crowning achievement of a surging anti-democratic movement on the Right. This was not the first time recent commentators have wondered whether democracy may be coming to and end, but such a shocking spectacle gave this specter flesh and blood.


For this blog, which takes its inspiration from Tocqueville’s characterization of the democratic world, does this moment require us to reconsider our basic premises? To answer that, we need to be certain of what we mean when we say that the mob that stormed the Capitol was anti-democratic. Make no mistake: the pro-Trump riot was a repudiation of majority rule and equality in any meaningful sense. But it nonetheless expressed itself in democratic terms. Most participants were convinced they had come to save American democracy from a nefarious cabal. Their rejection of medical expertise and their brash hucksterism (from far-Right personalities using the insurrection to boost their online brands, to the hot dog stands in the middle of the mélée) would hardly have surprised Tocqueville. 2021 and beyond may not bode well for the positive values I attach to democracy. But I have little doubt we will be able to understand the current turmoil from a democratic perspective.


Sarah Gustafson: Tocqueville scholar Peter Augustine Lawler often said that one of Tocqueville’s more important insights is that things are always getting better and worse. It’s a small but profound point. Tocqueville, after the 1840 publication of Democracy in America, Volume II, remained deeply invested—in multiple senses, because he had financial investments here—in the American project. As he wrote in 1856, “What happens now in America must be of interest to all civilized people and is of particular interest to me, who am half Yankee.” In letters with Americans and about America from 1840 through his death in 1859, he expressed great fear that slavery, Western expansion, declining religious practice, and the passion for material well-being would come to undermine the norms—if they had not already undermined them—that had made this American democracy free and that also had made it an example to study, though not to be imitated exactly. These later writings merit our attention. Yet Tocqueville was decidedly not a fatalist, nor a triumphalist. The task he assigned himself in Democracy in America was to “instruct democracy, to reanimate its beliefs, to purify its mores, to regulate its movements, to substitute little by little the science of its affairs for its inexperience, and knowledge of its true interests for its blind instincts” and so forth; this was the “first duty” on those in his day. The duty remains. Education in the practices and virtues necessary for democratic government is ongoing and open-ended. The formal liberalism of constitutions, Tocqueville shows us, is incomplete without it. The French aristocrat’s level-headedness about the future of democratic government, and his exhortation to make democracy good, continue to resonate.


Chris Schaefer: Alexis de Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America in the 1830s as an inquiry into the question of why republican representative democracy succeeded in the United States but failed elsewhere. The events of January 6, 2021, in which Donald Trump’s supporters demonstrated a rejection of representative government, universal suffrage, and majority-based governance, raise the question of whether republican representative democracy has failed in the United States even while elsewhere now, if it is not succeeding, it is certainly doing better. In short, the riot at the Capitol calls into question—not for the first time but perhaps more clearly than ever before—the supposedly exemplary nature of American democracy.


Today, oligarchy presents a challenge to the equality of conditions. And social media’s disaggregation and segmentation of news have now given mendacious populists like Donald Trump unmediated access to a national audience, producing much different kinds of association and common purpose than those that Tocqueville observed 190 years ago. In the wake of the decline of protestant mainline and the political emergence of white evangelicals, who have since merged almost seamlessly with the conservative movement, we are witnessing the definitive disappearance of whatever unifying structure the Puritan past may have provided. 


If American democracy is ever to be considered exemplary again, it must find a way to provide equality of conditions to all its citizens, adequately address the challenges that the new digital ecosystem has raised for civil society, and negotiate a new moral center that can find broad agreement. It is a Herculean task that lies before us.


Danielle Charette: Tocqueville found it “pompous” that Americans called the seat of Congress the “Capitol.” The construction efforts along the Potomac expressed real ingenuity. But what Americans chose to construct seemed stereotypically Roman, an exercise in neoclassical kitsch.


Just weeks before MAGA hardliners stormed Washington, Donald Trump issued an executive order demanding a commitment to neoclassical federal architecture. This followed up on a previous order titled, “Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.” The images from January 6, on the steps of a building that Trump presumably finds “beautiful,” were brutish and shameful. Our era lends sad new relevance to Tocqueville’s description of the Capital as an “imaginary metropolis.” Trump’s most fevered supporters projected their disinformation onto Washington, DC. 


Democratic life requires a degree of healthy imagination, but our politics has become deluded, made worse by a pandemic that disrupts citizens’ capacity to make ordinary plans. Covid-19 heightened the significance that Americans attached to the presidential election. And it intensified the conspiracies that a subset of the electorate invented in the aftermath of Trump’s defeat.


Tocqueville understood that behind great monuments lingers a sense of individual insignificance: “Hence the same men who live cramped in scant quarters often nurse gigantic ambitions when they turn their attention to public monuments.” It’s hard not to think of Trump’s supporters, nursing perverse ambitions to steal the White House. From the isolated world of Twitter, they turned their attention to our capital city and traveled to Washington for an exercise in insurrectionary tourism. In doing so they tarnished a real site and disrespected the real tenets of our Constitution. No feat of American engineering can repair the damage. Neither will outdated pomp. 


Miriam Pensack: As many were quick to point out in the aftermath of the January 6 assault on the Capitol, the violent display of the far-Right’s contempt for electoral politics is not anomalous in the United States. Far from being an historical rupture, the events that day demonstrated continuity in a state-building project founded to enshrine and privilege whiteness—whiteness imbued, as last year’s historic mobilization for Black Lives reminded us—with a legacy of chattel slavery and black dispossession; whiteness fundamentally ensconced in a national project born of indigenous genocide. How are we to hold these realities next to the aspirational mythos of American Democracy?


In her 1950 preface to The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote that “We can no longer afford to take that which was good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to discard the bad and simply think of it as a dead load which by itself time will bury into oblivion.” As January 6 made plain, time itself did not bury the Confederate flag. 


We must square these contradictions if we are intent—not on preserving, but on forging—democracy in America. Appeals to render the very structure of the electoral apparatus more democratic are of course a point of departure: abolish the electoral college, grant Puerto Rico and Washington D.C. statehood, introduce meaningful legislation to address the nation’s perennial voter suppression. All of these measures would inch us farther away from a structure crafted for white men and their property, away from a “democratic” apparatus conceived to ensure this division of power among a small, wealthy, landowning and, often, slave owning elite. If democracy is about giving a population access to meaningful political articulation, the United States has only reluctantly moved towards democracy thanks to challenges posed to the white-supremacist exclusion at its core. Indeed, it is through the labor and resistance of those the U.S. government most directly dispossesses that the country has been rescued from itself, time and time again. 


Democracy in America is only as strong as popular resistance to the nation’s white-supremacist right-wing tradition. As was true before, during, and after the January siege, it is this very tradition that poses the greatest threat to the country’s chance at popular representation. Such is and has been the reality in which we live. As Arendt portends, “all efforts to escape from the grimness of the present into nostalgia for a still intact past, or into the anticipated oblivion of a better future, are in vain.” As we transition away from a presidency that vocally championed, rather than tacitly upheld, America’s white-supremacist foundations, let us not grow complacent. The work of reconciliation has scarcely begun. 


David Klemperer: The storming of the United States Capitol presented the world with a spectacle as bizarre as it was alarming. As we try to understand what exactly we witnessed, many historians have turned to historical comparisons. David Bell compares it to Hitler’s attempted coup against the Weimar Republic in 1923. Robert Paxton compares it to the riots that occurred in France on 6 February 1934. But these comparisons have quickly sparked controversy, often centered on the use of the term “fascist.” Richard Evans vociferously rejects the label, pointing to numerous differences between Europe then and America now. Amidst these arguments, it is worth reflecting on the nature of comparisons, and how the study of the past ought to intersect with the analysis of the present.


Certainly, comparisons are unhelpful when they extract from the past a decontextualized inner essence, that they claim to see at work in the present. But the point of a comparison should not be to assert an exact equivalence. The point should be to highlight similarities that can help us to understand the significance of events. A good comparison helps us identify what features of both the contemporary and the historical event to focus on. A bad comparison draws our attention to the wrong ones.


The comparison to the Beer Hall Putsch reminds us that contra Marx’s view of history, fascism appears as farce before tragedy. The comparison to 6 February 1934 urges us to look closely at the intermingling of the established Right with the violent extremes. The question is not whether the Capitol riot was a rerun of these events—it was not—but whether these are the right lessons to take.


As historians then, part of our public role should be to make and think through comparisons. But we must be clear that we do so not to claim privileged insight into the true nature of contemporary phenomena. Rather, we do so to question how we interpret the meaning of events both past and present.


Elias Forneris: The recent insurgency at the Capitol came from a subversive strategy to physically retake control. It can be typical of electors who, after years of ‘winning,’ feel events are slipping away. René Cassin, the French jurist who later drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, blamed a similar strategy for the deadly right-wing riots of February 1934 and Marshal Pétain’s coup at Vichy in July 1940. Cassin understood it as the “doctrine of ‘occasion’” of self-described conspirator Charles Maurras, quoting Mademoiselle Monk (1905): “All of politics can be reduced to this act of awaiting the combinazione, the stroke of chance, to not cease looking out for an event as if it were here […] The characteristic of turmoil is precisely to overthrow a position.” This doctrine also evokes Machiavelli’s idea of anticipating the “occasione,” though at the risk of resorting to “corrupt methods.” Most dangerously, it suggests some want turmoil—any turmoil—just to act. Dissidents seek a moment of weakness to strike democracy and regain an impression of agency, regardless of harm done. The challenge for late-stage democracies is to be wary of this dormant state and heal points of weakness before being struck again.


Shane McLorrain: The events of the 6th of January were bad—the fallout could be worse.


Two weeks have passed since the Siege of the Capitol, and public opinion has begun to lay blame on the shoulders of both President Trump and his base. Conservative leadership has finally come around to a 2016 Democratic understanding of Trump’s base: they’re deplorable. This repudiation of the base by Republican leadership is necessary, because it acknowledges how profound the disconnect has become between the people and the elite. Ostensibly, Americans no longer share a collective understanding of basic information, let alone what American democracy entails. A recent YouGov poll underlined that, while those actually present at the US Capitol on the 6th were a fraction of rowdy dissidents, nearly fifty percent of Republicans supported the insurrection as of the 7th. Such a situation could  spiral further out of control, with catastrophic consequences.


On the 15th of May 1848, the National Assembly of the Second French Republic was stormed by a mob that questioned the legitimacy of their elected officials. The movement, which devolved into an impromptu putsch, was put down, and its leaders arrested. That wasn’t enough to quell a torrent of violence that set Paris ablaze throughout June and paved the way for an authoritarian regime that endured until 1870. The Left, responsible for the events of the 15th, didn’t recover until well into the Third Republic.


We haven’t yet reached the level of mayhem exhibited in June 1848, but the continued polarization of the country  indicates that American carnage in the near future is not inconceivable. The institutions of the Second French Republic were was not nearly as equipped to handle such unrest as their contemporary American counterparts. But the gaps in comprehension between the elites and the people are more substantial than ever. Much like under the Second French Republic, the risk is that this repudiation will be followed by a brutal disenfranchisement that doesn’t address the root causes of the instability.


There is, nevertheless, a silver lining. A rare moment of bipartisan consensus among elites is an opportunity to rewrite the norms of American politics and reestablish a code of conduct when it comes to civic participation and democratic practices. Letting it slip away unheeded could be catastrophic for American democracy—and would bring us one step closer to the turmoil of 1848.


Photo credit: David Todd McCarty via Unsplash


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