Why Tocqueville ?

15 January 2018


(Lire en français)

In the inaugural issue of The Tocqueville Review/La Revue Tocqueville nearly forty years ago, Raymond Aron declared proudly that the work of Alexis de Tocqueville had finally been “rediscovered” after a long period of obscurity. Today, nearing the third decade of the twenty-first century, Tocqueville is far from obscure. If Aron was correct that the Norman aristocrat was shunned from reading lists at the Sorbonne and the Ecole Normale Supérieure in the middle of the last century, he is now a canonical reference on both sides of the Atlantic. Tocqueville’s presence goes beyond schools and academia. He is also a favorite of journalists looking to convey an “authentic” account of American democracy, and many opponents of centralized administration have sought to make him their hero. Tocqueville is so familiar that he is almost inevitably mentioned whenever the French look across the Atlantic. It was a frustration with this cliché that perhaps led Garrison Keillor to warn—in a scathing review of Bernard-Henri Lévy’s 2005 attempt to re-write Democracy in America—that “one should be wary of books with Tocqueville in the title.” Lest this wariness apply to blogs as well, it is worth spelling out what in Tocqueville’s thought is so crucial for understanding about democracy in the twenty-first century, and why it may be time to rediscover him yet again.


Tocqueville’s conception of democracy remains powerful today thanks to its profound simplicity. For Tocqueville, the “generating fact” of the democratic modern world is the presumption of “equality of conditions” between individuals, and the discrediting of hierarchical social structures based on hereditary privilege, orders, and castes. In the America Tocqueville observed, this social equality helped form both a representative political system and an egalitarian mindset. Crucially, however, while he believed that the equality of conditions was a durable and irreversible feature of our social world, he saw that it was not necessarily accompanied by democratic politics or ideas. Taking the equality of conditions as the basic character of modern democracy, then, we start to see it at work even in societies whose political practices and ways of thinking we typically describe today as “undemocratic.” Tocqueville’s is not the only way of understanding democracy, nor is democracy the only lens we can use to look at the modern world. But it is nonetheless a powerful framework for understanding the present moment, and not just in France and the United States. Today, many self-avowedly democratic nations are faced with deep challenges to their political institutions, not least from “populist” movements. At the same time, authoritarian leaders increasingly feel emboldened to hold themselves up as viable alternatives to the Western democratic model, while some other countries seek to chart intermediate paths under slogans such as “illiberal democracy.” Tocqueville invites us to see all of these global trends—and many others—as part of a common democratic world, and this blog is an attempt to answer that invitation.


To this aim, the Tocqueville 21 blog will feature original writing in both English and French, and will encourage translation and exchange between the two languages. Though inspired by a Frenchman’s voyage to America, the blog will be global in scope, engaging authors from around the world and across disciplines through guest articles, interviews, book reviews, and critical exchanges. Finally, Tocqueville 21 is proud to be the new home of The Tocqueville Review/La Revue Tocqueville editorial board member Arthur Goldhammer’s celebrated blog French Politics. Altogether, Tocqueville 21 aims to provide a forum for thinking about democracy by engaging a diversity of perspectives. This diversity is all the more crucial for understanding in a world where, as Tocqueville predicted, democracy has become nearly universal, but in so many divergent and contradictory forms that it is often difficult to recognize as such.




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