This is only a mini-installment in our ongoing series on close-reading Tocqueville, but it’s a good example of why we do it in the first place. On Twitter, Ivanka Trump posted what appeared to be a quote from Democracy in America suggesting that the impeachment of her father is a sign of the nation’s moral decline:
“A decline of public morals in the United States will probably be marked by the abuse of the power of impeachment as a means of crushing political adversaries or ejecting them from office.”
Unsurprisingly, this text is not from Tocqueville, but rather from a Wall Street Journal opinion piece defending the president. It does appear though to be a mistranslation from the final sentence of the chapter in the first volume in Democracy in America on “Political tribunals.” Though this category includes impeachment, it includes all sorts of adjudications made by legislatures or other political bodies. Far from condemning impeachment as an excess of public immorality (there’s no language of the sort in the chapter), Tocqueville actually praises this practice as well as legislative confirmation of public officials as a democratic check on those in power. In contrast, Britain and France allow their legislative bodies to conduct criminal proceedings of any person for any crime, opening up the possibility of political show trials. This is what Tocqueville is talking about in the actual last sentence of the chapter, which reads (my translation): “I think we’ll easily be able to recognize the day the American republics begin to decline: it will suffice to observe that the number of political trials increases.”
We may not be able to accomplish much by doing this blog, but if we can do something to stop right-wing blowhards from using Tocqueville as a convenient source of made-up stock quotes, it will have been worth the effort.