Du jugement politique
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.
This tweet is clearly of a piece with everything else intellectually dishonest that they do. Next thing you know they will be quoting Tocqueville about how totally corrupt the Bidens are and why an investigation of them is necessary .
These days, I am often reminded of Richard Hofstader’s “Anti-Intellectualism In American Life”, which discussed the American tendency to create bogeymen and justify by them all sorts of mischief.
Ivanka ought to go back to designing dresses –kudos to Jacob Hamburger for pointing out her arrogant stupidity. I doubt she did anything more than copy and paste the WSJ quote, which she thought would help her father’s case. Where she is concerned, “There’s no ‘there’ there, as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, California.
On the other hand, no one is “pure” in these times, and it is my observation that many of those who work in public life at the highest levels on both sides of the aisle– lack the “character” –let alone the experience– to guide the country.
The problem is that most of the information we receive is mediated by individuals with an agenda. The “truth” is harder and harder to get at for most folks, who increasingly “turn off”, and live in the “silo” of their choice. Those worthies who might present themselves for public office look at the minefield and decline to seek higher office, leaving the field to opportunists. To the point, note how unseasoned our major public figures are: Obama leapfrogged from State Senator to Senator to President in four years,. As to Trump, the fact speaks for itself. The phenomenon is repeating itself in the 2020 election cycle.
Ironically, this political porousness is largely the result of the decline of the power of political parties and the emergence of “grass roots” movements, from the Tea Party to “Extinction Rebellion”. Most of whose dynamism derives from the power of the internet to link people.
Have we expanded democracy or “mobocracy”? We will not know for many more years. What would Tocqueville say?
Watchers on the side-lines can only follow Candide’s lead and plant their own gardens, hoping for the best, while preparing for the worst. Things do not turn out for the best in this best of all possible worlds, contra Doctor Pangloss.
The best those of us who want to know the facts and form independent opinions can do is be guided by the efforts of organizations such as Tocqueville21 to clear away the muck, without fear or favor.
Keep up the good work!