Probably the only thing I knew for sure about Alexis De Tocqueville and his book Democracy in America prior to reading an LRB review of Hugh Brogan’s recently published biography was that he was a French man who traveled through America in the 19th century describing the political process as he saw it and thus, with an outsider’s perspective, managed to produce a text that remains a classic analysis of the relative strengths of American democracy.
However, the review informed me of many things. Mainly about De Tocqueville’s background and why he decided to travel to America, but also something important about the quality of American Democracy. De Tocqueville was a French aristocrat whose family was arrested during the Terror, and who had an aristocrat’s fear and hatred of the principles of democracy as espoused during the French Revolution.
As Colin Kid says in his review:
“The traumatised survivors of the Terror unsurprisingly gravitated towards royalist politics, and Alexis de Tocqueville grew up in a family where legitimism did not arise simply from material self-interest, aristocratic haughtiness or ideological prescription, but drew also on intimate experience of imprisonment and loss.”
With the second expulsion of the Bourbons in 1830, however, De Tocqueville was forced to accept the reality of non-legitimist government. Despite this shifting of allegiances his personal experiences of the French middle class were extremely limited and when he did meet any he found he had little in common with them.
“As a child he had been educated largely by an aged clerical tutor, the beloved Abbé le Sueur, and, though he encountered the children of the bourgeoisie at a lycée in Metz when he was 16, he spent less than two years there. This period of schooling, Brogan reckons, was not long enough for him to become accustomed to the ways of the middle classes, which, to the end of his days, he continued to find alien and crass.”
His reasons for going to America are curious, and were perhaps motivated by his desire to get away from the uncomfortable surroundings of the new Orleanist regime (in order to remain as a juge-auditeur in the law courts and therefore a de facto supporter of the regime he effectively had to turn his back on his Bourbon background). Ostensibly he made the trip to examine the American penitentiary system, and while he did write the report he also produced Democracy in America.
But the realities behind this journey belie the myth of Tocqueville ‘as the acute sociological observer of American egalitarianism’ that he is widely understood to be:
“ His visit took place in a window between elections; he mixed largely with upper-class lawyers and with Federalists, members of an elitist party in long-term decline which had last won a presidential contest in 1796; and he sometimes mangled the significance and representativeness of Federalist attitudes or even stray remarks: the provenance, it appears, of his famous conception of the tyranny of the majority. As Brogan notes, Tocqueville and Beaumont ‘forfeited one of the chief advantages of foreign travel, and of travel to the United States above all, the opportunity to shed the burden and trap of their own social identity’.”
The status of Democracy in America of course has canonized it as an objective study of the realities of American Democracy. To consider that he made most of his observations of a select rather than a representative cross-section of American society would challenge this widely held notion.
There is one aspect of this review that I consider to be particularly revelatory, and it is that despite the Royalist’s perhaps limited (compared to what is commonly understood) perspective he still managed to understand the essential elements of American Democracy. He also realised that there wasn’t much that a Royalist, those defenders of vested interests, had to fear:
“ The reality in America of democracy and republicanism differed strikingly from their pejorative meanings in French royalist demonology: ‘If our royalists could see the domestic progress of a well-ordered republic, its deep respect for vested interests, the power of those interests over the mob, law as a religion, the real and effective liberty which everyone there enjoys . . . they would see that they had been confounding under one label differing systems which have no real likeness.’ Brogan argues that the trip to America had made Tocqueville a republican in principle: the example of American democracy suggested – no more than that – ways of overcoming the deep fissures and geological instabilities introduced into modern French politics at the Revolution.”
The reality is, of course, that Democracy as it is understood now, is very, very different to the ideas proselytized during the French Revolution. In fact, if you read John Dunn’s book, Setting the People Free: The Stories of Democracy, you would argue that it is almost the exact opposite of those ideas and also, contrary to what many people consider to be the freedom of Parliamentary democracy, not really designed to allow voters the opportunity to get a proper look in on how things are really run.
Of course, you may argue, American democracy, as a system is very different to our own proportional representative one. Well true, and Timothy Garton Ash spells out what stymies the political system in the United States rather gravely here.
But what reminded me of Tocqueville observation about Modern Democracy and the role of vested interests within that was something I read on Best of Both Worlds today. P O’Neill, after some clicking around the Web, came across details of the financial affairs of Joe Lewis, a tax exile and currency trader, who appears to have had business connections with some very prominent Irish businessmen.
“an Irish trio comprised of Dermot Desmond, a property magnate and stockbroker; J. P. McManus, a kingpin of the legal bookmaking business, and John Magnier, a horse breeder.”
P.O’Neill trawls further and points out the Mr.Lewis has done business in Ireland with these men. This quote is from Mr. Lewis’ New York Times profile
“In 1991, investigators for the Irish Government began looking into the circumstances surrounding the sale of land to Telecomm Eireann, the state-owned telecommunications concern. The investigation was prompted by concerns that the land — jointly owned by Mr. Lewis, the three Irishmen and others — was sold at a vastly inflated price, a result of the group’s influence with the administration of Charles Haughey, then the Prime Minister.”
We know of course, that despite a critical report, no charges were brought against anyone for this. More details at Best of Both Worlds of course, but in light of Bertie’s current woes, I think that P. O’Neill makes a very important point when he says:
“…if there’s a lot of head-scratching as to why exactly Bertie Ahern might have been dealing in large amounts of foreign currency in the early 1990s, or might have had grateful friends so doing — it’s less mysterious when you look at Bertie’s job description during that period and the not very hard to find links between him and the Lewis circle.”