Tocqueville and Politics ’04: Is Democracy
With this project, I wanted to take a look at Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and some major claims he makes about American politics, people, and character in order to determine if those ideas are still relevant in today’s society. Some American thinkers (such as Oliver Wendell Holmes and William James) put forward the idea that the character of America was irrevocably changed by the Civil War, and if Tocqueville’s ideas, written before the War, are shown to no longer apply, perhaps support can be found for this idea.
In order to evaluate the relevance of the ideas in question, I studied the web sites of the two major presidential candidates for the upcoming ’04 election: George W. Bush and John Kerry. The reason why I chose to look at their websites is because websites are a resource that’s freely accessible by anyone who can connect to the internet, which is increasingly easier now that most libraries offer public computers with internet connections. Thus, more so than any other medium, web sites offer a candidate the opportunity to appeal to the people most directly. Also, unlike TV ads, web sites are able to present a broad range of ideas instead of just one short clip. Therefore, it seems that they would be among the least partisan and most widely targeted methods a candidate would use to get his ideas across.
Some of Tocqueville’s
ideas are easily visible in both campaigns as exemplified by their respective
web sites. For example, Tocqueville writes that American society, while based
on selfishness, is based on a “humane selfishness” that leads Americans to
strive to better their own community. (Vol. 2, Sec. 3,
Another idea that both campaigns have clearly taken to heart is Tocqueville’s
insistence that Americans don’t
easily believe in the supernatural and tend to not concern themselves with
matters of that type. (Vol. 2, Sec. 1,
Also, both campaigns seem to have similar ideas to Tocqueville’s ideas on American character, namely that Americans are sociable, hardworking and honest (Vol. 2, Sec. 3, Ch. 2, Par. 3), and thus would likely prefer a candidate that shares these values and displays them in his politics. Both sides try to paint their candidate as excelling in these characteristics while showing the other as lacking.
Some other ideas, however, do not show themselves in equal proportions in the two campaigns. One such idea is Tocqueville’s certain theme—that of “equality of condition,” or in this context, the battle over civil rights, a concept that seems to be important in Kerry’s campaign, while largely absent from Bush’s.
On the other hand, Tocqueville as well insists that Americans tend to care about that which is tangible to them, and on a related note, to seek clear and pragmatic goals rather than grandiose and lofty ones. This is an issue that Bush’s campaign has clearly taken to heart, but Kerry’s web site often seems devoid of.
This is not to say that Kerry’s campaign is unaware of the realities of issues and has no concrete plans. The numbers are present on Kerry’s site (http://www.johnkerry.com/issues/100days/#plan), but they are almost hidden in the background, whereas Bush places them in the forefront. Clearly, Bush is appealing to the more pragmatically-minded, while Kerry to the more idealistic, an interesting reversal from the Republican attitude towards former president Bill Clinton, whose practical successes they dismissed because of his supposed lack of moral integrity.
Indeed, both campaigns seem to be ‘about’ Bush, in the sense that his own site mostly focuses on addressing the concerns of those who see him as having done a poor job in a pragmatic sense on various issues, while Kerry’s site attempts to capitalize on those who dislike Bush as a person and seek to replace him with a different ‘kind’ of leader. In the end, it seems that many of Tocqueville’s ideas as expressed in Democracy in America are not only still relevant, but highly visible in either both or one of the two campaigns. This suggests either that some thinkers have overestimated the degree to which the Civil War changed American politics and people, or that these effects have since slowly cycled back to close to pre-war conditions, as the war seems further and further in the past.