Tocqueville and Politics ’04: Is Democracy in America Still Relevant?

 

            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, Ch. 1, Par. 18-19) Both campaigns appeal to this desire.

 

  • Bush’s site writes that, “In his Inaugural Address, the President called on Americans to become citizens, not spectators – to work together to improve our communities and reach out to our neighbors.” (http://www.georgewbush.com/Compassion/)

 

  • Similarly, Kerry’s site states that, “John Kerry will call on all Americans - tapping into the idealism and ingenuity of Americans and putting it to work on building a safer, stronger, and more secure nation.” (http://www.johnkerry.com/issues/natservice/)

 

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, Ch. 1, Par. 9) Both sites make practically no mention of any kind of issues related to religion, even though George W. Bush regularly invokes God in his speeches and Kerry’s assertions of being a “practicing Catholic” have been challenged by various Catholic organizations, especially in the light of the fact that, like most Democrats, he supports a woman’s right to abortion.

           

            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.

 

  • Kerry’s site says that he will “fight his heart out” and “defend the rights of” blue collar workers, and “has the courage to roll back Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy” (http://www.johnkerry.com/issues/economy/). Likewise, the site insists that “The Bush Administration has provided too little support, too little leadership, and too little vision for the common defense of our homeland” (http://www.johnkerry.com/issues/homeland/)
  • Bush’s site describes him with the now-familiar tag line of “compassionate conservative” and explains that designation by saying that it is focused on personal responsibility and on actively helping fellow citizens in need. (http://www.georgewbush.com/Compassion/). Also, it paints Kerry as a flip-flopper who has a history of supporting issues that he has now chosen to oppose for purely political reasons (http://www.georgewbush.com/KerryMediaCenter/).

 

            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.

 

  • Kerry’s site makes it clear that he advocates equal rights: We need to guarantee equal rights and civil rights and say that, here in America, workers have the right to organize -- women have the right to choose - and justice belongs to everyone regardless of race or gender or sexual orientation.”

      (http://www.johnkerry.com/issues/civilrights/; http://www.johnkerry.com/issues/glbt/; http://www.johnkerry.com/issues/women/)

  • Bush’s site steers clear of mentioning civil rights or social equality. While it does make brief mentions of plans to address the issue of poverty in the US and that of women’s rights (http://www.georgewbush.com/Compassion/Brief.aspx), it avoids issues of race or sexual orientation entirely.

 

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.

 

  • Bush’s site uses hard numbers, even ones tailored to the particular internet surfer who happened upon the web site, to attack Kerry’s ideas in areas like gas prices (http://www.georgewbush.com/Calculator/) and his policies towards individual states (http://www.georgewbush.com/JourneyswithJohn/). The parts of the site that describe his positions on various issues are laden with numbers and statistics that largely promise concrete goals that he will try to reach if re-elected.
  • On the other hand, Kerry’s site lacks such focus on data. His attacks on Bush largely accuse him of improper moral foundations and goals, such as catering to big business and special interests and to being a weak and uninspiring leader. When discussing Kerry’s takes in various issues, numbers are largely absent and are replaced with more general and grandiose goals that it claims will be put into effect under Kerry.

 

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.