The Myth of Tocqueville Advocate of American Exceptionalism

I just came across this piece by Terence M. McCoy in The Atlantic Magazine, ‘How Joseph Stalin Invented American Exceptionalism’.  I’ve posted a comment there, and this is an expanded version of that.

McCoy points out that Tocqueville did not refer to American Exceptionalism as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, both competing for the Republican Presidential nomination on firmly conservative platforms (what Mitt Romney would call ‘severe conservatism’ though oddly he applied that epithet, to his time as Governor of Massachusetts).  McCoy goes on to claim that the phrase originates in communications between Stalin and American Communists, disappointed by the evident failure of the American working class to embrace Communist revolution.  I am not able to judge that claim, but for the moment I’ll take it as true.  Anyway, I’m more concerned with Tocqueville.  Some of the comments posted criticised McCoy’s claim on the basis that a direct reference to the exceptional status of America can be found in Democracy in America.  I tracked down that section online.  Of course I have print copies in French and English, or course, but like most people I find quick checks like this easier online, or through the search function on a pdf, rather than thumbing through print copies and that thing at the back called an ‘index’.

The passage referred to is from the second volume, book II, ‘The Example of the Americans does not Prove that a Democratic People can have no Aptitude and No Taste for Science, Literature or Art‘.  Tocqueville  does there certainly refer to America as an exception, but not in favourable terms.  Tocqueville is referring to the lack of science and interest in science, in America at that time, or so he thinks.  I’m not qualified to judge his claim.  The chapter as a whole is arguing that this lack of science in America does not show that democracies must lack interest in science.  So Tocqueville does not here refer to ‘American Exceptionalism’ in the triumphalist sense attributed to him by some conservative Republicans, and McCoy is right to point that out.  In general, despite what Gingrich et al think, Democracy in America is not a hymn to the greatness of America or its exceptional destiny.  Tocqueville looks at America to argue that the world is moving towards democracy and that America shows the future, containing warnings about its dangers as well as benefits.  He refers critically to  to racism and slavery for example, and of course lack of original scientific theory .

It might surprise some people to find the the criticises ‘individualism’ in America, though meaning more what we might mean by egotism rather than individualism.  It should also be understood that Tocqueville was very pro-Catholic (though not believing in the truth of Christianity, except possibly on his death bed) and regarded Protestantism as distinctly inferior, and Protestantism was very dominant in America at that time.  In general, those who understand anything about French intellectuals and aristocrats of that time (and even now) would not expect them to elevate America above their own country, and Tocqueville fits into that pattern.  He certainly did not think that America was the heroic exception, or a model to be followed.  Odd that American ‘Exceptionalists’ clearly do believe that the rest of the world should imitate America.

In general, Tocqueville was too great and too complex a thinker to be dragged into partisan party rhetoric or the pamphleteering of attack politicians who like to think of themselves as philosopher princes.  Tocqueville’s admirers, and political thinkers influenced by Tocqueville, cover a very wide range or views.    There’s certainly an element of aggressive French national pride about him, but also of localism and respect for different within nations.  He argued for the role of property and commercial life in prosperity and liberty,  but also for a social minimum and a pragmatic approach to political life which goes against some of the absolutist conservatism or libertarianism which sometimes seeks comfort in him.  As far as I can imagine him in contemporary politics, I see him as overall a moderate libertarian in social and economic issues, with a tendency to shift unpredictably between social democratic, conservative and libertarian policies according to issues and circumstances .  In the fields of national identity and international relations, I see him combining a belief in French grandeur with the grandeur of the European project, and with advocacy of friendship between all democratic peoples expressed through international institutions of a kind in harmony with national pride. I’m very sure he would not be an advocate of America the unique power, or of its imperial destiny soaring above weak willed Europe; and that he would have hated and despised that strong element of  American conservative national chauvinism, which make a virtue of France bashing.

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