Get the best of Boston Globe Magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your Inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.
Americans know Alexis de Tocqueville for his penetrating reflections on why democracy was succeeding in the young United States when it had failed so spectacularly in revolutionary France. But Tocqueville later wrote about a French time and place that sound a lot like America today.
In his Recollections of the Revolution of 1848 and the French Second Republic, we see obvious parallels between mid-19th-century France and early 21st-century America. The most notable is the election of a populist president — Louis Napoleon — unexpectedly supported by a wide swath of disgruntled voters and by a portion of the elite who disdained him but saw him, Tocqueville wrote, as “an instrument they could use at will and break whenever they chose.” He added, perhaps ruefully, “in this they were quite mistaken.” The portrait Tocqueville draws of Louis Napoleon looks strikingly like Donald Trump: He “changed course frequently, first advancing, then hesitating, then pulling back, to his great detriment.” His mind “was inconsistent and confused, filled with large but ill-assorted ideas which he borrowed [from] . . . very different and often contradictory sources.” He was “fond of flatterers” but nevertheless “trusted in his own star.”
The revolution and the rise of this dangerous demagogue and his entourage of would-be manipulators erased the rules that had governed France’s parliamentary democracy since 1830. So disorienting was the shift that Tocqueville described the middle class as “spectators at the end of a play still trying to figure out what it had really been about.”
Tocqueville had sometimes expressed distaste for the conventional game of parliamentary politics, which involved “white lies, [and] minor acts of treachery” on all sides, and in which politicians “[painted] their feelings in lurid colors and [exaggerated] their ideas.” But he was repelled by the thought that disrupting the status quo might make things infinitely worse. Faced with the menace of a developing dictatorship, France’s political class, he feared, would abdicate any responsibility to work for the common good.
In a letter to his brother, Tocqueville confessed, “I feel like a stranger in my own land, surrounded by people who do not share the ideas that to my mind are bound up with every semblance of human dignity.” Since Trump’s election, a similar atmosphere of despair and existential angst has permeated America’s mainstream discourse.
But Tocqueville also had moments of exhilaration at the break with politics as usual and the possibility of a new political beginning for France. He even joined Louis Napoleon’s Cabinet as minister for foreign affairs. He was proud to assume a role others were afraid to take (the revolution had deposed France’s monarch and triggered similar unrest in other parts of Europe), and honored to help rescue France from what he called “the bad pass into which others had led it.” Like some American conservatives, who see themselves suddenly liberated from the false pieties and wrongheaded policies of the liberal establishment, he hoped to steer a volatile administration away from dangerous mistakes.
Unsettled times give political actors the chance to show their mettle. The question becomes: Who will emerge as a true standard-bearer for democratic ideals? Americans may not be surprised that Tocqueville finds few profiles in French courage, but many fools, flatterers, and petty self-interested partisans. His fellow politicians, whom he paints with brilliant malice and intemperance, emerge as a sorry lot.
Today, we are preoccupied with the drama of political courage and cowardice, with measuring our leaders’ moral fiber (or its absence). Can any of them lead us through the bad pass we find ourselves in, toward a more equitable and just America?
Finally, Recollections shows us citizens so estranged from one another their motives become incomprehensible and even unimportant. In Tocqueville’s world, as in ours, political factions “feel one another out, they come to grips, but neither sees the other.” Healthy democratic politics requires a certain charity toward allies and opponents; otherwise, participants speak past each other. Tocqueville was dumbfounded that some French citizens blithely courted political disaster, saying “the government has blundered into trouble all by itself, now let it get itself out!” But he also mocked the left liberal party leaders, who having precipitated the 1848 Revolution were outraged when their candidates lost elections for the new republican assembly; these leaders damned the electorate as “ignorant, ungrateful, mad, and hostile to its own good.” Compare that with today’s Twitter storms from right and left, where some gleefully produce or consume fake news even against their own interests, while others respond with astonishing lack of empathy.
Americans have often invoked Tocqueville’s Democracy in America as proof our deep-seated constitutional barriers and engrained political norms make our democracy unshakable. But ironically, Tocqueville’s anguished account of fragile French democracy in Recollections rings truer in contemporary America. France endured dictatorship, aggressive adventurism, revolutionary instability, and finally invasion and the near destruction of Paris before it returned to democracy. That sequence of events should certainly give us pause.Cheryl B. Welch is senior lecturer on government at Harvard. This essay is adapted from “Tocqueville’s Recollections in Trump’s America” in The Tocqueville Review/La revue Tocqueville. Quotes from “Alexis de Tocqueville’s Recollections: The French Revolution of 1848 and Its Aftermath,” edited by Olivier Zunz, translated by Arthur Goldhammer (University of Virginia Press, 2016). Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.