- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 4, 2001

By Sheldon S. Wolin
Princeton University Press, $35, 650 pages

Comprehensive, fascinating, at times maddeningly diffuse, Alexis de Tocqueville's writings have long needed a guide both philosophically informed and philosophically-tempered. Ideologues and partisans "left" and "right" have mined them for insights, or at least for usable quotations. In "Tocqueville Between Two Worlds" Sheldon S. Wolin does not entirely abandon his ideological predispositions, which remain of a New-Leftish sort. But he is too intelligent and honest not to push beyond political-sectarian bickering, and his book results from a need to see Tocqueville in the manner Tocqueville tried to see the politics of his time whole, and without blinders. It is a need many of us share, as Tocqueville remains one of those writers who can teach us as if he were our wiser contemporary.
As a man of the left, Mr. Wolin wrestles his way to Tocqueville through the usual heavyweights and middleweights Karl Marx first of all, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida with a chivalrous gesture or two for feminists. Though a bit tedious for we who are not habitues of that arena, this wrestling has honed Mr. Wolin's reflexes even as it's inflicted some scars. The left reads so many bad books, and takes so many too seriously. Mr. Wolin reads, and invites his political friends to read, a really great writer for a change.
Politician and political theorist, Tocqueville lived between the old "world" or regime of aristocracy and the new regime of democracy. Aristocrats such as Tocqueville had been bred to rule, to be political men; democrats such as Tocqueville lived among had been bred for middle-class lives of family and business. The human soul or at least some souls, in every generation wants more than hearth, home, and money; it craves the wider scope of public accomplishment. Tocqueville's soul could not fit into bourgeois life. He saw that even the richest country could not afford to ignore such souls, which, if unsatisfied and ignored by a merely pragmatic majority, might overturn decent life in order to strike at banality.
Democracy rests on social equality, the stern hierarchy of the aristocratic world having declined ultimately through the slow action of human nature itself, which finally lets excessively artificial distinctions rot. To put it another way, the number of natural aristocrats generated in any generation is too small, their distribution too scattered, to rule effectively without merely conventional props. Even by Aristotle's time, just kingship, the dominance of one naturally superior man, had been made obsolete by the natural advance of civilization among the Greeks. A similar civilizational growth had rendered aristocracy precarious by Tocqueville's time.
But increased social equality does not guarantee political democracy. As Tocqueville saw and foresaw, socially equal persons with no vigilance or spine might readily succumb not so much to the harsh tyranny of a Napoleon (though they had done that, too) but to the soft tyranny of social-welfare bureaucrats who use weak-willed parliamentarians as camouflage for a political science conceived as engineering instead of prudence and justice, with a political practice to match homogenizing and minutely controlling.
To defend a political life for whole-souled human beings in the modern world, Tocqueville looks away from scientistic materialism and toward political forms and practices that engage citizens in deliberation and spirited participation in the public sphere. He finds such forms first in small places township halls and political clubhouses, churches and taverns wherever citizens meet to talk and to learn from each other. He finds such practice also in the high politics among democratizing nation-states. He finds it in his special project: persuading a weakening aristocracy to accept democracy and ennoble it, in that measure that it might be ennobled. Mr. Wolin is especially alert when showing how Tocqueville's experience in French politics in the tumultuous yet somehow tedious and small-souled milieu of the second quarter of the 19th century illustrated his theories while disappointing his hopes. With much reluctant huffing, Mr. Wolin brings himself to admit that socialism did have the potential for despotism that Tocqueville saw in it. And Mr. Wolin has no trouble at all in acknowledging the fecklessness of the bourgeois parliamentarians of the day:
"The lack of political intelligence and moral courage at critical moments was not due to the accident that feckless politicians happened to be in power but to an atrophied political sensibility that was a direct consequence of a long process of depoliticization." Without a specifically political or aristocratic class in place, crises still occur, but without an adequate core of strong-souled men to respond. (Tocqueville died on the eve of the American Civil War; he could never have explained Abraham Lincoln, that self-made aristocrat, or the soldiers who fought on both sides. If human nature has produced democracy, human nature has also at times produced formidable defenders of democracy from the ranks of commoners.)
In striving to give us Tocqueville whole, and in doing so more than any one writer in English, Mr. Wolin puts us so far in his debt that any criticism seems as small-souled as the political hacks who fumble their way through French political history between the Revolution of '89 and Charles de Gaulle's founding of the Fifth Republic. But even this splendid book has its flaws, and they happen to be instructive.
Chief among them is Mr, Wolin's failure to appreciate the Aristotelian dimension of Tocqueville's political science. He sees that "Tocqueville's new [political] science" has "numerous points of contact" with Aristotle's "old" political science, but he does not see one of most crucial of those points. In calling Tocqueville's criticisms of democracy "anti-democratic," Mr. Wolin misses what Aristotle and Tocqueville both teach: Any regime that attempts to solve its problems by purifying itself (the oligarchy whose rulers assume that they will strengthen themselves by subordinating the poor ever more rigorously, the democrats who tell themselves that the cure for the ills of democracy is "more democracy") will destroy itself in the end. To strengthen a democracy a legislator might fuse some undemocratic elements into it, an alloy being tougher than any pure metal. Like so many on the left, Mr. Wolin sees this when it comes to the virtues of social diversity but does not see it when it comes to institution-building, that is, hierarchy or rule.
To misunderstand, ignore, or reject this insight leads directly to a certain impatience with, an insufficient appreciation of, the statesmanship of the American Founders. The Founders are just too undemocratic for Wolinian sensibilities; the writer goes so far as to claim that they advocated what Aristotle called a "mixed regime" an attempted balance of the democratic and oligarchic classes in the structure of the government which is to go too far. The founders remained dedicated to popular sovereignty or democracy, striving to make that democracy more just by insisting on such "undemocratic" devices as an independent and unelected judiciary, an executive who could act with firmness and dispatch without consulting the legislature, and a Senate that represented large and small states equally.
Tocqueville acknowledged these devices and admired their intention and design, recognizing their limitation in light of the sectional rivalries that intensified throughout his life, as he watched from Europe, sadly. He scarcely would have blamed the impending (and temporary) failure of the Founders' union on an insufficient esteem for democracy. If anything, the war bespoke insufficient esteem for the natural-rights political theory the Founders sought to embody in the government they framed. Natural rights affirmed popular sovereignty while limiting majoritarian presumptions. Ever-wider political "participation" alone cannot make democracy good.
After reading Mr. Wolin's book, you may feel, as I do, that I have offered only thin praise and thinner criticism. I encourage you to have this experience, at my expense, and to your profit.

Will Morrisey is assistant professor of political science at Hillsdale College.

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