This is a cliché by now, but the public schools where I live are producing test-takers: pretty good ones, as far as the numbers show. At parent night at the beginning of the school year, we were introduced to a curricular program explicitly built around “assessments”—the new euphemism, I gather; maybe it intimidates less. A new study now purports to show that testing doesn’t enhance cognition. I’m not sure it was supposed to, but in any event, the critique is that teaching to the test fails to improve learning outcomes. I’m inclined—warning: this is anecdotal—to believe it does improve them, but toward the bottom, where massive investments are being made. What we may be losing in the bargain is what these tests don’t capture: excellence at the top. Welcome to Tocqueville’s democratic equality.
April's Liberty Forum attempts to answer the question What is Social Justice? Essays from Sam Gregg, Eric Mack, and David Rose evaluate this question from various philosophical, economic, and political perspectives. Gregg's lead essay opens as follows: Few terms have assumed more prominence in public discourse, especially that emanating from the left, in recent decades than “social justice.” It has now become part of the rhetorical apparatus of virtually all center-left, social democratic and labor political movements as well as central to the language of modern liberalism. In Western Europe, the term has also been embraced by more-than-a-few center-right, Christian Democrat,…
The title recalls the Chicago schools of political science and of economics. Both critics (and friends) of President Obama make ominous reference to his Chicago style of politics. So what is the Chicago school of Tocqueville interpretation?[i] It turns out that the renowned Tocqueville scholar James T. Schleifer’s useful guide to Democracy in America is a companion to the celebrated Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop edition of that classic, also published by the University of Chicago. Happily, this Chicago endeavor is not some gangster enterprise (though Machiavelli scholar Mansfield is indeed a consigliere of a grand political endeavor)[ii]: By promoting…
As well as laying claim to being land of the free and home of the brave, until recently America could boast of a more devout populace than any other Western country. As Seymour Martin Lipset observed in his 1996 study of American Exceptionalism:
The puzzling strength of organized religion [is] a phenomenon that impressed most nineteenth-century observers and continues to show up… in cross-national opinion polls… These polls indicate Americans are the most churchgoing in Protestantism and the most fundamentalist in Christendom… Compared to West Europe as a whole, Americans place a higher importance on the role of religion in their lives.
Recent polls suggest Americans are becoming more like their European cousins with respect to losing their religion. According to a poll published last October by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the number of Americans without affiliation to any organized form of religion has grown from 16 per cent of the total population in 2008 to 20 per cent.
Over the past years, I have been asking the students taking my modern political thought class to write an essay imagining what Tocqueville might have said if he visited America today. This open-ended assignment invites them to select a few major concepts from Democracy in America and apply them to our contemporary context. Since there are no fixed answers, my main goal is to stir their imagination and make them think for a moment “like” and “with” Tocqueville. When explaining the assignment, I always remind them that the young Frenchman was only a few years older than them (he was twenty-six year old when he arrived in New York!) and had a great intellectual ambition but almost no first-hand political experience. Tocqueville tried to create a new political science for a new world, as he famously put it in the introduction to Volume One of Democracy in America (1835). He offered a new way of analyzing social and political phenomena, one that went beyond the method used by his contemporaries (including Marx). If Tocqueville came to America with several preconceptions about the fundamental nature and the direction of modern society (which he acquired in part by attending Guizot’s lectures on civilization in Europe and France), he was, however, open to new experiences and willingly embraced new conceptual challenges. America taught him a few unexpected lessons about the equality of conditions, civil society, pluralism, religion, centralization, participatory democracy, the democratic mind, and the limits of affluence.
TOCQUEVILLE 2012: Quick Thoughts on the 175th Anniversary of What’s Still the Best Book on Who We Americans Are.
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote the best book ever written on America and the best book ever written on DEMOCRACY. The first volume was published in 1835, the second in 1840.
Alexis de Tocqueville was born into a French aristocratic family after the French revolution that had overthrown the French hereditary aristocracy and replaced it with various forms of republics and empires.
So Tocqueville lived in a kind of privileged moment. He could look back to the aristocracy and aristocrats with all their virtues and vices, and he could look forward to the progress of democracy and democrats with all its virtues and vices. His greatness as a writer was being an aristocratic critic of democracy and a democratic critic of aristocracy.
This new edition of Liberty Law Talk is a conversation with Daniel J. Mahoney of Assumption College regarding Alexis de Tocqueville's counsel in Democracy in America on how Americans can best combat an unbound egalitarianism and the prospect of soft-despotism. Tocqueville's writings have been significantly featured over the past few years given his warnings and sense of the dangers of overly centralized government, so this conversation with a noted Tocqueville scholar will add greater depth to our understanding of what the author of the best book ever written about democracy can teach us regarding the challenges and opportunities that America…
“Mitt, Mitt, get up! I don’t have much time, but we must talk.”
“What? Who? Tocqueville? Alexis de Tocqueville!?”
“Mitt, glad you recognize me. We need to talk about your campaign. I need to remind you about a few things I wrote in Democracy in America.”
“Ann, where are you?”
“Not to worry, she’s having a hot chocolate with ma chère Marie and talking horses. Which brings me to my first concern—this inequality issue. Monsieur le President Obama is beating you over the head with it, and you’re not making good responses.”
“I have only one passion, the love of liberty and human dignity.”
~Alexis de Tocqueville
Democracy in America had a great ambition: to offer the blueprint for a new science of politics in the service of freedom. The famous claim made in the introduction to the book speaks for itself: “A new political science is needed for a world entirely new” (DA, I, 16). To this effect, Tocqueville brought about a new way of analyzing social and political phenomena that opposed rigid deterministic theories of political and social development. Many political events, he believed, could not be accounted for by theories pretending to explain or foresee the development of societies. In the footsteps of Montesquieu, Tocqueville recognized that all societies are diverse and pluralistic in composition, molded by a complex mix of constantly evolving factors including history, physical environment, culture, and laws. No general theory of politics could adequately capture this complex amalgam and predict the development of society: “Antecedent facts, the nature of institutions, the cast of minds and the state of morals are the materials of which are composed those impromptus which astonish and alarm us.”
President Obama is a man of history—that is, he places himself quite deliberately in historical context. His much-derided self-comparisons with Abraham Lincoln come immediately to mind. But those are clearly superficial. More telling is his choice of Osawatomie, Kansas for a speech that drew comparison to Theodore Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” speech delivered there 101 years before. Roosevelt called for a vast expansion of federal government responsibility—a Bureau of Corporations and legislation involving families. Obama claims the legacy of both the Great Emancipator and the Rough Rider to justify his own dramatically more radical schemes.
Obama struck again in his recent speech at Roanoke, Virginia, with a speech that begs comparison with Woodrow Wilson’s “What is Progress?” address from his triumphant 1912 presidential campaign.