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Democracy in America: Early Thoughts on the Use and Abuse of a Great Book

May 1, 2016

After years and years of reading bits of Alexis de Tocqueville‘s Democracy in America, and reading about both parts of his project, I’m finally nearing completion of volume 1 (3/4 down, 1/4 to go). I’m reading the George Lawrence translation of the twelfth edition, published in 1965.

My reading has been conducted with three things in mind:  (1) Find evidence for DIA as tome FOR today’s conservatives; (2) Find evidence AGAINST conservatism today; and (3) Find fodder for my anti-intellectualism project. Of those three goals, (3) has been most productive, (1) has been relatively productive, and (2) has been more productive than I thought.

One tentative conclusion I’ve reached is that there is no way conservative intellectuals today could use DIA—without many caveats—to support the kind of libertarian conservatism that has become prominent since the 1950s. It doesn’t even work well for front-porch-focused subsidiarity-leaning conservatives. And while de Tocqueville is complimentary of the United States on many points, all of that praise is eventually qualified.

In sum, like most so-called great books, DIA contains a vast number of interesting ideas and conversation points. It can be read with interest by those without historical training, so long as you’re mildly skeptical of certain myths U.S. citizens have told themselves. But it comes from a time and place that prevent DIA from being used to unambiguously support any kind of present-day political ideology. Democracy in America can’t support a Great Books Conservatism without excising some important parts of Alexis de Tocqueville’s thinking. – TL

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