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Democracy in America: Eclectic Overall Impressions

October 10, 2016

No, I did not read DIA in French. 🙂

Over the weekend I finished reading both volumes of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. It took me about nine months, between distractions, work, writing, and other reading commitments, to complete both. It got to be a slog in the last half of volume two.

I haven’t read every review, critique, and study of the work, but my biggest take-away is this: You learn as much or more about France and Europe’s problems, circa the 1830s, reading DIA than you do about the United States. Long stretches are comparative, and many passages feel like psychological projection, given the aphoristic and unscientific nature of de Tocqueville’s observations.

Also, the first volume feels more useful than the second. The first contains more connections to particulars, giving it the air, at least, of a case study.

Although my reading was initiated independently, I had decided I would study with with a few prompts. First, I read the present conservative-liberal valences in mind. Because of this I notated passages that seemed, to me, to resonate with either side of that binary. Overall I made more notations on the conservative side, but–and I’ve said this before— there were plenty of passages that would give today’s conservative a pause, or provoke outright disagreement.

Second, I read looking for observations about anti-intellectualism. This was by far the most productive aspect of my study. De Tocqueville did not disappoint on this front. Many of his observations on materialism, respect for ideas/intellectuals, popular politics, and religion recalled those made by Hofstadter, making one wonder about the relative paucity of references to, and citations of, de Tocqueville in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963). More on that later.

That’s it for now. I’d love to hear your observations on de Tocqueville’s study, and his legacy in American intellectual life. – TL



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