Tocqueville and the American Mind

With less than three weeks until the Iowa caucuses, American politics are in disarray. The vociferous voices on the far right clamor over a central question: how do we recover “American” supremacy? This question is the essence of populist conservatism today.

Fellow blogger David Cappella wrote a great piece on American institutions from the lens of Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1830s work, Democracy in America. I want to complement David’s post by unpacking Tocqueville’s concept of rugged individualism, an individual-level philosophy. Writ large, rugged individualism becomes American Exceptionalism. What historical roots compose the master narrative and populist calling card of Exceptionalism?

The first principle of Exceptionalism is Constitutionalism. Tocqueville noted the U.S. Constitution placed unique legal constraints on government action, making the American government conservative in structure:

“In the United States, the Constitution rules both legislators and ordinary citizens. It is, therefore, the primary law and cannot be modified by the law.”

-Vol. 1 Part I Chp. 6

The emphasis on placing power in law rather than people gives the Constitution an almost sacred quality, a conviction that the document is an immutable statement of higher principles. Judicial orginalism results among government officials, who interpret law by the presumed criteria of the mythologized Framers of 1787.

Exceptionalists also believe in unlimited liberty of the individual. Tocqueville identified the American thirst for liberty early on: the limitless expanse of geography and the oppression of Black and Native American peoples by the power of white European Americans which fueled the young nation’s rise.

“[The American] was plunging into the wilderness of the new world with his Bible, axe and newspapers.”

-Vol. 2 Part II Chp. 9

Liberty, to Tocqueville, explains inequality in the United States. He proposes an inverse relationship between liberty and equality. In Europe, the equality of subjects beholden to old monarchies carried over into democratic institutions favoring greater protection of the economic and social equality. Conversely, Americans strove for liberty above all at the expense of their racial and economic equality.

“[Europe] had wished to be free in order to become equal, but as equality took greater hold with the help of this freedom, it put freedom further from its grasp.”

-Vol. 2 Part IV Chp. 6

What is the next logical step for a free people without an active government? Economic growth. Tocqueville accurately predicted the rise of the free market philosophy. While Europe strove for art, aesthetics and complexity, Tocqueville noted how Americans strove for efficiency and ended up with homogeneity:

“In the United States, the majority takes upon itself the task of supplying to the individual a mass of ready-made opinions.”

-Vol. 2 Part I Chp. 2

The United States has developed one of history’s great economies, as President Obama reminded the nation in his last State of the Union address. Yet the credo of the Exceptionalists veers toward unlimited production, to go with unlimited liberty. The result is waves of products, spending and consumption by Americans. Tocqueville envisioned the competitive contemporary consumer economy:

“Democracy not only directs the human mind to the useful arts but also persuades craftsmen to produce many second-rate goods and consumers to put up with them.”

-Vol. 2 Part I Chp. 11

This election season, populist conservatives will grapple over who best serves the principles of limited government, unlimited liberty and the free market economy. Tocqueville’s work, however, begs the question: are these proud American principles, or a fleeting yet clinging mirage constructed by the white Europeans who spread across North America two centuries ago?

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