JMC fellow Christopher James Wolfe argues that Pascal’s reflections about the restlessness of human nature helps illuminate Tocqueville‘s view of American democracy.
Tocqueville Was Not a Prophet of American Doom
By the way he has been discussed recently, one might be led to think that the only thing Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) wrote about was America’s decline and fall. Patrick Deneen, a Tocqueville scholar by training, recently penned a book titled Why Liberalism Failed in which he claims Tocqueville’s predictions about American moral subjectivism (“individualism”) and statist dependence on government (“soft despotism”) have come true, with corrosive effects for intermediary institutions such as religion and the family. The root of both of those errors is Americans’ love of equality, a love that suggests no authority can “tell us what to do,” so to speak. For that reason, Deneen blames the American Founding itself for fostering the idea that every individual person is “created equal” and has a natural right to “liberty.”
The truth, however, is that Tocqueville was not sure America was destined for a fall. He made many predictions in Democracy in America, basing them on how Americans were living and what he knew about the necessities of human nature. But he never claimed any of those predictions were “inevitable,” or that history necessarily was going to lead Americans from the natural rights of the Founding to the moral subjectivism of today. The late Tocqueville scholar Peter Augustine Lawler, who passed away last year at age 66, used to say that Tocqueville believed things were “getting better–and worse–all the time.”
Christopher Wolfe is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Marquette University. He currently is Co-Director of the Thomas International Center in Raleigh-Durham NC. He graduated summa cum laude from Notre Dame in 1971 with a major in government and went on to study political philosophy at Boston College, receiving his Ph.D. in 1978. During his graduate studies he “migrated” from political philosophy to American Political Thought and Constitutional Law. He taught at Assumption College from 1975 to 1978 and moved to Marquette in 1978, being promoted to associate professor in 1985, and full professor in 1992, and retiring in 2008. He served as department chair from 1997-2000.
Dr. Wolfe’s main area of research and teaching for two decades was Constitutional Law, and his books include The Rise of Modern Judicial Review: From Constitutional Interpretation to Judge-Made Law (Basic Books, 1986), Judicial Activism: Bulwark of Freedom or Precarious Security? (Brooks/Cole, 1991) and How to Read the Constitution: Originalism, Constitutional Interpretation, and Judicial Power (Rowman and Littlefield, 1996). He also edited That Eminent Tribunal: Judicial Supremacy and the Constitution(Princeton University Press, 2004).
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