MIT (8) Tocqueville

Juliette and I ended up taking Tocqueville together at Harvard, which was the most wonderfully indulgent class ever. Imagine an entire class of reading just Tocqueville — Democracy in America, Souvenirs, Ancien Regime. It was all terribly fun if you’re into graduate school: taking the T to Harvard Square, walking through Harvard Yard, and then spending few hours talking about Tocqueville.

Spending so much time discussing a single author however is, to a certain extent, indulgent, so it is fair to consider what makes Tocqueville worth the effort. I became aware of the philosopher Alexis Charles Henri Clerel de Tocqueville though Bill Moyers’ PBS series “A World of Ideas,” and many of the intellectual mentioned him — I specifically remember Tom Wolfe — so Tocqueville seemed worth studying because he touched on something so fundamental that he remained relevant today. My own personal interest was methodological: that is, how did Tocqueville work, and what was it that allowed him to make such incisive observations and comments?

First, Tocqueville employed literary techniques to study social processes, specifically he wanted to compare and contrast America’s successful, “conservative” revolution with France’s unsuccessful and radical one. Tocqueville did this by traveling around America, talking with people, taking notes on what he saw and heard, and then interpreting them through his considerable intellect and education into insightful prose. In the 1960s and 1970s, this application of literary fiction techniques to analyze non-fiction topics took was dubbed “New Journalism.” This technique stands in contrast to more systematic and logical forms of philosophy that, while there may provide a certain level of analytic utility, they are always too simple and simplistic as compared to the complexity of the social systems that they’re analyzing.

Tocqueville’s methodology merits extended study due to the prescience and accuracy of the analysis. It’s been a while since I read Tocqueville, but two stand out. First, Tocqueville pointed out that America was a country on the trajectory of ever-increasing equality. He didn’t say ever-increasing equality was right or wrong; he simply noted it as a fact and attempted to tease out its consequences. Second, Tocqueville predicted that the US and Russia were destined to tangle geopolitically as the former contended against nature (and God) and the latter against humanity. With predictions like that, the method behind Tocqueville’s predictions should surely be studied, appreciated, and if possible, learned. Third, Tocqueville said controversially — though somewhat accurately — that democracy was antithetical to excellence.

Since then, the politics of complexity has become a topic of interest, because reality is complex. However, the politics of complexity is controversial because achieving success in politics depends on making complex topics simple and easy to understand. If this is done well, then it helps the young to work better and be better in society. However, this process of simplification and information transmittal opens the doors for manipulation, misinformation, and propaganda. The media age in which we live with photographs, magazines, radio, television, and movies distorts the public mind and the decision-making processes of individuals. The potency of these media-based narrative techniques provides a natural and ongoing temptation for those who seek to influence the public for their own private gain. The narrative-based methodology of Tocqueville, properly understood, might potentially provide a necessary palliative for the 21st century’s confusing information cacophony.

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