December 11, 2000
Prof teaches Tocqueville's lessons
By Michael Terrazas email@example.com
With the bitter struggle over this years presidential election ratcheting up tensions between the nations two major political parties, many Americans are increasingly turned off by the parties apparent inability to rise above partisan politics.
But Alexis de Tocqueville, whose 1830 book Democracy in America
is viewed as a seminal work on American government, felt partisanship
was inevitableand even desirableaccording to Harvey Mansfield,
a Harvard professor whose Dec. 5 lecture, What Tocqueville Says
to Liberals and Conservatives, touched on what advice the 19th century
Frenchman might have for todays ideologues.
Tocqueville rejected the notion of rising above partisan
politics, said Mansfield, Kenan Professor of Government at Harvard
and coeditor of a new translation of Democracy in America, to his
White Hall audience. He said most people who actively follow or participate
in politics end up choosing one side or the other. Independents
pick something they like from liberals, something else they like from
conservatives; most independents want to have their cake and eat it, too.
The liberal/conservative dichotomy has existed as long as civilization,
Mansfield said, and two philosophies can be summed up as restricting popular
power on the one hand (conservatism) and extending it indefinitely (liberalism).
Conservatives value self-interest, he continued, which doesnt equate
with selfishness since true self-interest realizes whats best for
the community is best for the self. Tocqueville says self-interest
is the moral doctrine best suited to the needs of democratic life,
He said todays Republican party is an uneasy alliance
between economic libertarians and religious conservatives, with both sharing
the goal of limiting public power.
Liberals, Mansfield said, stress the importance of community and ask
why public power should not be extended, even indefinitely. Where conservatives
put their faith in the market, he said, liberals trust the
Both are right, and both are wrong, he concluded. Conservatives
are right to accept self-interest as inevitable but wrong to trust the
market and the church as individual solutions to public problems,
Mansfield said. Liberals are right to worry about societal problems
but wrong to trust blindly government help instead of on-the-job training
Tocqueville felt one of the biggest strengths of American democracy was
its ability to draw people into political associations, both formal and
informal, Mansfield said. Tocqueville marveled at the fabled New England-style
town hall meetings and the free public education first divised in that
part of the country.
Following his lecture, Mansfield answered questions on subjects from
religion to race to voter enfrachisement to foreign policy. Otherwise
a forward thinker for his age, Mansfield said, Tocqueville felt one of
Americas greatest strengths as a country was the strength of its
womenbut he felt the women were strong because they avoided political
Mansfield said Tocqueville wrote more about the utilitarian aspects of religion than its truthfulness; indeed, much of the book is like that. One of the reasons I call [Democracy in America] the best book on American democracy is because theres no democratic theory in it, Mansfield quipped. Tocquevilles more concerned with practice.