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December 11, 2000

Prof teaches Tocqueville's lessons

By Michael Terrazas

With the bitter struggle over this year’s presidential election ratcheting up tensions between the nation’s 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 inevitable—and even desirable—according 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 today’s 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 doesn’t equate with selfishness since true self-interest realizes what’s 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,” Mansfield said.

He said today’s 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 government.

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 in democracy.”

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 America’s greatest strengths as a country was the strength of its women—but he felt the women were strong because they avoided political participation.

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 there’s no democratic theory in it,” Mansfield quipped. “Tocqueville’s more concerned with practice.”


Back to Emory Report Dec. 11, 2000