Alexis de Tocqueville's Persistent Political Clout

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Friday marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of French writer Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited America in 1831 and recorded his impressions of the nation's unique brand of democracy. Eric Weiner reflects on de Tocqueville's observations, and how the Frenchman's musings still have a political impact many generations later.


I'm Madeleine Brand. This is DAY TO DAY.

And these are the words of French writer Alexis de Tocqueville.

Unidentified Man: The American has no time to tie himself to anything. He grows accustomed only to change and regards it as a natural state of mind.

BRAND: De Tocqueville's classic work "Democracy in America" was published in 1835. It is still widely considered the best description of American political life ever. De Tocqueville was born 200 years ago today. NPR's Eric Weiner has this birthday greeting.

ERIC WEINER reporting:

Dear Alexis, 200 years old, I can hardly believe it. It seems like just yesterday you were traipsing through a young United States, from upstate New York to Louisiana, observing us, knowing us better than we know ourselves. You'll be happy to hear that your books are as popular as ever. You're on every politician's bookshelf, right next to Machiavelli's "The Prince" and Sun Tzu's "The Art of War." I don't know if they've actually read you, Alexis--940 pages is a bit daunting--but they sure love to quote you, and from both ends of the political spectrum. Ronald Reagan invoked your name often, and so did Bill Clinton. Here he is delivering his 1995 State of the Union address.

(Soundbite of 1995 State of the Union address)

President BILL CLINTON: If you go back to the beginning of this country, the great strength of America, as de Tocqueville pointed out when he came here a long time ago, has always been our ability to associate with people who were different from ourselves.

WEINER: And it's not just politicians who invoke you, Alexis. Anti-war activists now look to you for ammunition, carting out what you said about war and democracy. All those who seek to destroy the liberties of a democratic nation ought to know that war is the surest and shortest means to accomplish it. Then again, those in favor of the war in Iraq cite you also. Gregory Fossedal, founding chairman of the de Tocqueville Institution, explains why people love to borrow your words.

Mr. GREGORY FOSSEDAL (Chair, Alexis de Tocqueville Institution): It's like a smorgasbord. They like to walk through and pick out, `Oh, well, here are the Tocqueville rutabagas, and that supports my idea, so now I can quote a great Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, as supporting HR 1047,' or the war in Iraq or whatever cause they're enlisting him for.

WEINER: What does it say that the best book written on American democracy was written by a French aristocrat?

Mr. FOSSEDAL: (Laughs) It is sometimes easier to see things when you are an outsider who visits. You can abstract from and observe things within a family that, to the family itself, are just happening instinctively or unconsciously.

WEINER: Maybe he's right, Alexis. How else to explain your many accurate predictions, like the one about the US and Russia fighting for global supremacy? We won that one. The spirit of volunteerism that you so admired in America is still alive today. And we still read voraciously, as you noted, but now there's this thing called TiVo and DVDs and video games. It's difficult to explain; you'd have to see them.

Of course, nobody's perfect, Alexis. You did get some things wrong, like your prediction that America would never produce truly artists and scientists. Oops. But it's your birthday, so I won't dwell on the few things you got wrong when there's so much about America you got right, like when you noted that in no other country in the world is the love of property keener than in the US. Boy, is that true. In fact, there's this three-bedroom, two-bath colonial you might be interested in. It needs some work, but--well, never mind. Happy birthday, Alexis. Yours truly, Eric Weiner, NPR News.

BRAND: DAY TO DAY returns in a moment. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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