Michael Shurkin
The Virtue of Mediocrity:
Reading Tocqueville in an Election Year

Nowhere in the world have Jews been given civil rights because they were liked. On the contrary, governments have only been kind to Jews because of a recognition that they had to, for reasons having to do with precisely what Tocqueville described: centralization and the resultant democratization of society. For Tocqueville, modernization influenced culture and values by promoting the ideas of civil equality and human perfectibility. He wasn't talking about intellectuals and leaders, the John Lockes, Tom Paines, and Thomas Jeffersons, but rather the average citizen, the local administrator, the magistrate, and the petty politician. It is they who are the cogs in the machinery of modernization, they who decided and decide to uphold a system that makes Jewish rights necessary even if unpopular. It is not that these people liked Jews; indeed, none of the countless nineteenth-century officials I ran across in my dissertation research in the archives of rural France ever said anything remotely positive about Jews.

Yet, for the reasons identified by Tocqueville, they invariably and scrupulously promoted Jewish interests and defended the Jewish rights. They did so because it was what they understood to be their duty; it was what it meant to be modern. In some instances they even said so explicitly.

Western liberalism, its causes and effects, is all the proof I need to say that of it is better than any alternative I have seen for ordinary citizens, and especially better for minorities, and especially better for Jews. It follows that things would be optimal in the country that, according to Tocqueville, best achieved modernity's potential, the United States. Our felicity here is not an accident.

Democratization does not always promote more liberty, however, and France itself was Toqueville's greatest example of where it does not. Although most readers in this country are only familiar with Democracy in America, they should consider the book to be, as Raymond Aron once remarked, one panel in a diptych. The other panel is The Old Regime and the French Revolution. When regarded together, it becomes apparent that Tocqueville's single objective was understanding modernity, revealing why democratization worked so badly in some places (France), and so relatively well in others (America). In a nutshell, Tocqueville explained that while centralization fueled democratization, democratization fueled further centralization, and too much centralization could lead to a violent death for liberty. Toqueville argued that centralization came in two forms, governmental and administrative. Administrative centralization was the most dangerous of the two, for it meant that the agencies of the state had an ever greater role in the day to day affairs of the average citizen. Administrative centralization was particularly anathema to personal liberty.

France experienced both kinds of centralization, and the Revolution, because it radicalized the process of democratization, fostered radical centralization. Democracy became tyrannical. Tocqueville famously downgraded the importance of the Revolution itself. "The Revolution," he wrote in The Old Regime and the French Revolution, "achieved suddenly, by a convulsive and painful effort, without transition, without precaution, without consideration, that which would have been achieved little by little by itself over the long term." What caused the Terror was not the Revolution itself, but the administrative centralization that accompanied it.

The American Revolution did not yield to Terror for a variety of structural and cultural reasons: we have governmental centralization, not administrative; we are much less radical in our drive for equality; we are more wed to liberty; we enjoy a civic life of countless societies and organizations that involves us in 'the system.'. In addition, unlike, say, the French, we are burdened with neither the vestiges of feudalism nor the hatreds those inspire. Apart from radical fringes, we've had no need or no urge to smash and burn. We are also far more optimistic about our potential. Tocqueville cites as highly indicative a comment he heard from an American sailor when asked why, in contrast to European ship builders, Americans built cheaper vessels that would have a much shorter service life. The sailor allegedly responded by asking him what the point was of making ships last longer when the technology was advancing so rapidly. Who wanted out of date ships?

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April 2004

Persistence of Vision
Dan Friedman

Avi Levy

Reading Toqueville in An Election Year
Michael Shurkin

Dead Sea
Debra Bruno

Life During Wartime
Jay Michaelson

David Goldstein

Our 450 Back Pages

David Stromberg

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