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

Perhaps the most reassuring aspect of Tocqueville's assessment of American democracy is his argument for mediocrity. Tocqueville complains mightily throughout his book about the mediocrity of many aspects of American life. American politics in particular was petty and vulgar, altogether lacking in great men or great ideas. However, he believed that the strength of American democracy lay precisely in its tawdriness. Virtue and excellence were aristocratic concerns, or they belonged to the agenda of idealists who would hold humanity up to unrealizable standards. Robespierre, known as the "incorruptible," demanded Spartan virtue of his Republic, but the result was tyranny. James Madison and his peers were at once more positive about humanity and more realistic. The Republic they designed would not fail to disappoint snobs or dreamers, but it would work. That's virtue enough.

Toqueville's analysis contrasted the French Revolution and Terror with the American Revolution (and non-terror), but the comparison can still be made today. The French aim higher, have more class, have a loftier rhetoric of liberty. They have relatively more direct democracy, meaningful and substantive public political debate, a thoughtful media, and not just competent but intelligent leadership (Jacques Chirac is to George W. Bush what Patrick O'Brian's Jack Aubrey is to Gilligan). Yet in many ways the French are less free. Note the French government's recent decision to bar Muslim girls from wearing head-scarves in school. Jewish students have already been getting into trouble for missing school for holidays; I've met several who were forced out of France's elite high schools and into relatively mediocre parochial schools, the equivalent of getting kicked out of the Ivy League and forced to study at Yeshiva College. It's hard to imagine that happening in our democracy. France has also been extraordinarily unstable. In the last 100 years alone they've gone through four constitutions and as many forms of government. Their democracy is like the Space Shuttle: spectacular but dicey. Ours is like the Staten Island ferry: ugly, plodding, sturdy.

But not unsinkable. Reading Tocqueville, one realizes that many of the reasons why he thought American democracy thrived are no longer true. Arguably one of the most important is America's transition from a peripheral nation with no virtually no standing army, no military threats, and practically no neighbors to a hyperpower with countless military engagements. We are now in a constant state of war that will most likely never end. Among the results: accelerated centralization, both administrative and governmental.

Another recent change concerns our media. Tocqueville marveled at the proliferation of independent journals. Every town had at least one newspaper expressing its own unique voice. Today that could not be further from the truth. The number of news sources dwindles rapidly each and every day.

Lastly, individualism, an excess of which Tocqueville saw as a menace, is far stronger today in our highly atomized society and consumer culture. How many of us can really claim to live in a community? So many Americans seem to live in the alienating privacy of suburbia, where in lieu of town commons or public spaces we have only shopping malls, many of which are now constructed to simulate the small towns they've replaced. How many of us interact with our neighbors? Or even know them? I would, instead, argue that we may be entering just the sort of dystopia Marx predicted, in which a tiny minority owns almost all the property, and the majority loses much of its humanity in order to survive.

Tocqueville helps reminds us of the wonder of our liberal, Western society. Liberalism itself is the real treasure, however bland it may seem when compared to other, sexier doctrines, and however mired it may be in what we often deride as modernist myths. American democracy, moreover, is arguably the most perfect manifestation of liberalism, perfect even in, precisely in, its blandness and mediocrity. Without ever abandoning the vigilance Jefferson recommended, we can at least not be so down on ourselves. Even the profound mediocrity on display in Bush's speeches can be regarded as reassuring. So American, Tocqeville would have sighed. So admirable.

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Lower image: Mica Scalin

Michael Shurkin is an associate editor of Zeek, and also an editor at Biblical Archeology Review.

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