Liberty Matters

What Kind of “New Political Science”?

I welcome the opportunity to share with colleagues my reactions to Aurelian Craiutu’s  thoughtful and thought-provoking paper. Aurelian offers much learning and wisdom in a few pages. I am grateful that he reminds us of why we need to return to Tocqueville and how much we, modern political scientists, can learn from him about the human condition and the prospects of free and responsible individuals in the modern age. It is hard to take issue with what he says about Tocqueville’s writings, and my comments are thus at the margin of Aurelian’s stimulating reflections.
Aurelian is correct in reminding us of the important, if often overlooked, speech Tocqueville gave in April 1852 in which he distinguished between the art and science of government. But that does not mean that in Tocqueville’s analysis of the two, art and science, each need always to go their separate ways. In fact, Aurelian himself draws attention to this point when he observes, in his discussion of the four major dimensions of Tocqueville’s new science of politics, that Tocqueville’s originality was in combining empirical and normative analysis  -- in effect, combining art and science; for Tocqueville, Aurelian correctly notes, did not write Democracy in America and The Old Regime and the French Revolution just to contribute to a purely scholarly debate. Tocqueville also wished to promote a new civic spirit, to participate in the education of liberty of democratic citizens and to educate democracy itself.  
Aurelian’s thought experiment is a good one. My sense is that there are still quite a few places, Indiana University included, where Tocqueville’s Democracy in America,if submitted as a doctoral dissertation, would still be accepted. Sheldon Wolin’s and Jon Elster’s views are not universally shared. Moreover, the very Liberty Fund bilingual edition of Democracy in America, with its extensive selection of early outlines, drafts, manuscript variants, correspondence, and other materials,provides unprecedented insightinto the power of observation and method of inquiry and scholarship Tocqueville displayed in his American voyage, and how much he engaged in a conversation with himself and with others. The notes and marginalia in the Liberty Fund edition of Democracy also confirm and reinforce what many careful readers of the work have pointed out -- Tocqueville’s conscious effort to be descriptive, analytical, and philosophical all at once. [37]
We know now [38] the impact that Francois Guizot’s lectures on civilization had on the formation of Tocqueville’s mode of analysis. But, I would add,  the notes of Tocqueville’s travel to Sicily in 1827 reveal key elements that shaped Tocqueville’s formidable apparatus of research [39] that allowed him to launch a political science appropriate to the new world of democracy. For the first time, I think, we see in his notes on Sicily features in Tocqueville’s mode of analysis that emerge in full force and are uniquely conveyed in  Democracy in America: his mental habits, skills of observation and conceptual apparatus, passion for comparison as the heart of clear thought and action in understanding human affairs, and composition of what he has seen and understood with concision and force, as well as a way of sharing with the reader a commentary on his own thoughts and writings. [40] In the notes he based the discussion of human behavior on a given society and not on some abstract conception of human nature, while emphasizing the importance of general ideas for making sense of what he found. Recurring themes in Democracy -- the physical conditions, the powerful force of nature, and the fragility of human civilization – can be first observed in the Sicilian notes. In the essay “A Fortnight in the Wilderness,” first written in 1831, Tocqueville recalled visiting the site in Sicily where the city of Imera had been built, noting that “never in our path had we encountered a more magnificent witness to the instability of things human and to the miseries of our nature.” [41] Thus his voyage of discovery from Sicily to America was as much the discovery of new realities and relating them to his own country as it was the maturation of a mode of analysis that has given his work enduring quality.
Aurelian draws attention to the comparative dimension of Tocqueville’s work. We need to keep in mind that Tocqueville was writing at the time when the nascent social science did not provide much help. In taking hold of the subject matter, he made a skillful use of “general ideas[42] to launch “a new political science ... needed for a world entirely new.” [43]This allowed him to do several things: to go beyond the “apparent disorder prevailing on the surface,” to “examine the background of things,” [44]and to achieve and communicate understanding of the democratic revolution through the use of paired comparison. To be sure, he was not the first analyst to use that mode of analysis. What made his method of paired comparison exceptional for his, and our, own time was its animating spirit: he combined a passion to understand public affairs with a passion for liberty, and, concurrently, a deep concern that a misguided spirit of equality and republicanism in both American democracy and Western civilization posed a potential threat to individual liberty and self-government.
The framework of analysis that Tocqueville constructed for a new science of politics included multiple dimensions:
  1. Large processes (aristocracy versus democracy; long-term developments toward social equality; the democratic revolution and democratic despotism; democracy versus civilization).
  2. Country comparisons (America versus France; America versus England; Anglo-America versus New France Quebec and Latin America).
  3. Different levels and foci of analysis (federalism versus centralized government and administration; political centralization versus decentralized administration; local liberties in unitary and federal systems; state government in federal systems versus provincial administration in systems of centralized government and administration; prospects for institutional reform and learning in federal versus unitary systems; contrast between American and European republicanism).
  4. Micro-level analysis focusing on what motivates individuals to act and what shapes law and ethics, public opinion, including democratic despotism, in different political regimes (showing a fusion of concepts and ideas later dichotomized as republican and liberal discourse involving: human virtues and self-interest; priority of both individualism and collective life; individualism versus egoism; love of country and fraternity; democratic and aristocratic sentiments; sources of pride in self-government; and moderation in religion).
  5. The art of association and the accompanying associational topography (permanent associations; political associations; civic associations; and private associations, without losing sight of the question of whether particular kinds of constitutional and institutional arrangements make a difference in promoting or hindering self-government and civic spirit).
  6. The most fundamental “pairs in tension” may be the volumes of Democracy themselves: the first two volumes (of the Liberty Fund edition) focus on liberty and the institutions of self-government; volumes three and four on the soft despotism that Tocqueville saw as democracy’s drift, something that in his own time was already happening in France. Just as the French needed to appreciate how the Americans had developed quite a different system of republican institutions that offered the prospects of maintaining liberty under conditions of social and economic equality; so the Americans could look to France to understand the vulnerability of democracy to the administrative state and soft democratic despotism.
This way of proceeding allowed Tocqueville to dig below the “appearance of disorder, which reigns on the surface” of American society, [45] and contrast the government that administers the affairs of each locality (France) with one where the citizens do it for themselves. In comparing the two systems, he concluded that, “the collective strength of the citizens will always be more powerful for producing social well-being than the authority of the government.” [46] The American case demonstrated how it is possible for self-interest to work for the common good and to address issues of interpersonal relationship or the practice of civic virtues. [47] Whereas freedom and order were understood in Europe to be in conflict with one another, the American experience suggested that they could be put together to work for the common weal.   This is a chief lesson that can be taken from Democracy in America. He went on to observe that, excepting the United States,
there is no country in the world where men make as many efforts to create social well-being. I know of no people who have managed to establish schools so numerous and so effective; churches more appropriate to the religious needs of the inhabitants; town roads better maintained. So in the United States, do not look for uniformity and permanence of views, minute attention to details, perfection in administrative procedures. What is found there is the image of strength, a little wild, it is true, but full of power of life, accompanied by accidents, but also by activities and efforts. [48]
The American form of government founded on the principle of sovereignty of the people provided Tocqueville with an approach to politics that led him to question the entrenched view of the European state and to place in sharp relief the importance of federalism. Unlike the Europeans, Americans had successfully found a way to address the issue of power, not by decreasing it but rather by dividing it. And in an often cited passage, Tocqueville forcefully drew out the distinction, with clear comparative and evaluative dimensions:
What most strikes the European who travels across the United States is the absence of what among us we call government or administration. In America, you see written laws; you see their daily execution; everything is in motion around you, and the motor is nowhere to be seen. The hand that runs the social machine escapes at every moment. But just as all people, in order to express their thoughts, are obliged to resort to certain grammatical forms that constitute human languages, all societies, in order to continue to exist, are compelled to submit to a certain amount of authority; without it, they fall into anarchy. This authority can be distributed in different ways, but it must always be found somewhere. [49]
But Tocqueville did not stop there. As Aurelian notes, one of the great merits of Democracy in America is that it makes us understand how democracy itself changes the human condition not always for the good. Systems of centralized government and administration are not unique to particular European nations. They are very much part of the habits of democracy. Centralization is a universal tendency, “the natural government.” By contrast, “individual independence and local liberties will ever be the product of arts” [50] that can easily be brushed aside as people become intolerant of differences and acquire a misguided spirit of equality and republicanism. The vulnerability of democracy to forms of democratic despotism is real. This is so, Tocqueville warned, because 
Men who live in democratic centuries do not easily understand the utility of forms: they feel an instinctive contempt for them.... Forms excite their scorn and often their hatred. Since they usually aspire only to easy and present enjoyments, they throw themselves impetuously toward the object of their desires; the least delays lead them to despair. [51]
Tocqueville further explained,
This disadvantage that men of democracies find in forms is, however, what makes the latter so useful to liberty, their principal merit being to serve as a barrier between the strong and the weak, those who govern and the governed, to slow the first and to give the second the time for them to figure things out. Forms are more necessary as the sovereign power is more active and more powerful and as individuals become more indolent and more feeble. [52]
The political science that Tocqueville constructed for himself allowed him to anticipate the possibility that egalitarian envy might lead to centralization of authority in the American federal system as well. [53] Hence, he saw the need for the new political science to ask how liberty and institutions of self-government could be maintained to promote a society of free men and women. In his view, the threat to freedom posed by the natural tendencies of democracy toward despotism could be held in check in several ways: through the practice of interest well understood and tempered by religion; recourse to “a science of association” to take advantage of the “utility of forms”; and the design of self-governing institutions so as to maintain freedom under conditions of equality. This way the vulnerability of democracies might be held in check. [54]
Comparativists and methodologists alike remind us that paired comparison has its pitfalls. It does not follow, for example, that the observed variables will cover all the possible causes of particular outcomes. There may be other factors at work missed by the researcher. The fact remains that no method of analysis, no matter how good it may be, points to exactly what the researcher should study, or guarantees that it will be used properly, with both internal and external validity. Against this backdrop, it is no surprise that even some sympathetic readers have drawn attention to facts that possibly Tocqueville overlooked. [55]The criticism seems overdrawn -- when we consider that researchers today have not yet found ways to insure reliability in the practice of empirical research – and misguided, as noted earlier, when ranged against what Tocqueville wrote in the first version of the drafts and that he did not say everything he had found but only those facts that shed light on his main concern. Indeed, one of the unique features of the bilingual edition of Democracy isthat it brings to light the truly massive scholarship and care behind the work. Indeed, for this reason, it is hard not to marvel at the manner in which Tocqueville used paired comparison as an analytical leverage to make several discoveries, to emphasize what was distinctive and universal about the political dynamics in the United States, and to gain institutional leverage for predicting differences in intra-systemic behavior.
In fine, I share Aurelian’s analysis. The method of analysis that Tocqueville constructed for a new science of politics allowed him to generate findings about the American Republic that ran radically counter to the Jacobin way of understanding republicanism, and to give a hand to, and go beyond, the growing liberal traditions in France and the rest of Europe of his time. In taking hold of the American political experiment, Tocqueville truly showed a way “to study the future of the world.” [56]
[37.] Roger Boesche, Tocqueville’s Road Map. Methodology, Liberalism, Revolution and Despotism (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2006), 2-26; Seymour  Drescher, Tocqueville and England (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964), 26; Joseph Epstein, Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy’s Guide (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 58; Andre Jardin, Tocqueville. A Biography (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press 1998), 67.
[38.] Thanks to Aurelian Craiutu, Liberalism under Siege: The Political Thought of the French Doctrinaires (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2003), 92.
[39.] This point is powerfully brought out by Jeremy Jennings, in his review of the Liberty Fund edition of Democracy in America, “Origins of Democracy,” Times Literary Supplement,October 8, 2010, 10-11.
[40.] See also  Roger Boesche, The Strange Liberalism of Alexis de Tocqueville (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006); Seymour Drescher, “Tocqueville’s Comparative Perspective,” in Susan B. Welch, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Tocqueville (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006) 21-48; Epstein, Alexis de Tocqueville, 4, 41; Saguiv A. Hadari, Theory and Practice: Tocqueville’s New Science of Politics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989); James T. Schleifer, “Tocqueville as Historian: Philosophy and Methodology in the Democracy,” in A. S. Eisenstadt, ed., Reconsidering Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1988), 121-38.
[41.] Tocqueville, Democracy in America IV, 1354.
[42.] Ibid., III, 728-29.
[43.] Ibid., I, 16.
[44.] Ibid., I, 152.
[45.] Ibid., I, 152.
[46.] Ibid., I, 153.
[47.] Ibid., III, pt. 2, chaps. 8-9.
[48.] Ibid., I, 156-57.
[49.] Ibid., I, 116.
[50.] Ibid., IV, 1206.
[51.] Ibid., IV, 1270.
[52.] Ibid., IV, 1271.
[53.] Ibid., IV, pt. 4, chaps. 6-7. Modern expressions of this concern can be found, among others, in Vincent Ostrom, The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerability of Democracies: A Response to Tocqueville’s Challenge (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997), and Paul A. Rahe, Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville and the Modern Prospect (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).
[54.] This is also the major concern of Vincent Ostrom’s analysis in his The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerability of Democracies.
[55.] See, among others, Hugh Brogan, Alexis de Tocqueville (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 277-78; Epstein, Alexis de Tocqueville,44; Francoise Melonio, Tocqueville and the French (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1998), 77,147; Garry Willis, “Did Tocqueville ‘Get’ America?” New York Review of Books,April 19, 2004, 52-56. But cf. Aurelian Craiutu, “What Kind of Social Scientist was Tocqueville?” Department of Political Science, Indiana University, paper 2008; Schleifer, “Tocqueville as Historian: Philosophy and Methodology in the Democracy,” 158-60; and Alan B. Spitzer, “Tocqueville’s Modern Nationalism,” Society for the Study of French History 2005, 48-66.
[56.] Catherine Zuckert, “The Role of Religion in Preserving American Liberty. Tocqueville’s Analysis 150 Years Later.” In E. Nolla, ed., Liberty, Equality, Liberty (New York: New York University Press, 1992), 21.