Fare Thee Well, Newt; ...
By William Westmiller
Long before he rose to the prominence of House Speaker, Newt Gingrich had been applauding Alexis De Tocqueville's report on "Democracy In America". Enthroned at the top of Newt's recommended list, Tocqueville has been read by more students, quoted by more politicians, and granted more historic markers than most fathers of our country. Since recommended reading is hardly the meat of political discourse, we might just let Alexis fade away into the shadows of Newt's history. There's good reason to dim the bright spotlights that have shone on Monsieur De Toqueville.
For the praise he's garnered, a casual observer might imagine that M'sieur De was a sage, revered by the greatest lights of our nation's history. Actually, he was a petty French bureaucrat on a junket to study prisons for the edification of his aristocratic sponsors. In the course of this taxpayer-funded excursion, M'sieur De found the cultural grist to spank the nobles who had guillotined his mother and defamed his father. "Democracy in America" was a vehicle for instructing his French contemporaries on how to make American democracy safe for the civilized world. He might have made an amusing talking head in modern times, but as a political philosopher, he was a good clerk.
For all his running commentary on life in America, M'sieur De didn't have the slightest clue about what he was observing. Reading his monotribe, one could imagine that there was no such thing as a Declaration of Independence, much less a Constitution, that impacted the political bent of these former British colonists. Perhaps his homeland chant of "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity" made him blind to the distinctions among those concepts, but it's evident that political and social equality amused him above all else. Nowhere does he show any appreciation for individual liberty as a foundation for government, nor does he ever recognize a distinction among the democratic and republican aspects of its American structure. M'sieur De must have imagined that the length and breadth of inalienable rights were covered by his ability to undertake foreign travel in luxury.
At the height of Newt's revolution, every politician, includingDemocrats, had a quote from M'sieur De, suitable for their own rhetoric inclinations. "Democracy" seemed to contest with the bible as a source for etiological quotes for any occasion. Many of his observations suit my fancy quite well, but most often they are truisms, widely held a few centuries ago, even if less commonly today. It's not easy to fault a man who denigrated lawyers long before lawyer jokes were in vogue. And he cuts deep into the corruption, depravity, and shame of aristocratic rule. But his political philosophy falters on fundamental issues.
It's pardonable that M'sieur De perceived the American people as socially, culturally, and economically equal. In 1831, America was still a rural nation, with a few urban centers devoted to fishing and commerce. Though there were large landowners, the overwhelming bulk of the population enjoyed a simple and unpretentious lifestyle. However, M'sieur De imagined that social equality was a universal objective and motivating principle of America's political ethic. Nowhere does he recognize the distinction between equality under the law and equality of social means.
This is a critical failure, for the equal application of the laws allows, condones, and protects inequality. This is a central premise of justice, that everyone has a right to pursue their own happiness and enjoy their just deserts. The perception of Americans as individuals who seek different objectives and succeed or fail on their own merits is beyond the coddled domain of aristocratic plenitude.
The ideal of American is inequality, where every person may pursue their dreams without the burden or support of government coercion. M'sieur De seemed in every way enthralled by a de facto social leveling, absent the rigor of a socialist governing body. He could not see that "all men are created equal", and thereafter are unequal in nearly every respect, if, and only if, the law excludes coercion, equally, to everyone.
If we are to roast M'sieur De, it needs to be observed that he showed no appreciation of, never acknowledged, perhaps didn't even know, that the United States is a constitutional republic. One might imagine, from M'sieur De's account, that the nation was an expansive recreation of the ancient Greek city-states, rather than a novel and unique form of government. There is everywhere in his writing democracy In America, but never a republic, much less a republic devoted to the protection of individual rights embodied in a constitution. If there were any rights reserved to the individual, or powers reserved to the states, it was beyond the perception of our noble traveler. Democracy was indeed common and prevalent at each local government level. The ability of all to enjoy an equal voice in the selection of their state and federal representatives -characteristic of a republic, not a democracy - simply escaped the attention of the esteemed gentleman. M'sieur De could certainly write, but there's no evidence that he read the Constitution, much less the Declaration of Independence. The proposition that anyone could write wisely about America, without the benefit of studying America's political charters, certainly merits skepticism. M'sieur De was no Jefferson.
Perhaps M'sieur De Toqueville's temporary acclaim, coincident with the term of M'sieur Gingrich, will leave some residue of good sense in the lexicons of American political discourse. If nothing else, the Frenchman offers us a glimpse into the inclinations of our former Speaker. Alexis seemed inclined to write, rather than read. Newt seemed inclined to speak, rather than listen. That may be their most telling legacy. Bon soir, Monsieurs.
©1998, William Westmiller
California Coordinator of the Republican Liberty Caucus
Past Candidate for the Republican Nomination for (24CD) Congress
Former National Secretary, California Chairman, Libertarian Party
lovecrim.c14 ~870 Words