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Alexis de Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Alexis de Tocqueville

I started writing a post concerning US President Barack Obama‘s demotion as most powerful man in the world. He has been replaced by Russian President Vladimir Putin (b. 7 October 1952). But I stumbled upon Alexis de Tocqueville‘s De la démocratie en Amérique, Democracy in America,[i] and could not stop reading. Tocqueville was 25 when he travelled to North America. His two-volume (1835 and 1840) Democracy in America is a surprisingly mature work for so young an individual. Tocqueville also wrote on the Bas-Canada (Lower Canada). That book, if it is a book, I have to read and will.  


According to ForbesAmerican President Barack Obama (b. August 4, 1961) is no longer the most powerful man in the world. Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken his place. In my opinion, President Obama does not mind ranking below Russian President Putin, but it is not a good sign. It seems that the debt-ceiling crisis may have harmed the President. However, it also harmed his country.

During the debt-ceiling crisis, Mr Boehner, the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, looked almost as powerful as the President of the United States, but not smarter. Mr Boehner used the wrong weapon. One does not make raising the debt ceiling conditional upon the President not implementing the Affordable Care Act. The debt ceiling had to be raised.  It therefore seems silly on the part of Mr Boehner to have used raising the debt ceiling to fight the Affordable Care Act. In fact, intellectually, Mr Boehner was outranked by President Obama. However, I doubt that intellect and moral superiority carry weight in Washington.


Photo : Illustration Tiffet

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) regarderait le prochain Sommet sur l’enseignement supérieur en nous rappelant que, « s’il y a des peuples qui se laissent arracher des mains la lumière, il y en a d’autres qui l’étouffent eux-mêmes sous leurs pieds ».




Le Devoir
le 4 novembre 2013

In his two-volume Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville (29 July 1805 – 16 April 1859) noted that

“[m]ore than just imploding any traces of old-world aristocracy, ordinary Americans also refused to defer to those possessing, as Tocqueville put it, superior talent and intelligence. These natural elites could not enjoy much share in political power as a result. Ordinary Americans enjoyed too much power, claimed too great a voice in the public sphere, to defer to intellectual superiors. This culture promoted a relatively pronounced equality, Tocqueville argued, but the same mores and opinions that ensured such equality also promoted, as he put it, mediocrity. Those who possessed true virtue and talent would be left with limited choices.”  (See Alexis de Tocqueville, Wikipedia.)

Arrogance & Selfishness

Could Mr Boehner’s sixteen-day siege be a sign of the mediocrity Tocqueville noted? Congress turned a deaf ear to Christine Lagarde, the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund. She warned America’s lawmakers that “they risk[ed] pushing [the] world into a recession.” It would be my opinion that Congress should have paid attention to her warning. Not doing so was arrogance on the part of Mr Boehner and extremist Republicans, and it led to losses.

Moreover, Mr Boehner’s goal was to keep as much money as possible in the pockets of his wealthy constituents and, perhaps, in his own pockets. That was not edifying.  It could be that the wealthy spend millions avoiding to pay their fair share of taxes. They are showing an irresponsible form of individualism, not to mention abysmal ignorance concerning nationhood. To a certain extent, we are our brother’s keeper and should therefore pay our taxes.

Normally, I oppose individualism and collectivism when discussing avoidance of the needs of a community. But the word selfishness is fine.

Credit Rating

It appears, moreover, that the US will lose its AAA credit rating on Standard & Poor’s rating scale. (See the Huffington Post.) It was downgraded after the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis and this could happen again. In the end, Congress approved a raise in the debt ceiling. In other words, the US did not default on its obligations. However, this last debt-ceiling crisis revealed what seems a large flaw in the system. One pays one’s debts and one raises the debt ceiling if it’s too low. Besides, because of President G. W. Bush’s recklessness, the US owes China a fortune. So the debt is huge. These are not comforting circumstances. I suspect nevertheless that, once again, President Obama will be blamed.

An Executive Order

President Obama could, perhaps, have issued an executive order, but it may be that he did not want to do so until he had exhausted other options. It may also be that he and his administration could not act unilaterally. Moreover, he has faced systematic obstructionism, from day one, and keeps being made into a scapegoat. So he may have wanted the people’s elected representatives to make that particular decision and face the consequences.

So there were repercussions to this long confrontation.  President Obama both won and didn’t win.  It was a Pyrrhic victory because the crisis revealed a crude society, what Tocqueville termed “mediocrity” in America. Extremist Republicans may wish to hide their rich constituents’ money, but are doing so quite literally at any cost: 24 billion $. It makes no sense.


Tocqueville on Russia and America

According to Tocqueville:

“There are now two great nations in the world, which starting from different points, seem to be advancing toward the same goal: the Russians and the Anglo-Americans… Each seems called by some secret design of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world.”

It seems he was able to read into the future.

Le Devoir

Coincidentally, Tocqueville is featured in today’s Devoir, a Quebec newspaper, its finest.



I will not post the article I intended to post.  The above sums up what I wanted to say. The United States is harming itself and may be losing its status as superpower. However, there is a little more to write on the “Manifest Destiny” and “American Exceptionalism.” For instance, the “Manifest Destiny” is not entirely American. Nationalism is, to a large extent, a product of 19th century Europe.  In fact, it’s also a romantic concept.


[i] Democracy in America is Project Gutenberg [EBook # 815], Volume 1 and [EBook # 816], Volume 2. It can also be read under Democracy in America (Penn State).

The music is American composer Samuel Barber‘s (9 March 1910 – 23 January 1981) Adagio for Strings (1936)

The Statue of Liberty

— The Statue of Liberty

© Micheline Walker
5 November 2013