Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

TOCQUEVILLE: Why Great Revolutions Will Become Rare 2011

America 2011. This morning a group called “Occupy Wall Street” is protesting at the Tennessee state capitol. A couple of years ago the “Tea Party” did the same thing. Even though their protests may be aimed at different targets, the basic underlying argument is the same: fairness. Americans think things should be fair and both these groups want change, and they want it now. Of all the Great Books reading selections Alexis de Tocqueville probably has the most to say directly about what’s going on in America today. Here’s his short summary of Americans in this selection: They love change, but they dread revolutions. Two questions: first, what does Tocqueville mean by that? And second, is it true? First point: they love change but not revolutions. What Tocqueville means is that Americans are forever varying, altering, and restoring secondary matters; but they carefully abstain from touching what is fundamental. Americans may protest the amount of profits corporations make or the amount of taxes the government collects; all in the name of “fairness.” And different groups have different ideas on how to go about making things fairer. But no group advocates overthrowing the democratically-elected government and replacing it with a monarchy. Why is that? Because, essentially no one in America wants a true revolution. And why is that? Why not? Because, as Tocqueville explains, …in democratic communities the majority of the people do not clearly see what they have to gain by a revolution, but they continually and in a thousand ways feel that they might lose by one. So what do they have to lose by a revolution? The short answer: everything they own. And almost everybody in America owns something: a car, a television set, furniture, a computer, clothes, or any other personal belongings. John Locke claims the basic purpose of government is to protect this private property of its individual citizens. In fact, Locke’s ideal of Life, Liberty and Property is practically embedded in our Constitution (“Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”). Once people begin accumulating things they want to hold on to them and enjoy them in peace and safety. Business helps them acquire the things; government provides peace and safety so they can enjoy them. In Tocqueville’s view I know of nothing more opposite to revolutionary attitudes than commercial ones. Commerce is naturally adverse to all the violent passions; it loves to temporize, takes delight in compromise, and studiously avoids irritation. It is patient, insinuating, flexible, and never has recourse to extreme measures until obliged by the most absolute necessity. Business doesn’t like surprises. It likes for things to be stable and predictable. Then people can make reasonable plans on investing or expanding. Business is willing to compromise in order to insure a safe and peaceful society. For that reason Tocqueville believes democracies such as America have a natural aversion to revolutions: Not only are the men of democracies not naturally desirous of revolutions, but they are afraid of them. All revolutions more or less threaten the tenure of property; but most of those who live in democratic countries are possessed of property… And this is particularly true of America: In no country in the world is the love of property more active and more anxious than in the United States; nowhere does the majority display less inclination for those principles which threaten to alter, in whatever manner, the laws of property. That’s why Tocqueville would probably say that neither “Occupy Wall Street” nor the “Tea Party” will have a deep and lasting influence on American politics. Americans will sympathize with both movements. They will support them too, but only up to a point. Remember what Tocqueville said: They love change, but they dread revolutions. He thinks most Americans don’t mind chipping around the edges to make some minor changes but they don’t want to overhaul the whole system. Too many people have too much invested to take a chance on losing it all. That was Tocqueville’s answer to our first question. Our second question was this: does what he said still hold true for 2011? We’ll see.


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