Tocqueville on American Character : Why Tocqueville's Brilliant Exploration of the American Spirit is as Vital and Important Today as It
In 1831, Alexis De Tocqueville, a twenty-six-year-old French aristocrat, spent nine months travelling across the United States. From the East Coast to the frontier, from the Canadian border to New Orleans, Tocqueville observed the American people and the revolutionary country they'd created. His celebratedDemocracy in America, the most quoted work on America ever written, presented the new Americans with a degree of understanding no one had accomplished before or has since. Astonished at the pace of daily life and stimulated by people at all levels of society, Tocqueville recognized that Americans were driven by a series of internal conflicts: simultaneously religious and materialistic; individualistic and yet deeply involved in community affairs; isolationist and interventionist; pragmatic and ideological.
Noted author Michael Ledeen takes a fresh look at Tocqueville's insights into our national psyche and asks whether Americans' national character, which Tocqueville believed to be wholly admirable, has fallen into moral decay and religious indifference.
Michael Ledeen's sparkling new exploration has some surprising answers and provides a lively new look at a time when character is at the center of our national debate.
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Truman Talley Books
October 01, 2001
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Excerpt from Tocqueville on American Character by Alexis de Tocqueville
Tocqueville on American Character
DYNAMIC PEOPLE DRIVEN BY INTERNAL CONFLICTS
All the tensions of the world have been imported by the United States.
-- RAOUL ROMOLI-VENTURI
"Nothing struck me more forcibly," Tocqueville tells us right at the beginning of his great work, "than the general equality of condition among the people."1
If two Americans meet on the street, they treat one another as equals, regardless of differences in wealth, physical beauty or strength, or intellectual or artistic talent. Not that there are no differences; he's a practicing Catholic, and insists that we are differently endowed by God, and he is well aware that those differences will be recognized and either help us or hurt (and of course he knew all about black slavery). Nonetheless, he's amazed to discover that Americans value one another equally, deal with each other in the same way, and give everyone--all else being equal--the same opportunities. There's none of that bowing and scraping that goes on in the Old World, where a person is automatically assigned a certain status depending upon his parentage alone. Americans don't like that sort of thing. When Ben Franklin was sent to France they asked him for his title. He replied, "Mr.," insisting that no greater honorific could be given a man. Americans don't kneel to kings or queens; we salute men and women worthy of our respect.
We know that some men are more gifted than others, but we believe that all men are entitled to equal treatment. "The gifts of the intellect proceed directly from God, and man cannot prevent their unequal distribution" he reminds us, but "the means that Americans find for putting them to use are equal."2 Equality of condition, not equality of endowment.
This passion for equality among Americans has, in Tocqueville's words, a "prodigious influence ... it gives a peculiar direction to public opinion and a peculiar tenor to the laws; it imparts new maxims to the growing authorities and peculiar habits to the governed." And this prodigious influence doesn't stop with politics and law; it is the universal solvent of our lives, it affects everything and "modifies whatever it does not produce." Equality is "the fundamental fact" of American life, and Tocqueville was certain it would eventually become the fundamental fact of life everywhere, the driving force of a global democratic revolution. And if you doubt his prescience, ask Mikhail Gorbachev.
No one is automatically entitled to high status or even respect because of birth. Respect has to be earned; it doesn't come merely because you have a famous name. And it isn't hard to discover how Americans decide who is top dog: whoever gets the most money wins the game. Equality of condition produces an endless turmoil in which each tries to distinguish himself from the others by outdoing them in the basic American competition for wealth. Americans are always trying to get rich or even richer, and they are constantly on the move. Like the Donners and the Reeds, Americans are ready to pack up and go when opportunity or challenge beckons. And even when they get rich, they still don't stop, because getting even richer is a constant challenge and a neverending thrill. Business, not baseball, is the great American sport. "The desire of prosperity has become an ardent and restless passion ... and it soon becomes a sort of game of chance, which they pursue for the emotions it excites as much as for the gain it procures."3
Many contemporary commentators think they see a growing materialism in American society, as if, in some more austere earlier time, we were more idealistic and less attracted to money and the things money buys. But there is no such age of innocence in our past; we've been after the golden ring from the very beginning. Tocqueville has it doubly right: it's part of our national DNA, and we're in it both for the money and for the thrill of winning the contest. The critics call it a rat race; the winners, and most Americans, love the competition and wouldn't have it any other way.
American tycoons give away a substantial amount of their fortune, even as they work long hours to keep the money pouring in. Andrew Carnegie was afraid that he might corrupt his children by leaving them lots of money, so he gave away almost all of it before the kids were ruined. Bill Gates and Michael Milken routinely give away billions (the Milken family funds dozens of activities from medical research to educational and religious undertakings) as do numerous Wall Street millionaires who don't want it publicized. They've got all the money they need, indeed they have so much they have to hire people to figure out how to give it away. But they work feverishly to make even more, because the game's the thing. Americans are like the troops Henry V surveyed on the eve of battle:
I see you stand like Greyhounds in the slips, Straining upon the start. The game's afoot ...
To win the game, you have to work, and Americans work harder and longer than anyone else in the modern world. "Everybody works," Tocqueville ruefully observes, "and work opens a way to everything; this has changed the point of honor quite around and has turned it against wealth."4 He sadly remarks that there are plenty of Americans with enough money to be able to permit themselves a life of leisure, but "public opinion forbade it, too imperiously to be disobeyed." They work anyway, and join the general competition.
It's tough. It's not for everybody; even those raised in it sometimes find it too tough. Some try to change the rules. The Massachusetts Youth Soccer Association invented "nonresult-oriented competition" for kids ten and under, and is itching to extend it to 12-year-olds. "We're trying to take away that 'you've-gotta-win-the-trophy' feeling," the registrar of the association told the Associated Press in the summer of 1998.5 The anonymous AP reporter called it "soccer without the kick," and one of the players remarked "It's dumb and stupid. It's fun to win." In the 1960s university students demanded an end to "the concept of failure" in their classwork, and even today there are schools and colleges that do not give grades, preferring personalized essays describing each student's progress. The Pojoaque Elementary School in Santa Fe, New Mexico, decided to abolish letter grades in 1997, and two years later there was a scheme to dilute the competition for college entry by reinterpreting SAT scores in accordance with, among other factors, how many electrical and electronic devices were in students' homes.
These may be noble efforts, but they're doomed so long as Americans remain American. As General George Patton says in the opening scene of his movie, "the American people hate a loser."
In this wide open competition, the society is constantly churned from top to bottom. A man can come from nowhere to become president of the nation or CEO of a great corporation of his own creation. Dreamers like Jefferson might muse about a "natural aristocracy" that could lead America to glory, but Tocqueville is no such dreamer. He sees that Americans, both within the society and on the continent, are surging up and sinking down. There is no enduring aristocracy, natural or otherwise; there's a frantic competition. Each generation creates its own leaders, and the son of yesterday's famous family is tomorrow's average Joe.
To be sure, the winners aren't always the best. Tocqueville gets a good look at American political leaders, from John Quincy Adams to Sam Houston, and is not only unimpressed, but, like us, is often depressed by the spectacle. He and Beaumont were underwhelmed by a conversation with President Andrew Jackson:
General Jackson ... is a man of violent temper and very moderate talents; nothing in his whole career ever proved him qualified to govern a free people; and, indeed, the majority of the enlightened classes of the Union has always opposed him. But he was raised to the Presidency, and has been maintained there, solely by the recollection of a victory which he gained ... a victory which was, however, a very ordinary achievement and which could only be remembered in a country where battles are rare.6
Military victory has carried many American presidential candidates to the White House, from George Washington to Dwight Eisenhower, and probably would have enabled General Colin Powell to win the presidency. In our own day, the White House has become home to men whose credentials were more modest still: peanut farming (Jimmy Carter), movie acting (Ronald Reagan), Kansas City politics (Harry Truman), and wheeling-and-dealing in Arkansas (Bill Clinton) or California and Washington, D.C. (Richard Nixon). State and local leaders are often even less impressive.
Tocqueville observes that the most talented Americans rarely go into politics, because political power is limited by an elaborate network of checks and balances that frustrates ambition and imagination. "I was surprised to find so much distinguished talent among the citizens and so little among the heads of the government,"7 he muses, but it makes perfect sense. Business is far more challenging, more remunerative, and places fewer restrictions on the top people. Most CEOs have more power than most government officials, they get better perks, and they have higher prestige in society. No wonder that our best and brightest are more easily found in board rooms than in legislative chambers or executive branch offices. Would you rather be Warren Buffett or Bill Clinton? Do you think it's better to run American Airlines or be secretary of the air force? Do you think there's a higher talent level in the House of Representatives or in the top corporate boardrooms?
Tocqueville dryly remarks that it sometimes appears that you have to fail in business in order to undertake a career in politics. The business successes aren't often tempted to run for high office, and when they do, they usually lose prestige. Ask Ross Perot, Steve Forbes, or Donald Trump.
As Tocqueville found, America is wide open. There is no other country in which almost any child can legitimately dream of becoming ... anything. No other people find it perfectly normal when a college dropout named Bill Gates becomes the richest man in the world virtually overnight, or when an immigrant named Kwok Li sells his eight-year-old company to Lucent Technologies for a billion dollars in cash, when immigrants named Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright are entrusted with the foreign policy of the United States, or a member of the Georgian black underclass named Clarence Thomas becomes a Supreme Court justice. Seventy percent of our current millionaires achieved their status during their lifetimes. Americans, Tocqueville concludes, "are there seen on a greater equality in point of fortune and intellect, or, in other words, more equal in their strength, than [are people] in any other country of the world, or in any age of which history has preserved the remembrance."8
This is the "equality of condition" that so impresses Tocqueville. While wealth is indeed unevenly divided at any given moment, there are no permanent classes. From time to time there are anguished cries about a growing gap between rich and poor in America, as if this were terribly unfair, particularly when a small percentage of the population makes enormous sums of money. But Americans themselves, including those at the bottom of the pile, don't agree with the critics. Americans overwhelmingly believe that equality of condition exists, and that they can benefit from it. Two-thirds of Americans polled in 1993 (just after a brief economic recession) answered "yes" to the question, "do you think people should be allowed to accumulate as much wealth as they can even if some make millions while others live in poverty?"9 Three years later, an astounding 80 percent agreed that it is possible to "start out poor, work hard, and become rich." This conviction spans social categories and ethnic groups, from top to bottom. When The Washington Post asked African American teenagers in 1995 whether blacks or whites had a better chance to succeed in life, 60 percent said the chances were equal.10
To be sure, as in George Orwell's memorable phrase, some people are more equal than others. Rockefellers and Kennedys, and now Buffetts and Gateses, have more opportunity than people born at the bottom of the feeding chain. There are many people who, through no fault of their own, are not going to succeed. Tocqueville knows this, but he also knows that the chances for success are greater here than anywhere else, and that our belief in our unique opportunities drives us, in a powerful self-fulfilling prophecy, to break down barriers to social mobility.
For Tocqueville, the most revolutionary thing about America is the constant dynamic change up and down the social ramp: poor people get rich, and rich guys become impoverished. This means that categories such as "rich" and "poor" contain constantly changing faces; America is not divided into fixed classes the same way as other societies. In the Old World, with rare exceptions that prove the general rule, political power is retained and transmitted by political parties or family dynasties, and wealth either flows from the coffers of the state or is passed on from wealthy parents to their fortunate children. That is why young and ambitious Europeans and Asians, brandishing their new MBAs or certificates of proficiency in computer programming, or acceptance letters from American universities, are headed for the United States in record numbers. At last count there were more than half a million foreign students in our colleges and universities, with the numbers growing every year.
In the rest of the world, those who are born in the wrong neighborhood learn early on that they're not destined for wealth or glory. In England or Italy, the wrong accent can close most of Fortune's doors. If non-Americans want to move up, they must generally choose among the traditional channels of limited upward mobility: the church, the military, or organized crime. Most Americans, whatever their origins, think they can become millionaires and live the good life. A recent book title, of which hundreds of similar examples can easily be found, proclaims: Getting Rich in America: Eight Simple Rules for Building a Fortune and a Satisfying Life. Luigi Barzini, another keen-eyed European visitor to America, mused on this uniquely American phenomenon almost exactly a century after Tocqueville's trip.
Only the fools, the lazy, the inept, the irresponsible, and the egotists refused to face the challenge. They had no excuse. Cheap handbooks, as simple to follow as cookbooks for new brides, taught everybody in simple language how to develop their dormant talents and the tricks necessary to make a packet quickly, possibly in their youth, in order to spend the rest of their life fishing. One could learn for a few dollars how to speak masterfully in public, be irresistible, dominate a meeting, mesmerize superiors or opponents, make friends, sell everything to everybody, and, in the end, with the first million in the bank, spot prodigious investment opportunities, investments that multiplied themselves like amoebas ... People hopefully bought these books by the millions, as true believers buy sacred relics or bottles of miraculous water at a sanctuary.11
Sometimes Americans become millionaires without even trying. A young employee of America Online, hired to put data into the on-line sports reports, had accumulated a bundle of AOL stock options without knowing their significance. One happy day in the summer of 1999 a colleague told him that the shares were now "vested," and were worth more than two million dollars. It was better than winning the lottery, even though it was hardly won by merit. Sometimes you just get lucky.
But the basic rule is that if you work hard, you'll make it. To quote Ron Jones, the co-owner of Handy Andy Janitorial Services in Piano, Texas: "If you want your prayers answered, get off your knees and hustle."12 And Marcus Garvey, the celebrated black leader of the early twentieth century, said it all: "Wealth is power, wealth is justice, wealth is real human rights ... The opportunity is yours, you can lift yourselves to any height ..."13
That is why our greatest heroes do it on their own. "There is a new glorification of the risk-taking businessman," The Wall Street Journal tells us in its "Overview of World Business" in late 1999. "According to one recent survey, more than 90% of Americans consider the entrepreneur a figure of respect ... In the U.K ... . the figure was just 38%. And in Japan, only 8% of adults believe it is prestigious to start a company."14
Tocqueville knows how avidly we glorify risk-taking pioneers. Today, Jim Clyman would be an Internet tycoon or an astronaut. Those 1999 poll results were just another reflection of one of the basic components of American character. The lone figure challenging the frontier--whether the actual wilderness of our first two hundred and fifty years; or the frontiers of industry, sports, and space; or the frontiers of the mind--is the quintessential American hero. We have always been moving west, and when the real west became too civilized we moved on to conquer other worlds.
He chooses his words carefully: We were conquerors long before the world wars of the twentieth century. You have only to look, as Tocqueville does, at the fate of the Indian tribes that fell before our western march. He describes us in terms that conjure up visions of Roman legions:
... a restless, reasoning, adventurous race which does coldly what only the ardour of passion can explain ... nation of conquerors who submit themselves to the savage life without ever allowing themselves to be seduced by it ... A people which, like all great peoples, has but one thought, and which is advancing toward the acquisition of riches, sole goal of its efforts, with a perseverance and a scorn for life that one might call heroic, if that name fitted other than virtuous things.15
Shades of Jim Clyman's meditation at the gravesite of Reed's mother! If the legendary mountain man--the exemplar of Tocqueville's description--had had Tocqueville's gift of language, and the time to think it through, he'd have said the same.
All we ask for is a level playing field. Give us a fair chance, don't give the other guys any advantage, and we think we'll make it. That is why that most un-American practice, the quota system of favoring one group over another, is cut down time after time, whether it is applied to Catholics, Jews, Blacks, Latinos, or women. We do not wish to give or receive special treatment.
In our rough-and-tumble society, there are no guarantees. Equality cuts both ways. You can rise from squalor to Beverly Hills, and you can fall from the heights of Wall Street and take your place amidst the Bowery bums. Nobody bats an eye when yesterday's tycoon slides down into the yaw of the struggling masses. It can happen to the greatest of us, even to Superman's wife. Margot Kidder, who played Lois Lane in the movie version of the superhero's life, was found wandering the streets of southern California, her fortune spent, her clothes in tatters, and her mind befuddled. Joe Lewis, the great heavyweight boxing champion, was reduced to penury, as are countless former stars of professional sports. Once they were among the richest of us.
We know that the bigger they are, the harder they fall. It's all part of the American game, an almost daily occurrence. The Dart Group, once a booming empire that owned major interests in Dart Drug Stores, Crown Books, Trak Auto, Total Beverage, and Shoppers Food Warehouse, was torn apart by generational conflict, which not only paralyzed the enterprise but generated enormous legal costs as father and sons sued and countersued each other. Boston Chicken, one of the hottest new stocks in the country in 1993, filed for bankruptcy barely five years later. Woolworth, the very symbol of the American department store, has vanished, along with former business giants like Eastern and Western Airlines. Pan Am used to be the greatest airline in the world; today it is a regional shadow of its former glory.
We may mourn their passing, but we welcome the opportunity to rise to their former heights, and then surpass them.
THE PERFECTIBILITY OF MAN
When an entire people demonstrates a unique passion for achievement, they must be motivated by some basic cause, such as an underlying belief, a blessing of fortune, a powerful new development, or perhaps a profound internal conflict. If it were just a matter of a lucky location on good land with nonthreatening neighbors, then the Canadians and the Mexicans would be just like us. If it were just a matter of our British heritage, we'd be just like the Australians. Tocqueville has met ambitious individuals before, and he knows that ambition is a basic human trait. But this is something quite different from the usual man-on-the-make: he's found an entire people racing full speed ahead, and we've kept on racing for more than three hundred years.
Tocqueville lays it at the altar of Equality. In traditional societies, where a man's status is determined at birth, individuals can improve themselves but it is inconceivable to improve everyone. That would undo the entire social fabric. In America, where all are deemed equal, where no one is fixed in place, and where you can go from the bottom to the top in a single lifetime, everyone can improve, or be improved.
It also means that nothing is forever; if we're going to make everything, and everybody better, the old models have to be thrown away. We call it "creative destruction," and it was part and parcel of the American character long before it became a slogan for business visionaries like "Neutron Jack" Welsh of General Electric, who has created more shareholder wealth than any chief executive in history, and earned his nickname by firing nearly a quarter of his employees: " ... the radical messages he began preaching 20 years ago now seem like clich?s ... Conference speakers the world over assert that you have to destroy your own business to survive."16 Creative destruction has always been a fundamental component of our DNA, because we have always been perfecting our enterprises ... and ourselves. No one knows it better than Welsh, who, according to Business Week magazine, has a "near spiritual belief in the promise of the individual." Welsh could have been quoting Tocqueville when he said "The idea flow from the human spirit is absolutely unlimited ... All you have to do is tap into that well. I don't like to use the word efficiency. It's creativity. It's a belief that every person counts."17
The belief in the perfectibility of mankind was an Enlightenment conceit, but in Europe it was embraced by a mere handful of philosophers (the ones famously spoofed by Voltaire in Candide). Over here it became an article of national faith. Americans hold a truly revolutionary, even messianic belief in the perfectibility of mankind. Tocqueville looks deeply into the American soul, and finds, in the midst of our frenetic activity,
[T]he image of an ideal but always fugitive perfection ... Continual changes are then every instant occurring ... the position of some is rendered worse, and he learns but too well that no people and no individual, however enlightened they may be, can lay claim to infallibility; the condition of others is improved, whence he infers that man is endowed with an indefinite faculty for improvement. His reverses teach him that none have discovered absolute good; his success stimulates him to the neverending pursuit of it. Thus, forever seeking, forever falling to rise again, often disappointed, but not discouraged, he tends unceasingly towards that unmeasured greatness so indistinctly visible at the end of the long track which humanity has yet to tread.18