Why Tocqueville Would be Disappointed by the 2010 Census Numbers in Wyoming

            Today’s reading by Tocqueville began with a passage that included, “The Americans have no neighbors, and consequently they have no great wars, or financial crises, or inroads, or conquests to dread; they require neither great taxes, nor great armies, nor great generals…” (335). No great wars, no financial crises, no great taxes – if only Tocqueville could be here today to see what we’ve become. We don’t need him anymore though – we have his writings, and we can come to our own conclusions based on Tocqueville’s views on land and geography. Is the dream as dead as today’s public discourse says it is? What would it be like today if Tocqueville’s vision had been implemented, and what would it mean for the concepts of democracy and citizenship?

            One aspect of 1830s America that Tocqueville loved was the abundance of land, space, and the mobility that went along with it. This simply did not exist in the tight quarters of urban Europe, where feudalism and monarch rule were the lay of the land, where the lowest members of society were pushed into tight corners and perhaps given a tiny parcel of land to farm. In Tocqueville’s vision of America, if one’s property was infringed upon in any way, the simple solution was to head west, upon what Tocqueville called “the boundless continent, which is open to [the Americans’] exertions,” (337).

            When I think of the Europe that Tocqueville so lamented, the first thing I think of is the public housing projects that we saw in the Poverty in Chicago film – poor people cramped into small spaces. I do not think that this is the feudal Europe that Tocqueville warned against. These projects are a sad portrayal of income inequality in America, however, they are also a sad reminder that America largely forgot to heed Tocqueville’s call and move west: “The extent of our inhabited territory, the abundance of adjacent land, and the continual stream of emigration flowing from the shores of the Atlantic towards the interior of the country, suffice as yet, and will long suffice, to prevent the parcelling out of estates,” (341).

Not what Tocqueville envisioned when he wrote of American expansion. He was looking horizontally, not vertically.

            To be sure, the thought of “heading west” can still bring out romanticized visions of grandeur. Many of us played the Oregon Trail, and we all know that people went west partially for the physical and mental benefits of the natural resources, which is most often transposed into “living a better life.” After doing the first half of today’s reading I became convinced that Tocqueville was an entrepreneurial dreamer who envisioned that business would move west with the flow of people. Yes, different areas would utilize different natural resources, but when economic opportunity became crowded upon, people would bring it west with them rather than be crowded into poverty.

GDP Distribution in America

But why did that not happen? We are now faced with geographic inequality – business in the western states, save for the west coast, is just as sparse as the population. Note that the states with the lowest GDP are all similar in geographic region and population. They provide basic services to their residents, but are not by any means considered to be “booming.”

           The eastern half of our country is filled with well-to-do cities, poor urban areas, rural areas, but most importantly, the middle-class run-of-the-mill cities comprised of neighborhoods, supermarkets, chain restaurants, decent public schools, and so on and so forth. In the west, we find open space. But what would America be like today had we listened to Tocqueville? Can you imagine what it would be like if inner-city poverty didn’t exist, if there were as many residents in Idaho as there are in Pennsylvania, if the real estate industry brought in as much money in Montana as it does in Florida? What if the residents of Chicago’s housing projects had never lived in Tocqueville’s European Nightmare and instead ended up in middle class subdivisions in Hyannis, Nebraska?

            Surely our democracy would be stronger in Tocqueville’s terms. Tocqueville boasts that “in cities men cannot be prevented from concerting together, and from awakening a mutual excitement which prompts sudden and passionate resolutions,” (336). The proportion of people who would be active politically in these average size towns would make a much greater impact than if that proportion were living in public housing projects. Remember how grim the prospects were for these people? Remember how they spoke of not having a voice? Had the population been spread, GDP would probably be higher in the western states. Income inequality would not hit so many people so hard. Citizenship, in Shklar’s terms, would be more important to more people because it would apply to them. More democracy would lead to more voting, and less-severe economies would initiate earning.

           Is there a correlation between the income gap and the population gap? Tocqueville’s America in 2011 would not have been a government-imposed Orwellian state; nor can I say with full certainty that this is exactly what it would have been like if we had listened to him. It’s simply what I envision when I speculate: “What if people had taken his literature seriously and decided to spread themselves out?”

Western Ghost Town: A sad reminder of what could have been

Alexis de Tocqueville’s prose has so much power today that it can be difficult to snap back to reality after reading his work. I understand why it was never popular to take advice from a Frenchman here in America, but perhaps we missed out just this one time.

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4 Responses to Why Tocqueville Would be Disappointed by the 2010 Census Numbers in Wyoming

  1. brbarlog says:

    I think this post does an excellent job trying to figure out both the economic and population disparities within the country, yet relating it back to the intuitions of Tocqueville. I tend to agree that had the population been spread, GDP would probably be higher in the western states. Income inequality would not hit so many people so hard. However, to play devil’s advocate, I think it is very important to understand why the west, still to this day, remains less gifted, in a sense, of economic wealth. To me, it is very difficult for people in the 21st century to pick up their things and move. The notion that a family could get on a wagon and drive west as far as they could see does not apply. Given the bureaucratic barriers of the housing market, and the job market, one could plausibly argue that if more money is held in the east, it is logical to assume that more jobs would be in the east. Terrain in the west seems to present another problem. It would be incredibly difficult to build, in my opinion, a city the size of Chicago in the middle of the Rockies.
    Nonetheless, I agree with the blogger’s comment referring to Shklar. Areas of high economic power tend to produce greater populations, thus in tern, a high er percentage of voting, quintessential to being a good citizen.

  2. bjacobs25 says:

    This blog post really got me thinking about Tocqueville in a new light. The one aspect I disagree with is where you say Europe was short on rural areas and open space. I don’t think that was entirely true, especially in 18th century Europe. I’m sure Tocqueville was familiar with rural life in Europe (or at least that it existed), though not to the degree it did in the United States at the time.

    I like the “what if” that you pose about geographic equality. What if, as you state, Montana and Florida had equal populations and comparable demographics? I think we would be worse off as a whole.

    Why? Well, as you state (and as Tocqueville points out) cities are integral to the success of our nation. They produce the highest amount of GDP in the nation, provide jobs, allow us to interact both democratically and socially, and give Americans an identity. While ideally Tocqueville may have saw this geographical equality as ideal, it wouldn’t be efficient for our nation as a whole.

  3. I really like this post and think that it is a very interesting, thorough analysis of Tocqueville and the current state of the US. I agree with the thesis that Tocqueville would be displeased with some of the ways the US has developed over the last 170 years. However, I believe that some of these developments were simply inevitable in a state that has grown as much and as rapidly as the US. Tocqueville’s love of the US is largely based on it having massive landspace but relatively few people, something that was destined to change. For example, he is enamored with the frontier and the possibility of exploration and finding your own land, but as the US expanded this land was destined to be swallowed up. In 1830 the US population was 12.866 million; in 2010 it was 300 million (http://govpubs.lib.umn.edu/census/popchart.phtml). The idea that a country could grow 23 times larger and maintain the same basic characteristics is insanity. This discussion reminds me of an essay I wrote for Political Science 339, a class studying the government of Communist China, last semester. China’s GDP has grown by an average of 10% per year since 1978 and has reduced its poverty rate from 65% to 4% in just 33 years. This unprecedented boom is one of the most spectacular developments in human history. However, it has also led to dramatic income inequality, especially between urban and rural areas. This is undeniably a dark stain on China’s growth, but perhaps an unavoidable one. For countries to expand at the rate of China in the last 33 years and the US in the last 170 years, some sacrifices must be made. Increased inequality and the growth of certain regions at the expense of others is often an inevitable consequence of massive growth. They are unfortunate circumstances that should be managed and minimized, but at the end of the day I believe that Tocqueville would be happier with the US in 2011 than in 1835.

    It is also important to keep in mind that 1835 America was not a paradise of equality. We tend to romanticize the past, but let’s not forget that a huge proportion of the population of the US (African-Americans and Indians) were either enslaved or badly oppressed. The frontier lifestyle that Tocqueville so loves was made possible by Andrew Jackson’s Trail of Tears that led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Native Americans. These are defining traits of United States history that cannot be glossed over just because they are painfully ugly. The early United States achieved some great things, but no society that perpetuated such evils should be glorified.

  4. (NOTE: I accidentally posted the previous comment under the wrong username so I am posting it again under my correct username to make it easier for Jennet and Justin)

    I really like this post and think that it is a very interesting, thorough analysis of Tocqueville and the current state of the US. I agree with the thesis that Tocqueville would be displeased with some of the ways the US has developed over the last 170 years. However, I believe that some of these developments were simply inevitable in a state that has grown as much and as rapidly as the US. Tocqueville’s love of the US is largely based on it having massive landspace but relatively few people, something that was destined to change. For example, he is enamored with the frontier and the possibility of exploration and finding your own land, but as the US expanded this land was destined to be swallowed up. In 1830 the US population was 12.866 million; in 2010 it was 300 million (http://govpubs.lib.umn.edu/census/popchart.phtml). The idea that a country could grow 23 times larger and maintain the same basic characteristics is insanity. This discussion reminds me of an essay I wrote for Political Science 339, a class studying the government of Communist China, last semester. China’s GDP has grown by an average of 10% per year since 1978 and has reduced its poverty rate from 65% to 4% in just 33 years. This unprecedented boom is one of the most spectacular developments in human history. However, it has also led to dramatic income inequality, especially between urban and rural areas. This is undeniably a dark stain on China’s growth, but perhaps an unavoidable one. For countries to expand at the rate of China in the last 33 years and the US in the last 170 years, some sacrifices must be made. Increased inequality and the growth of certain regions at the expense of others is often an inevitable consequence of massive growth. They are unfortunate circumstances that should be managed and minimized, but at the end of the day I believe that Tocqueville would be happier with the US in 2011 than in 1835.

    It is also important to keep in mind that 1835 America was not a paradise of equality. We tend to romanticize the past, but let’s not forget that a huge proportion of the population of the US (African-Americans and Indians) were either enslaved or badly oppressed. The frontier lifestyle that Tocqueville so loves was made possible by Andrew Jackson’s Trail of Tears that led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Native Americans. These are defining traits of United States history that cannot be glossed over just because they are painfully ugly. The early United States achieved some great things, but no society that perpetuated such evils should be glorified.

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