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).
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.
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?”
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.