I’m Not Drinking the Kool Aid

Prior to discussing de Tocqueville this week, Jennet began with the disclaimer that a lot of us may not like de Tocqueville or agree with what he has to say. I don’t know about you, but I think I fall in the category of people that aren’t drinking the Kool Aid.

We’ve discussed several things regarding de Tocqueville: racial integration, and geography and religion in terms of democratic maintenance. While I do agree with some of de Tocqueville’s sentiments, he does go overboard at times, and when he does, I don’t buy it.

Let’s start with race. Clearly, de Tocqueville’s opinion about racial integration is bleak. So bleak that his only two solutions to the problems slavery has created are complete separation of the races, or intermarriage between the races. I do agree that ending slavery and granting African Americans freedom would not create full equality between the races, nor would it put an end to any animosity or prejudice between the races. However, I think a better solution than separation or intermarriage is simply time. We have seen, over time, that prejudice has decreased, and races are becoming forevermore equal. Now, we’ve reached a point where diversity in education or the workforce is encouraged and beneficial. This contrasts starkly with de Tocqueville’s idea of completely separating the races, a solution that may not have been necessary had de Tocqueville been patient.

In regards to de Tocqueville’s idea of intermarriage (regardless of how unrealistic this solution is), I think he is essentially saying that the only way to achieve racial equality is to eliminate racial differences. While intermarriage may decrease animosity amongst the races, overtime, reproduction would create a country of mixed race citizens, until race no longer exists. Effectively, de Tocqueville’s  argument for intermarriage is saying the solution to the problems caused by slavery is for race to no longer exist.

de Tocqueville also discusses how democracy is maintained in America, and he argues that the geography/land of America as well as religion work to maintain democracy. While his argument that religion instills morals in people is somewhat legitimate, I think laws promote democracy more than he thinks. He argues, in a democracy, that people have control over law, so law does whatever the people want. Yet, there are institutions within American government (e.g., separation of powers) that ensure that law does not change too drastically or inappropriately.

As far as geography goes, certainly things were different in 1830 than they are now. But, de Tocqueville did get things very wrong. He was right that the vast land allowed for prosperity, yet he overestimated the value of America’s geography to its maintenance of democracy. He wrote, “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…” (p. 335). This, certainly, is no longer true, and I think de Tocqueville underestimated how interconnected the world would become. While America’s prosperity does maintain democracy, and the land did lead to prosperity, I do believe it is the institutional structures of government that more so allow democracy to properly operate.

So what do you think? Does de Tocqueville know what he is talking about, or did he spend too few of a time in America to accurately understand what is going on? Am I overreacting, or was reading de Tocqueville a big waste of time?

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5 Responses to I’m Not Drinking the Kool Aid

  1. jlpach says:

    I certainly would not say that the de Toqueville reading was a waste of time. I think it is important to understand the American political ideology throughout all of history. Of course, some of what he says does not apply today; yet, I believe de Toqueville gives an interesting perspective on American democracy. Democracy is malleable. Although it seems that there is a common perspective on the essence of democracy, I think it is evident that throughout history its definition changes based on social, political, economic, and foreign influences.

    In response to the argument made about racial inequality, I do agree that racial inequality is decreasing in the U.S. currently, but will it ever be gone? I ask this based on the film we watched about the homeless in Chicago. The movie presented the notion that the homeless, being any race, were questionable citizens. However, what stuck with me the most was the portrayal of the destitute community on the South side of Chicago being mostly of black residents. Although they might be citizens, they are economically separate from the surrounding communities, causing them to have fewer opportunities and less motivation to live the American dream. The woman interviewed even stated that their community’s quality educational opportunities were basically nonexistent, causing children and students to lack a desire to pursue an adequate future. I believe that this could possibly be categorized as racial inequality on an economic standpoint. These residents are not getting the same, equal opportunities as others in America.

    De Toqueville does mention this aspect of racial inequality in referring to the issue of emancipated slaves. He states, “they remain half-civilized and deprived of their rights in the midst of a population which are far superior to them in wealth and in knowledge; where they are exposed to the tyranny of the laws and intolerance of the people… and the rest congregate in the great towns, where they perform the meanest offices, and lead wretched and precarious existences” (426). Yes, today racial inequality is not as severe as it was during de Toqueville’s time, but I believe his account on the situation of emancipated slaves still can be applied because of communities, like in Chicago, that remain economically separate from the opportunities given to citizens of America. Being from the suburbs of Chicago, I am able to see that races are congregated into their separate communities, and these separate communities are characterized by the majority white community being more superior in wealth and in educational opportunities to the communities characterized by a majority of black residents. Also, de Tocqueville’s claim that the emancipated slaves “lead wretched and precarious existences” may be applied to communities today. What came to my mind when I read this was again the depiction of the black community in the film. Since there is unequal opportunity for the future generations, many young people resort to gangs and drug dealing. That is a very dangerous lifestyle that lacks security on a safety and financial basis. Yet, these people seem to be stuck there, not able to find jobs and earn as citizens of the U.S.

    So back in thinking about the argument made in the blog about racial inequality, basically I also came to conclude that I agree with separation of races and intermarriage could not possibly be the two solutions in ending racial inequality. I agree that time will determine the progress of equality, but with time there also needs to be a change in what de Tocqueville claims as “manners.” Laws today are promoting racial equality; yet it is up to society to help those whose economic ties cause them to be unequal.

  2. jakmel says:

    Personally, I thought reading Toqueville was fascinating. The thing about him that intrigued me the most was his foresight, especially because he was in America for such a short amount of time. His keen foresight and observations helped to identify important themes dealing with the native americans and the importance of religion and vast amounts of land in maintaing and advancing democracy in America.

    What struck me the most about Toqueville was his predictions about slavery and civil rights in America. He first gives an extremely intuitive analysis of why slavery exists in American society. Additionally, he correctly predicts that not only will slavery eventually end and then when it ends former slaves will be despised even more by the white population. Furthermore, he notes that not only will ending slavery not pacify rational tensions but he also predicts that African Americans will eventually get fed up with their civil rights and rebel against the white population. The emancipation of slaves in the mid 19th century and the civil rights movement 20th century confirms these predictions made by Toqueville. o, his ideas about African American relocation to Liberia, was actually a legitimate theme of theme of the the civil rights movement.
    All in all, based on his very accurate analysis of America, I don’t think Toqueville would be surprised of the racial inequality that still exists in America today for African Americans as well as other minority groups.

  3. allisonrd says:

    I wouldn’t say reading Tocqueville was a waste of time, but I did agree with your skepticism over his answers to racial inequality. Both of his solutions, completely separating races or intermarrying, are completely ridiculous and unrealistic. In my opinion, separating races not only is impossible, but would only inhibit understanding and make it impossible to move forward. On the other hand, while eliminating race through planned intermarriage probably would probably better race relations, it will never happen. Intermarriage can and should happen but on a couple’s own terms—not Tocqueville’s.

  4. czli2011 says:

    I think it’s important to keep in mind that all of us grow up in a society that inculcates racial equality and acceptance in us from a young age. So it is easy for us to look at Tocqueville as a racist, radical theorist because by the standards of our time, he definitely would be considered one! But if we consider what he is saying into the context of his time, I think we’ll find interesting and intelligent perceptions that certainly can be relevant even today. The most important point I took from Tocqueville’s is simply that exclusion will always exist. As you said in your argument, even if people are granted equal rights under the law, animosity or prejudice will still exist between the races because inclusion and citizenship is more than saying someone is included.

    So why criticize the intermarriage idea proposed by Tocqueville? It was his interpretation of eliminating racial differences for more inclusion. Look at it this way: isn’t that what we’re doing today by teaching children from a young age that race isn’t a valid concept? That everybody is equal? Instead of physically disposing of racial differences, we are mentally getting rid of them by acknowledging that they do exist but aren’t important. Certainly, intermarriage is radical to us, but what if Tocqueville saw it as a parallel to what we see diversity education as today?

    Basically, I am suggesting: if we don’t take every claim Tocqueville makes at face value, maybe we will see a “core” or “universal” argument he is making. Then maybe we can see him in the more positive light that Jennet suggested in class.

  5. eskylis says:

    The Last claim made on this post may be one of the most relevant to the discussion, that:
    1. Basically, I am suggesting: if we don’t take every claim Tocqueville makes at face value, maybe we will see a “core” or “universal” argument he is making. Then maybe we can see him in the more positive light that Jennet suggested in class.

    There is indeed a universal (though changing) thesis that Tocqueville aims at establishing, and whether all of his predictions are true or not is not necessarily the primary means for denouncing his works. Accordingly, it is important to remember that we read a tiny fraction of the 900 page volume that is Democracy in America; it would be a mistake to argue that Tocqueville is wrong based on a reading of a few pages.

    Tocqueville’s powers of prediction are astounding to say the least; as mentioned, he predicts the racial conflict that unfolds centuries after his visit, the civil war; he even predicts the cold war, over two centuries before its occurrence between the ‘Russians and Anglo Americans’. To dismiss Tocqueville based on the fact that his writing is no longer timely may be a bit premature.

    The racial disparity that has been mentioned in Chicago, and more prominently in Detroit certainly confirms the notion that an intermingling of the ‘races’ is still an issue that we suffer with, and will continue to suffer with for decades or even centuries to come. That is the entire rational behind the usage of Affirmative action/preferential treatment in school and job admission, in fact. Tocqueville may have been too quick to promote two alternatives that are essentially night and day to each other (colonization or intermarriage), but perhaps his intention here was to emphasize the bleak situation that racial disparity had and will have for years to come.

    Tocqueville’s consideration of religion may be the most on point characterization that he makes. Yes, there are structural aspects of the U.S. government that are in place (separation of powers), to ensure the continuity of democracy in America, but the fact that religion influences the manners vital for the maintenance of democracy is a point that has not been adequately argued even, let alone defeated. The vigorous debate over abortion or teaching ‘intelligent design’ in our school systems is primarily, if not entirely influenced by what? Moral principles instilled by religious dogma anyone?

    The point is that it is important not to make any dismissals too quickly, particularly without significant textual support. No, the 40 pages we read for class is not enough to do that.

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