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L'opinion publique dans le monde anglo-américain

Jean-Paul Regis

Recent visits to Tocqueville-Land

Robert Kroes

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1There is something quintessentially Tocquevillean about the American debate concerning public opinion and its role in political life. Or perhaps we should put it the other way round and say that Tocqueville was among those few Europeans able to grasp something quintessentially American about public opinion in America. Whatever the proper rendition of this remarkable case of "elective affinity" - of Wahlverwandtschaft - it is beyond dispute that Tocqueville's Democracy in America has become the locus classicus, to Americans as much as to European students of America, when it comes to authoritative opinion concerning the inner secrets of American democracy. In a remarkable feat of post-natal adoption, Americans have come to rank Tocqueville on a par with the Founding Fathers, as a man having sired the way Americans tend to conceive of themselves. America indeed has become Tocqueville-land, axed along such intellectual lines as he perceived over a century and a half ago. Time and again later generations have returned to his views as to a sacred fount of wisdom, if not rejuvenation, as if paying heed to the old Macchiavellian precept of recurring to the founding principles of their Republic. With every successive recurrence, though, Tocqueville, as befits a Founding Father, has multiplied. There are now one, two, many Tocquevilles, and perhaps one or two too many.

  • 1 Robert NISBET, "Many Tocquevilles", The American Scholar, 46 (1976-77), 59 ff.

2As Robert Nisbet has already pointed out,1 American intellectuals of different generations have interpreted Tocqueville in light of their own immediate concerns, and thus he has emerged as either the prophet of mass society, exponent of liberty and equality, critic of conformity and the tyranny of opinion, or anatomist of anomie and alienation. He has been seen as a precursor to the much later social and cultural critique of anomie by Durkheim, of the Lustprinzip by Freud, of the demise of cultural elites in mass society by Mannheim, of "other-directed man" by Riesman, of the "culture of Narcissism" and "the minimal self" by Lasch. But also, in a more positive vein, as the harbinger of the self-congratulatory pluralism in sociology and political science, or of the consensus school in history, both during the 1950s, which in the manifold manifestations of free associative life in American society recognised the ingredients of its vaunted democratic stability. If there are two main periods of a recurrence to Tocquevillean wisdom, they have been respectively the 'fifties in their chestbeating triumphalism, rereading mostly the first volume of Tocqueville's Democracy, and the 'seventies and 'eighties in their much more crestfallen mood, reminiscent of Tocqueville's somber ruminations in his second volume.

3Strangely, one of the leading consensus historians, Daniel Boorstin, in his The Genius of American Politics, made an essentially Tocquevillean point without so much as mentioning his name. As he put it, the peculiar genius of American politics lay not in its capacity for innovative political thought, in any grand theory of political life, but in its chastened sociological sophistication. The truly innovative insights of the generation of the Founding Fathers, according to Boorstin, were in the area of the prevention of tyranny and the preservation of freedom, the classical quandaries of republican thought. If, as they saw it, man was essentially driven to political action, not by a disinterested sense of public duty or public honour, but on the contrary by pure self-interest, their answer to the threat of tyrannical majorities was a drastic widening of the scope for self-interested action. The mere multiplication of interests would prevent any single one of them from serving as the rallying point for repressive majorities. Their insight may have been a shrewd perception of social interests underlying political action and may have been sociological in that respect, their answer was one in terms of political institutions, was therefore still in the mainstreams of political theory. Using much older ideas of mixed government, using historical precedent in their ideas on federalism, the over-arching metaphor of checks-and-balances truly sums up their central concern and wisdom: that a Republic, like the American, could only endure as long as its institutions were sufficiently articulated to reflect the variety of social interests and to prevent any single interest monopolising the instruments of government.

4The irony, as Tocqueville was really the first to make clear, was of course that all the subtlety and nuance of the constitutional order was meant to reflect a social stratification that simply wasn't there. It was in a way a case of mistaken identity, attributing to American society the characteristics of a European social order that had for so long concerned European political thought. It took a European artistocrat to see the difference and to make an early case for American exceptionalism. What is truly remarkable in his view is, of course, that he is almost a pure Madisonian in his view of social interests holding one another in check, but that he differs from Madison in putting this interplay of forces squarely within a sociological far more than a political context. As he sees it, it is prior to their translation into the political sphere that social interests have already become enmeshed in the webs of countervailing forces. This view in particular of the free and manifold forms of association which characterise the social life of Americans has been a source of inspiration for the pluraliste of a later day and age.

5But Tocqueville's central point in his case for American exceptionalism led him to a far more radical divergence from the world view of the Founding Fathers. To him, the central conceptual challenge which the American republic offered to political thought was its egalitarianism, in the dual sense of an organising ideology and a prevailing social condition. Here, everything, on every level ranging from ideas to material conditions, worked towards confirming a sense of human equality. In theology, with its Protestant emphasis on individual redemption, as much as in the mores underlying collective views of social life, the essential equality of individual human beings was the core tenet. Also, as Tocqueville saw it - and he certainly overstated his case there - the actual conditions of social life made for approximate parity among the individual inhabitants.

6What accounted for the stability of political life in Tocqueville's analysis, were essentially two factors, both of a sociological nature, and both taken up as explanatory factors in political science and sociology in the 1950s. One was a sign of the vibrancy of social life, reflected in the restless association-forming activities of Americans, the other its exact opposite - a sign of apathy and withdrawal - in the form of privatised life that Tocqueville chose to label "individualism". Here the abyss between Madisonian concerns and Tocquevillean perceptions is at its widest. As Tocqueville saw it, the preservation of republican forms was due in part to a process of depoliticisation, to a withdrawal from politics on the part of the electorate. Precisely this, voter apathy, evident in declining rates of voter turnout, was hailed in the fifties, by people like Lipset, Dahl, and Bell, as signs of maturity of the electorate, of a willingness to leave politics to the many elite groups representing the matrix of social interests. Appropriately, this school of thought, essentially Tocquevillean in its perceptions, yet casting them in a far more favourable light, has come to be known as pluralist elitism.

7Whichever way one looks at this tradition in political analysis - with Tocqueville's sense of foreboding or in the more affirmative vein of the pluralist elitists - the common element in these views is the rift that is seen to have opened up between the citizenry and the body politic which the citizens are assumed collectively to constitute. With the advent of mass democracy the old republican ideals of public life, public man, and public opinion had all become strangely warped. They had all been the classical carriers of republican "virtue", which despite its elusiveness had long been considered the mainstay of a republican order. The alleged disinterestedness of public man had already been thrown out by Madison and his likes. Yet, much as the public in the American republic was seen in active pursuit of its various interests rather than acting disinterestedly on behalf of the common weal, it was still assumed to be doing so on the basis of a rational and well-informed assessment of their own interests and those of others, much like Homo Economicus in the world of classical economics. Now, with Tocqueville, even the rationality of this market-like behaviour on the political agora had become questionable. Especially in his second volume, political man appears in his fully socialised version, reminiscent of fish meekly following the erratic movements of the shoal. No longer aware of what he is and where he is, other than in relation to others, he takes his every single cue to social action from those others, in endless and intricate webs of cybernetic submission.

8That is America as Tocqueville-land, a democracy, yes, but by default almost. Far does it take us from the proud, self-sustained and self-sufficient individual of Madisonian or Emersonian garb. So far indeed that later theorists of American democracy have always had to return to Tocqueville-land trying to bridge the gap that yawned between democratic theory and democratic practice. In their attempts at restoring democratic life to their loftier, theoretical views of a rational public that is truly in command of its collective destiny, many have decided to focus on that key element of a working democracy: public opinion.

  • 2 See R. W. FOX, "Epitaph for Middletown: Robert S. Lynd and the Analysis of Consumer Culture", in: (...)

9If Tocqueville was the first to observe the advent of mass democracy and its attending ideology of egalitarianism, it is little wonder that his perceptions gained relevance in America's great age of social transformation around the turn of the century. Then it truly became a mass society losing many of the agrarian, if not arcadian features that had still been amply there in Tocqueville's time. A whole new generation of intellectuals, in a sense America's first true intelligentsia, focussed their critical discourse precisely on the relationship between what Trachtenberg has called the "incorporation" of America and its continued existence as a political democracy. One of the leading lights of this generation and a man of central relevance to us here, was Walter Lippmann. He published a collection of essays in 1922, entitled Public Opinion, that is still a classic. In an approach that is more widely characteristic of his Progressive contemporaries, like a latterday version of Enlightenment Man he put his trust in science. Like Tocqueville before him he took a dim view of such traditional props of democratic life as the press or an informed citizenry. Society had become so vastly complex as to be beyond any individual citizen's ken. Chastened by the recent insights of psychology into the formation of individual opinion, he was convinced that people acted on the basis of highly distorted views of reality. The grounds for distortion were many and he spent the better part of his book going over them. They are by now very much part of our common wisdom, the textbook stuff of an average introductory class in journalism or psychology. Yet what makes his book such a characteristic intellectual venture in his conviction that an informed, and unbiased public opinion was still a possibility. Not through the press or other media of mass communication, since these were as much subject to distorting forces as the individual citizen; As he saw it, the new social sciences would have to act as the disinterested purveyors of true knowledge to the general public, informing it on alternative goals for collective action and on how to attain these. It shows a belief in the omnipotence of science and in the priesthood role of the scientist which was a daring novelty at the time. As "scientific management" or "social engineering" it gained wide currency across a whole range of human endeavour, in industry, in government, but also, as we saw in the case of Lippmann, in political theory. With him it was an inspiring view when he was still young, with others, as in the case of Robert Lynd, it was the outcome of a long process of the disenchantment of older, and more traditional democratic enthusiasms.2 Again, the point of culmination of such views, buttressing democracy against the forces of its decline, was the 1950s when scientific management had seemed to herald the end of ideology and its distortions.

10Yet, ironically, that same decade can also be seen as the high point of a far more cynical approach to the problem of public opinion in a democracy. If Lippmann was right that people tended to act on the basis of images of reality, the fifties show rapid strides forward in the scientific manipulation of such images rather than trying to replace them by true information. Lippmann, in his early enthusiasm, overlooked the Jekyll-and-Hyde character of his proposition. Scientific knowledge is never socially neutral, or inherently disinterested. It can always lend itself to the manipulative approach. And much as in quasi-Keynesian fine-tuning the national economy was manipulated, so were consumers' preferences in the economic marketplace through advertising and so was public opinion in the political marketplace. If we look at it this way, not only were the 'fifties the culmination of developments that had been long gestating, also they were the first point in time when a wide-spread sense of public opinion as purely a manipulative concept itself took hold.

11Here again, there are ironic personal histories to illustrate our point of the Jekyll-and-Hyde character of the scientist's role. In a study which came out in 1944 and which also has become a classic in its field, The People's Choice, Paul F. Lazarsfeld, a recent intellectual refugee from Fascism, and two American colleagues, used the new social science tools of survey research to explore a question cast in the traditional terms of democratic theory: "How the Voter Makes Up His Mind in a Presidential Campaign" (as the subtitle to the book had it). World War II, even more so than the preceding Roosevelt years, were a high point of a democratic rhetoric, submerging many of the darker questions of democracy in Tocqueville-land. And yet some of these submerged questions had informed Lazarsfeld's research. Already a newer medium of mass communication, the radio, had proved its power in swaying the masses, behind Roosevelt or behind Father Coughlin, or behind their more evil contemporaries in Europe. If the danger of manipulation through propaganda had become a pressing issue, yet Lazarsfeld c. s. decided to stick to the older view of a rational electorate making up its own mind. And their findings seemed to sustain such cherished views. In what is truly a study of interpersonal influence, through authoritative argument in established circles of social life, the family, the neighbourhood, work, they came up with the idea of a two-step flow of information, first through the channels of mass communication, then to be received and meaningfully interpreted in the more immediate contexts of people's daily lives.

12However, precisely the techniques of opinion research, of polling and sampling which Lazarsfeld pioneered, have been elaborated into the set of instruments used in the manipulative approach toward public opinion. After all, any kind of information can be spread in a two-step flow, manipulative messages aimed at "hidden persuasion" - to use the title of a'50s bestseller - as much as the rational argument on which democracy is assumed to thrive. And there was a growing awareness in the 1950s that the first potential use had undeniable won out, feeding and reinforcing the images in people's minds rather than aiming at rooting them out. Public opinion had become only one concept in a manipulative arsenal, to be gauged in order to be manipulated. Political messages and actions were geared to accommodate majority views as measured on the basis of minute representative samples - certainly a version of representative democracy that no textbook on democratic theory would validate. Or would it, in Tocqueville-land?

  • 3 I. HOWE, "Literature and Liberalism", in: E. Zwick, ed., Literature and Liberalism: An Anthology o (...)

13It may have seemed at the time as if the '60s with its Civil-Rights ferment, and with its bold New Left attempts at restoring forgotten social issues of inequality to their rightful place on the political agenda, put paid to Tocqueville's dire predictions. Briefly, there were many vibrant signs of a resurgence of a vigourous public debate around issues of an essentially civic nature, in the old republican vein. Significantly, among American intellectual historians, a new perspective was being developed that must have been inspired by the new Zeitgeist. In a forceful counterblast to the consensus view of a Lockean Liberalism constituting America's central political tradition, classical Republicanism - or Civic Humanism - were discovered as traditions that had critically informed America's political history. Writers as diverse as Hannah Arendt, Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, J.G.A. Pocock, and Irving Howe looked at America's constitutional order as providing the forms of political life for the meaningful expression of the common urge to political participation - an urge which at times truly appeared as "democratic bliss" (as Irving Howe once put it3). In these views common good replaced interests, virtue stood in for the work ethic, and freedom as political participation replaced freedom as property rights and restrictions of the state. Whatever the American tradition lacked in socialist ressources, in the self-sustaining dialectics of a class struggle, it made up for in republican ideals: "In the beginning, all Americans were citizens."

  • 4 R. REEVES, American Journey: Travelling with Tocqueville in Search of Democracy in America, New Yo (...)

14It wasn't long, though, before the disenchantment of the high hopes of the '60s set in. The New Left fell victim to the sectarianism of a vulgar Marxism or to the surrogate instant bliss of a hedonistic youth culture. Disenchantment and a facile cynicism have become the prevailing mood, at least in certain intellectual circles. In one recent visit to Tocqueville-land, literally retracing the steps of Tocqueville and his friend Beaumont, the American journalist Richard Reeves found many signs of this mood.4 In Ithaca, through which Tocqueville and Beaumont passed in their journey, Reeves was happy to discover professors at Cornell who readily echoed his own sentiments about the state of democracy in America. Thus Cushing Strout reduced Reeves to appreciative laughter when he declared Puritanism, "mutual surveillance", and "demonic commerce" to be the essence of the American dream. Reeves found equally apposite, and apparently novel, another Cornell faculty member's use of the phrase "totalitarian democracy" to describe "the conformity he saw underneath American celebrations of diversity, individualism, and freedom".

15As any student of anti-americanism knows, the most vehemently disparaging views of America are to be found in America. In the present case of Reeves's journey, one should not be misled by the link which the author suggests to Tocqueville's journey. The link is tenuous at best. In a sense, Reeves, who based his journey on Tocqueville's notebooks, takes them more seriously than Tocqueville himself did. In no way is there any direct intellectual link between those notes and the later classic reflections on democracy in America. Be that as it may, one should never coopt Tocqueville into the choir of a facile and scurrilous anti-Americanism. It would be much like judging Marx on the basis of the many varieties of vulgar Marxism.

  • 5 Robert N. BELLAH a.o., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, Berkele (...)

16There are other, intellectually more honest, instances of recent visits to Tocqueville-land, none of which are very positive in their views of American society and culture, yet are nowhere stooping to stereotypes. Taking their cue from Tocqueville's reflections on the role of moers, of social mores, Robert Bellah and a staff of collaborators have interviewed a great number of common Americans to try and find out what "habits of the heart" served them as stable guideposts in a vast and complex society.5 It is like turning Lippmann's views upside down. Rather than conceiving of the images in people's minds as so many obstacles in the way of a clear and informed view of society, they see them as the elements of so many ordered and meaningful world views, helping people to make sense of the world and to give direction to their sense of commitment. Their careful and very illuminating exploration of this sphere of social life helps us to guard against any overly generalised views of individual life in mass society. Their point is particularly well taken and introduces many nuances of Tocqueville's analysis into the contemporary debate on the plight of American society.

  • 6 John P. DIGGINS, The Lost Soul of American Politics: Virtue, Self-Interest, and the Foundations of (...)

17In what is perhaps the most thorough and exhaustive - if not exhausting - broadside against the republican enthusiasms of the civic humanists, John Diggins has taken it upon himself once and for all to root out the idea that "republican virtue" has ever meaningfully informed American political thought and action.6 In a book, which is perhaps the most impressive treatise on American political thought since Louis Hartz's The Liberal Tradition in America, he too cannot escape Tocqueville, the only non-American among the many thinkers he surveys. Although deeply indebted to Montesquieu intellectually, as Diggins is fully aware, Tocqueville broke with classical republican thought, as transmitted to him through his mentor, in his view of social life as sui generis, yet of great relevance to questions of political stability in the American democracy. Like Bellah, Diggins stresses Tocqueville's views of the role of religion and mores as so many moorings preventing people from being cut adrift in a society centered around material gain. Thus Tocqueville becomes one of the witnesses for a reconstructed, albeit chastened liberalism, as almost a civic religion imbued with a Calvinist sense of sin and guilt. Diggins's book can be read as a Jeremiad, attempting to call America back to the true path. It is a frantic search for a usable political tradition in a time - America in the 1980s - which sees God's plenty of Reaganised liberalism, but little sense of the need for national humility. There are traces there of the liberalism of Reinhold Niebuhr or Lionel Trilling, the embattled liberalism of an America which had seen the Great Depression, World War II, the impending Cold War, the domestic witchhunts. All the same earmarks are there - a chastened reformism, a secular position trading on religious rhetoric and a celebration of realism.

  • 7 R. SENNETT, "What Tocqueville Feared", in: Herbert J. Gans a.o., eds., On the Making of Americans: (...)

18The urgency of the search for a usable tradition is the more understandable if we realise that America, as many observers feel it, is Tocquevillean in a far deeper and ominous sense. As we already pointed out, if Tocqueville is being reread at all - and God knows he is! - it is with special emphasis on his second volume and the gloomy views he unfolds there. Among the social critics of the '70s and '80s, whose work can be read as an elaboration of these particular views of Tocqueville, Richard Sennett is one who explicitly made the connection.7 In a piece entitled "What Tocqueville Feared", he takes us back to the picture of an inane self-slavery of the stupefied masses in an equalitarian society. Of course, Tocqueville was assuming the conditions in such a society to be roughly equal - an assumption which may seem critically to affect the relevance of his views for contemporary American society. For indeed, actual conditions are far from equal. Yet, as Sennett points out, what really counts is not so much actual conditions as what people believe them to be. Tocqueville's writing can be taken equally to apply to a society swayed by a belief in equality, by an ideology of equality. Challenges to the structures of inequality are deflected in a gross way by the illusion that "fundamentally" everyone is the same, so everyone should be free to set about cultivating his own garden. As Sennett puts it: "This is why Tocqueville's thought is especially strong in the second volume of the Democracy, for it is here that he brings forward the correlates of belief in equalized experience, individual responsibility for experience, and increasing detachment from the affairs of the society as a whole." It reads like an indictment of the rapacious get-rich-quick mentality, rampant in the recent Reagan era. But more generally what Sennett evokes for us here is a society subject to a massive false consciousness, impenetrable to correction by reality.

19Yet, as we already said, one should beware of extrapolating too quickly, seeing unbroken lines of a gradual decline towards eventual entropy linked to the pervasive characteristics of an "equalitarian" mass society. Far more likely, as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has recently argued, there are cycles in American history, periods of relative depoliticisation, centered around the pursuit of private interests alternating with periods of political activism, centered around larger projects for collective action. And clearly, we have reached another critical juncture. After eight years of Reagan, the situation of the American middle classes, roughly the middle three-fifths of American families who receive about 50% of all family income, is rather ambivalent. And they are the groups that really decide on which cycle America finds itself in. The Republicans point out that the average middleclass family has done all right, keeping ahead of inflation. It is a view broadly in keeping with the entrenched expectation that all groups in society should get richer all the time. Business as usual, please. The Democrats respond that the cost of two or three of the items at the top of most middle-class shopping lists - a single-family house, for instance, and a college education for the children - have well outstripped the rate of inflation. Furthermore, family incomes may have risen, but men's individual earnings are more or less stuck at their 1973 levels, due most likely to low productivity growth. Apparently not all is well in the American Eden. There is a lurking sense of an end of empire, of the American mind closing, as recent best-sellers remind us. Irrespective of who is more persuasive in making people aware of where they are economically, in terms of their own situation and that of their children, of where they are culturally and politically vis-à-vis the world, it is really a matter of a cosmetic ideology confronting reality. It is a matter of massage versus message, of people "making up" their minds in the cosmetic sense, or making it up rationally. And it is far from a sure thing - no matter what Sennett may say - that ideology will win this time.

20Surely, ironies abound. If presidential elections are the high points in the collective political life of the nation, the potential watersheds in the course of its national destiny, what are we - characteristically in our Tocquevillean role of spectators - to make of a contest critically centered around two television debates? Allegedly, they are the central events on the basis of which the "voter makes up his mind". Are they a mere charade? In many ways, yes. Here we have two discussants, holding themselves on a very short leash indeed, yet even so hoping it will be enough rope for the other party. Timidly geared to what public opinion polls tell them they should or should not say, endlessly rehearsed until the last one-liner, they are mostly negative exercises in avoiding the one gaffe that people will remember. What we behold is a careful replica of public debate, yet instantly recognisable as a fake. Artful indeed, crafted up to the point where even the impact of the debate upon public opinion is carefully manipulated by damage-control teams specialised in the high art of - as the technical lingo has it - "spin control", giving a desired twist to some of the less felicitous moments in the debate. It really appears like Tocqueville's Volume II brought to the flickering screen.

21But is it really? There is always his Volume I to remind us of the wide society out there, strangely unbending to the ministrations of the self-styled puppeteers, taking its time discussing and digesting what it saw and heard, reading the papers, watching selected highlights of the debate, talking to friends, members of one's family, colleagues at work. There is something like a two-step flow at work, as the much-maligned instruments of opinion polling may show us. For indeed, it normally takes some one, or two weeks following each debate before the jury is out to make its opinion "public", and more often than not it is a far cry from what the Monday-morning quarterbacks might have tried to make us believe. There is, it seems, an intricate and tenuous balance involved between manipulation and freedom. And more often than not, it would also seem, the manipulators find themselves at the whim of free opinion, freely formed, rather than the other way around.


1 Robert NISBET, "Many Tocquevilles", The American Scholar, 46 (1976-77), 59 ff.

2 See R. W. FOX, "Epitaph for Middletown: Robert S. Lynd and the Analysis of Consumer Culture", in: R. W. Fox and T. J. Jackson Lears, eds., The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History, 1889-1980, New York: Pantheon Books, 1983.

3 I. HOWE, "Literature and Liberalism", in: E. Zwick, ed., Literature and Liberalism: An Anthology of Sixty Years of the 'New Republic'. Washington, D. C.: The New Republic Book Company, 1976, p. XI ff.

4 R. REEVES, American Journey: Travelling with Tocqueville in Search of Democracy in America, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981.

5 Robert N. BELLAH a.o., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

6 John P. DIGGINS, The Lost Soul of American Politics: Virtue, Self-Interest, and the Foundations of Liberalism, New York: Basic Books, 1984.

7 R. SENNETT, "What Tocqueville Feared", in: Herbert J. Gans a.o., eds., On the Making of Americans: Essays in Honor of David Riesman, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1979.


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