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Alexis de America

Why the long-gone author of 'Democracy in America' is suddenly hotter than John Grisham

In this age of the short shelf life and the shorter attention span, Americans are showing remarkable interest in a book that's more than 150 years old and 700 pages long.

Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America," whose two volumes first appeared in 1835 and 1840, is popping up all over the political landscape. President Clinton has quoted it. So have Newt Gingrich, Ross Perot, and Colin Powell. The recent summit on voluntarism has prompted countless pundits to look up Tocqueville's comments on community spirit, especially his observation that "Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations."

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And now Tocqueville is on TV. For nine months, C-SPAN is retracing his 1831-32 journey to North America, which covered 17 states (next, Ossining, N.Y., May 29), and provided the material for the book.

So why is this dead French aristocrat hotter than John Grisham?

For one thing, he saw into the future. Twenty-six years before the Civil War, he speculated about "the dissolution of the Union." And 111 years before the cold war, he said of the United States and Russia: "[E]ach of them seems marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe." As the millennium approaches, readers are interested in prophecy, especially in those rare cases when it proves true.

It would be a mistake, however, to regard "Democracy in America" as a secular Book of Revelation. Tocqueville's predictions were not completely original, and they were not even the key part of his work. Tocqueville had insight as well as foresight, and his real significance lies in timeless observations that apply both to the 1830s and to the 1990s.

Consider his description of the House of Representatives, where one is "struck by the vulgar demeanor of that great assembly.... They are mostly village lawyers, men in trade, or even persons belonging to the lower classes of society."

Newt Gingrich quoted that line in his 1995 inaugural address as Speaker. As he reassured his colleagues, "the word 'vulgar' in Tocqueville's time had a very particular meaning." The upper-class Frenchman was not calling them a bunch of boors but pointing out that they came from the ranks of ordinary Americans. When he visited the Senate, Tocqueville found a more elite atmosphere, a contrast that persists to this very day.

People fret that the work of Congress and the legislatures often has to run the gauntlet of litigation before it takes effect. Tocqueville would have seen nothing new. He wrote: "Scarcely any political question arises in the United States that is not resolved, sooner or later, into a judicial question."

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Today many of these issues involve the relationship of religion and politics. Tocqueville argued that faith sustains democracy by discouraging Americans from abusing their freedom. Religion, he said, "prevents them from conceiving, and forbids them to commit, what is rash or unjust.... Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot."

Tocqueville added a caveat: Religion has such power only because its influence is indirect. He warned against alliances between religions and political powers, not because such alliances threaten liberty but because they undermine religion.

"[W]hen religion clings to the interests of the world, it becomes almost as fragile a thing as the powers of the earth. It is the only one of them all which can hope for immortality; but if it be connected with their ephemeral power, it shares their fortunes and may fail with those transient passions which alone supported them."

As this passage suggests, Tocqueville painted his portrait of America with subtle shades. There are disturbing shadows as well. He closed his first volume by discussing a problem that has preoccupied 20th-century America: race relations. And his analysis of the "tyranny of the majority" anticipated contemporary debates about conformity and political correctness. He said he knew "of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America."

Politicians seldom quote that line. They concentrate on more optimistic passages, which is fine except for one thing: They sometimes credit Tocqueville for words he did not write. "America is great because America is good," runs one spurious Tocqueville quotation."If America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great." Although no such line appears in Tocqueville's writings, politicians of all persuasions continue to repeat it.

One bit of advice will solve this problem. It's good not only for speech writers but for anybody who really wants to understand this country. It consists of three little words:

Read the book.

* John J. Pitney Jr. is associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.

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