During the run-up to the 2016 election, leaders in the Democratic and Republican Parties who had agreed about nothing for a generation concluded that “populism” was the emergent threat. But partisans seldom have clear vision. To understand our troubled world, we must do better. “I have tried to see not differently but further than any party,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his introduction to Democracy in America. “While they are busy with tomorrow, I have wished to consider the whole future.” We should follow his lead, in the hope of seeing further than today’s parties.
Democracy in America, written shortly after Tocqueville’s visit to Jacksonian America—that brief historical period of which the supposed “populism” of today is an echo—makes no mention of populism. What did Tocqueville see? During the 1950s, scholars thought that he saw American exceptionalism and invoked his insights to argue that Marx’s ideas could never take hold in the United States. In the 1990s, they thought that Tocqueville saw the need for civic association, and relied on his views to argue that formerly Communist countries required such connections for the spirit of democracy to take hold. These are valid but partial glimpses of the larger meaning of Tocqueville’s work. In a haunting letter, written in 1856, a few years before he died, Tocqueville lamented, “This profound saying could be applied especially to me: it is not good for man to be alone.” This observation brings us closer to the truth. Tocqueville’s writing about Jacksonian America was informed by the central problem that he saw everywhere he looked: existential homelessness. Democracy in America is an extended rumination on the homeless man of the democratic age.