If De Tocqueville Could See Us Now

If the French political thinker and historian returned to the modern-day U.S., he would find that some of his most pessimistic predictions have come true.
  • Transcript


Question: Why is intellectualism met with suspicion here in the U.S.?

Ian Buruma:  I think it may have something to do with the myth... or at least the ideal of egalitarianism that it’s better to be a regular guy with sort of good standing in the community, good character and so on than to be an egghead.  Eggheads are suspected and that is not just American culture.  I think that was true traditionally in Britain as well and there is something to be said for it.  I mean there are many unpleasant effects of that kind of philistinism. But the good thing is that ideas can be dangerous.  Intellectuals are dangerous when you give them too much power because they tend to take ideas to their extreme, and they’re not practical people on the whole. And it’s good I think to be a little suspicious of taking any idea to its extreme and it is probably better to have people in power who are more practical and who know the art of compromise.

What would de Tocqueville say if he could see us now?

Ian Buruma: Well I think he would be on the hand probably shocked because some of his... possibly some of his worst, his most pessimistic predictions would seem to have come true in that he was on the one hand in favor of democracy and he admired American democracy, but he was frightened of the possible consequences.  He thought it could lead to tremendous vulgarity and so on and I think he probably would see that.  He would also see a much less conformist population probably than the one he saw, depending on where he would travel of course. And I think he probably would be rather shocked by the tone of the public figures, of the politicians who are probably less, little less high minded than the ones he encountered when he was there.

Recorded April 21, 2010