Features January 2012
Tocqueville on greatness & the potential for decline
On the political philosopher’s insight into America.
Even to contemplate the contemporary decline of America is to acknowledge implicitly its recent greatness. This its enemies do readily, if ruefully, enough. It is also to assume that we know what first made it great.That, its friends take too much for granted. The economic and political predominance of the United States since 1945 seemingly renders the question otiose. Yet appearances can deceive. More than a century before Henry R. Luce announced the “American century,” Alexis de Tocqueville disclosed an age of America. In this way, he pointed to something both subtly different and far more important. Luce knew power when he saw it. But he was also a sentimental patriot, so he dressed it in decent drapery when he recognized it as his own. What Tocqueville discovered on the far western shores of civilization was nothing less than democracy’s “transcending nation.” If America really is in decline, then the whole world is about to...
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