Sunday, January 18, 2009

Obama and Tocqueville: thoughts on the inaugural journey

Barack Obama’s inauguration train pulled into Washington overnight after a journey from Philadelphia that commemorated a similar ride by the first Republican president Abraham Lincoln. Well-wishers lined the route to greet the President-elect and the Obama family took in the scenery as the normally two hour journey took nine hours (it was still a big improvement on Lincoln’s 1861 trip from Ohio which took 12 days). The not-so-express stopped in Baltimore for a trip to the War Memorial and also in Wilmington, Delaware to pick up that state’s senator and vice-President elect Joe Biden.

Now that the administration team is in Washington, the world awaits as the wheels of American democracy turn and the free world gets new leadership. The US’s first black president carries a weight of expectations from his many constituencies but has a wealth of national and international goodwill behind him as he takes the Oath of office on Tuesday. It was the biographer of American democracy (ironically a freedom frying Frenchman) Alexis de Tocqueville who said that in America all men were “born equal". However Tocqueville wrote that before slavery ended in the south and he was only too aware that rule did not apply to blacks. “The negro,” he wrote in Democracy in America (1835), “cannot have any control over his own existence without committing a theft”.

Whether or not a black President can heel centuries of racial discrimination remains to be seen, but Obama’s victory was certainly no theft. It is also notable that Tocqueville framed the “negro” as a he, and writing in the 1830s, he wanted to extend suffrage rights to black and Native American men only. It was unthinkable that any woman would have the vote. (It makes me wonder which of our ‘self evident truths’ will seem backwards to our descendents a century from now?) But he was prescient to know that sooner or later, that the destiny of the world would be tied up with America.

And as in 2007, a Democrat presidential win became increasingly likely, it was equally obvious that the country would have its first black or female president. To that end, I actually wanted Hillary to win at first, as she represented an even large disenfranchised group than Obama (perhaps a Democrat Condoleezza Rice would have been ideal). But as Obama opened up through the campaign, it was clear he was the most striking and intelligent candidate. Those type of candidates don’t always win of course, and even less likely as a young black senator of less than four years standing in the Senate. He got the media onside with occasionally inspired oratory. But it was his use of "netroot" democracy which tore up the rules of campaign finance and enabled him to outspend Clinton in the long war of attrition in the primaries.

With Bush’s reputation in tatters, it was always likely that Obama would beat any Republican candidate once he’d seen off Clinton. The GOP chose the least Bush-a-like player in the party, but the base could never really get fully behind the maverick McCain despite his war hero status. They brought in Sarah Palin to compensate for his age, unattractiveness, and liberalism, but after brief stardom she was immolated in an orgy of Late Night Comedy. Dubya’s internal and international failures hung over the Republicans like a bad smell. Obama seized the metaphor for change and by end of the Democrat convention he was already the President-in-waiting just counting down the days to Dubya’s demise.

Curiously it is George W. Bush who claims his favourite political thinker was Alexis de Tocqueville. Bush liked Tocqueville’s description of a healthy America polity thanks to its ubiquitous "associations" or community groups. But there are pitfalls with pushing Tocqueville’s prescriptions. As Ted Widner points out in the International Herald Tribune, “the chief danger is that people will actually read him.”

Tocqueville accurately predicted the rise of the commercial classes that would eventually capture power in America. He knew even then that the country’s relentless conformity would mean that dissent and extremism would never become part of the political landscape. He knew Americans were not interested in other cultures. But none of that criticism seems to matter to his reputation in the US. This week alone, his words were not only quoted in the IHT but also by, among others, the Miami Herald's editorial about the inauguration, The Nation's story about Obama’s international impact, a letter to the Salt Lake Tribune about Abu Ghraib, The Baltimore Sun's story about the impact of TV, The Independent's (UK) story about Lincoln and even in the New York Times’s review of Slumdog Millionaire.

The humorist Russell Baker once suggested that of all the great unread writers, Alexis de Tocqueville is the most widely quoted. But it is true that for over a century and a half, his book has held up a mirror to Americans, allowing as Gerald Bevan puts it, “each generation to see themselves and their values in it”. What will Obama’s generation see in it?

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