The Public Interest

The art of liberty

Daniel J. Mahoney

Summer 1996

SOME 20 years ago, in an important article in the American Scholar, Robert Nisbet wrote about the “many Tocquevilles,” sometimes contradictory and of varying cogency and staying power, who have become part of our intellectual landscape since the Tocqueville “revival” began in North America near the end of the Second World War. Today, the situation is exacerbated by the manifest appropriation of Tocqueville by the full range of intellectual and political partisans who currently dominate political discourse, from the communitarian left to the neoconservative right to the theorists of a reinvigorated “civil society.” But, while the content of these many “Tocquevilles” varies widely, the approach to this great thinker is almost uniformly ideological. Tocqueville is turned to less as a serious source of wisdom about the nature and problems of modern democracy than as a respected authority who can provide support for conclusions or political programs that already have been arrived at independently of Tocqueville’s larger or fuller reflection.

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