At a conference on Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and Recollections of the French Revolution of 1848, it occurred to me that the great French thinker and politician has a lot to tell us about our own troubled times. Though an aristocrat by disposition, he deplored the French Christian reactionaries who wanted to unify throne and altar as much as he deplored the thoughtless left-wing radicals of his time. He described France as divided between dogmatic materialists who hated all religion and tradition and dogmatic believers who hated all things modern and progressive. That seemed not unlike our American situation today.
But I soon learned that perhaps I was wrong about this.
Returning to Washington, D.C. after the conference, my much-delayed flight from LAX stranded me in Detroit overnight. We didn’t get in until midnight and a lot of us had to line up to get room vouchers and then wait half an hour for the shuttle to the hotel near the airport. Famished, several weary travelers and I went to the bar—open until 2 a.m. to accommodate the one-night crowd. There transpired a scene that could have been straight out of Tocqueville.
In a wonderful chapter of Democracy in America, Tocqueville says that when two Englishmen encounter one another at the antipodes and are surrounded by people whose language and manners they don’t know, they size each other up with much discomfort and diffidence. “These two men at first consider each other very curiously and with a sort of secret anxiety; then they turn aside, or, if they meet, they take care to speak to each other only with a constrained and distracted air and to say things of little importance.” There is no enmity between them, but even so they take care to avoid each other. By contrast, when two Americans find themselves in the same situation, they are completely at ease and chat freely about their lives: They are “natural, frank, and open” with one another—“friends right away for the sole reason that they are Americans.”
Why the difference? The Englishmen belong to an aristocracy of wealth, Tocqueville writes, where position is ranked but not completely fixed by blood as in an older aristocracy. Those on top fear losing their special privileges and those who don’t have them will do anything to possess them. It’s “a muted war among all citizens”: “some strive by a thousand artifices to penetrate, in reality or in appearance, among those who are above them; others constantly do combat to repel these usurpers . . . or rather the same man does both things,” pushing upward in the social hierarchy while fending off those pushing from below.
For the more egalitarian Americans, wealth confers no special privileges and men in general have no fixed places in life and rise and fall and rise again. Bankruptcy, says Tocqueville, is not dishonorable in America; it’s rather a common circumstance that provides for a kind of everyman’s courage: Just pick yourself up and start over! Thus, when American strangers meet, “they strive no more to show than to hide the position they occupy.” There is “no prejudice that repels them, and the community of their native country attracts them.”
My experience in that bar was like meeting up with some Americans at the antipodes. All of us were strangers, but it didn’t take five minutes for the older guy next to me to begin relating the ups and downs of his life: an engineer, bugged by his boss, fired twice, not yet ready to retire but now helping his son rebuild an old house in upstate New York. We talked about remodeling for a while and he finished his shot and beer and bade me good night.
Two younger guys at the bar then discovered that both were chefs and laughed about whose culinary school was the more prestigious. One told the other that he and his wife had just opened a restaurant and then, without blinking an eye, said that he was good at business but his wife was the far better chef. She could look at an ingredient and think up a use or dish that he could never imagine. They then mentioned the Inn at Little Washington that has three Michelin stars and a new D.C. restaurant called Little Pearl that has one.
I told them that I was from D.C. and had eaten in both places and that the former deserved one less star and the latter one more. We laughed at that and when they asked me what I do for a living, and I told them I was a retired university professor, it was as if I had told them I was a plumber (no shame in that).
There wasn’t a whiff of ideology in that bar. Had the Giant Orange been mentioned, perhaps the air would have been more turbulent. But he wasn’t, and it occurred to me that there was comfort in the bland mundanity we strangers shared. Maybe that America is still alive despite what Fox News and CNN blather twenty-four hours a day. Maybe that America is not the one where some elites hate the idiocy of rural life and the rest of the elites hate those same “elites.” The food my brief companions ate at the bar looked so bad—and the two young chefs agreed—that I settled for some peanuts and a martini and hit the hay at 2 a.m.