Sunday, 6 March 2011

Sarah Palin and American exceptionalism

I confess that I haven't read the book Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, mentioned in America by Heart, Sarah Palin's second book. I also confess to resorting to Wikipedia to find out what Tocqueville wrote about American exceptionalism. I read a few excerpts and it seems to me that he refers to America's unique circumstances as exceptional, not in the sense of being exceptionally good, better than the rest, as Sarah Palin and others would like to believe, but just different from countries in Europe. I didn't find the following passage terribly flattering to Americans:

"The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven. Let us cease, then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people."

These excerpts by others appear to confirm that Tocqueville's view of America differs from Sarah Palin's. What she believes is good, he believed was bad:

"More than just imploding any traces of old-world aristocracy, ordinary Americans also refused to defer to those possessing, as Tocqueville put it, superior talent and intelligence. These natural elites, who Tocqueville asserted were the lone virtuous members of American society, could not enjoy much share in the political sphere as a result. Ordinary Americans enjoyed too much power, claimed too great a voice in the public sphere, to defer to intellectual superiors. This culture promoted a relatively pronounced equality, Tocqueville argued, but the same mores and opinions that ensured such equality also promoted, as he put it, a middling mediocrity."

"American democracy was seen to have some unfavourable aspects: the despotism of public opinion, the tyranny of the majority; conformity for the sake of material security; and a lack of intellectual freedom, the deficiency in which he felt tended to degrade administration and to reduce statesmanship, learning, and literature to the lowest level. Democracy in America predicted the violence of party spirit and the judgment of the wise subordinated to the prejudices of the ignorant."

I would welcome the input of readers who are more knowledgeable about the subject to give us some context regarding the work of Tocqueville. Please answer this question: Did I get the wrong end of the stick, or did Sarah Palin?