“Alexis de Tocqueville’s four-volume Democracy in America (1835-1840) is commonly said to be among the greatest works of nineteenth-century political writing.” from Why Read Tocqueville’s Democracy in America? (theconversation.com)
I am an American expat who has lived in France for almost 17 years. I just returned from my first visit to the US in five years. A planned trip in 2020 was canceled due to Covid. You can see the path of de Tocqueville’s tour on the map on the left; my path is on the right. (Note, all of my travel was by car except from Orlando to New York which was by plane and New York to Easton, PA by bus.) With the country divided and a big election upcoming I will report to LRC readers on what I observed about Democracy in America, version 2.
My observations are far from scientific. I visited a lot of friends and my brother and his wife. My friends included several professors, but also others professionals, mostly at or near retirement like myself. My discussions were more about family, health, retirement, and old times than politics. One friend had a Stacey Abrams sign in his front yard so I explicitly avoided the subject. But unfortunately, politics is looming over everyday life. I rarely pushed back in anyway, these were friends and family after all. In one case, when someone blamed Biden for the raging price inflation, I tried to make the point that while Biden is horrible, the inflation was also due to the actions of Trump, Obama, Bush, etc. Almost everybody felt that the country is slouching toward catastrophe despite their own financial health. Included in this catastrophe is the social destruction caused by wokism. The response to Covid including the vaccine was mixed and another topic to avoid. Virtually everyone placed Putin next to Hitler as a horrible dictator who invaded Ukraine without any provocation.
I have been learning how to approach these discussions better than before (at least according to my wife) by guiding the discussions towards epistemology. First is to recognize if there is a disagreement about facts and then the analysis of those facts. For example, obviously, we have no first hand knowledge about the war in Ukraine, so what we know depends on our sources of information. Then I would ask my friends where they obtain their information, explaining my sources are different and why I think my sources might be more accurate (e.g., predictive power). Then I point out explicitly that even if we agree on the facts, the analysis of those facts, the narrative, can be completely different. To illustrate this point I have been using the example of the WWI sea battle Jutland because I recently read a description of the battle written by John Buchan just after it occurred. I enjoy his writing of in spite of the fact he was a propagandist for the British Empire. This conversational tactic can be effective because there is no emotion involved for us today on this topic. Buchan was countering the German claim that they had won the battle. His detailed description of the events was explicitly in the context of the invincibility of the British navy. From the top down, every British participant acted with great acumen, courage, an skill. Yet the first news of the battle was by the Germans and it was a victory for their own fleet. Buchan countered, “A well-disciplined country with a strict censorship can frame any tale it pleases, and stick to it for months without fear of detection at home. Therefore Germany claimed at once a decisive success.” His counter analysis includes the essence of spin: “Even if Germany’s version of her losses had been true it is scarcely necessary to say that they were heavier than Britain’s in proportion to her total strength at sea.” From the Wikipedia article here are the facts (why German Empire but not British Empire?):
But Buchan does make a key distinction between immediate tactical results compared to the strategic results of a battle. “It is only the ignorant who imagine that the loss of a few ships could mean a weakening of British naval prestige. A fleet, if it is to be better than scrap iron, must be risked gallantly when occasion offers. The real test of success is the fulfilment of a strategic intention. What was Germany’s aim? Her major purpose was to destroy the British command of the sea. In that she never came near succeeding. From the moment of von Scheer’s return to port the British fleet held the sea and is still holding it. The blockade which Germany thought to break was drawn tighter than ever. Her secondary aim was so to weaken the British Fleet that it should be more nearly on an equality with her own. Again she completely failed, and the margin of British superiority was in no way impaired. Lastly she hoped to isolate and destroy a British division. That, too, failed. The British Battle Cruiser fleet is today a living and effective force while the German Battle Cruiser fleet is only a shadow. The result of the battle of May 31st was that Britain was more confirmed than ever in her mastery of the ocean. Its effect on the campaign at large was at once apparent.” The test of history is in agreement with Buchan. The British blockade of Germany continued unchallenged throughout the rest of the war and did not end until the Treaty of Versailles was signed. The Blockade of Germany caused hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths due to famine and disease (a war crime?). More than any victory in the field this drove the German people to accept the armistice. Yet it could be argued that the humiliating domination of the Germans by the Allies made WWII and the dissolution of the British Empire inevitable.
Another example closer to home is the Space Shuttle. My brother spent his whole career at the Kennedy Space Center as an award winning engineer working on ground support for the shuttle. We visited KSC together during the trip. He admitted to getting teary watching the presentation about the shuttle. Yet my view, left unstated, is that the shuttle was way late and over budget. More important, five operational shuttles were constructed and 135 missions occurred from1981 to 2011, of which two vehicles were totally destroyed with all hands lost. Imagine any vehicle with a 40% chance of total loss. My brother and I have very different views of the same facts.
In a previous article I wrote about world views where I highly recommend the truly important lecture that explains modern discourse today by the American philosopher Dallas Willard. The lesson I learned is that people are not convinced by facts or analysis if the argument runs counter to their world view. This is the point of the attorney Robert Barns, that jury selection is by far the most important part of a jury trial because most people cannot be convinced by argument of fact or law. Willard points out that logic and facts are not the basis of a conclusion but the conclusion is the basis for believing any logic and facts. It is the difference in world view that is the fundamental basis for the polarization of society.
My trip ended with a visit to New York City. I recall well NYC of the late 70s and early 80s. Drugs and the homeless were everywhere, I witnessed crime on the subway. It was a continual challenge to be there. In the early 00s I lived close by in Easton, PA, making the bus trip to NYC several times. It was wonderful. Following the news I feared the city had reverted back to the 70s. Honestly, it did not seem bad to me. The drugs are still around but are now sold in stores instead of in the street. In fact, the city was full of French tourists. What did change tremendously was the skyline. I did not recognize most of the big buildings and the familiar Chrysler and Empire State Buildings were often obscured by the new edifices. One new neighborhood in particular, Hudson Yards, exemplified the arrogance of the elite. Located on the west side of Midtown, none of it existed 10 years ago of what is now bigger than a medium sized city. I can only imagine the billions of fiat financing. The architecture is all abstract geometry at the whim of the powerful. Like modern art (we visited the MOMA), there is a distinct absence of humanity,
The visit to NYC was totally planned by my 14-year-old daughter except for the final hour waiting for the car to the airport. Without prior knowledge but with only a nose for good local joints, I chose the Hungarian Pastry Shop for dessert. On Amsterdam Ave. between 110 and 111th streets, just down the street from Columbia University and across from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, it is a local institution. The creme puff that I had included both custard and whipped creme. It is pure genius.
Finally, I note that my drive south passed by Auburn, AL, home of the Mises Institute. I took the opportunity to visit. The building itself is more like a home than an institutional building though it is nestled on a commercial street next to the Auburn University campus. The people seem more to be living than working there. I was welcomed and offered coffee, making visiting the institute like visiting other old friends. The highlight was the tremendous thrill and honor to meet with the great Lew Rockwell. Long live Lew and the Mises Institute!