The Tocqueville Program
At Indiana University Bloomington
Professor Aurelian Craiutu
Associate Professor of Political Science, Indiana University, Bloomington
The Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis
and the Department of Political Science
Two centuries after his birth Alexis de Tocqueville is unanimously recognized as the most important theorist of modern democracy whose ideas on freedom, equality, civil society, despotism, religion, and individualism continue to have an enduring relevance for us today. The greatness of Tocqueville does not lie in any single doctrine that he espoused but rather in the ambivalent and often critical lenses through which he analyzed the multiple facets of democracy. Historians, political scientists, sociologists, and anthropologists have acknowledged his original contribution to their disciplines and the current relevance of his ideas on freedom, equality, civil society, religion, political culture, individualism, democracy, and despotism. Contemporary thinkers on both the left and the right have claimed Tocqueville as one of their own, admiring him either for his insightful views on democratic citizenship and the art of association, or for his passionate defense of decentralization and self-government and his skepticism toward big government. Last but not least, numerous U.S. presidents and politicians from Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have often quoted Tocqueville in their speeches.
The current fascination with Tocqueville’s writings goes beyond the fashionable trends of the moment. What makes Tocqueville’s case unique, arguably more so than any other modern thinker including Rousseau, Mill, and Marx, is that many ideas of Democracy in America appeal even to his skeptical readers who do not always agree with his conclusions and methodological assumptions and are anxious to move beyond conventional readings of his works. This is hardly surprising since there are "many Tocquevilles" speaking various languages and addressing various constituencies, left and right. The Frenchman has become, so to speak, the "unsurpassable horizon" of our times (in spite of the contradictions in his work), and his ideas offer an indispensable starting point for anyone interested in assessing the prospects for democracy today. To reflect on American democracy today also requires first and foremost a critical encounter with Toqueville’s Democracy in America. We enjoy conversing with Tocqueville because his work seems to retain a greater measure of normative and exploratory power—and intellectual provocation—than that of many other nineteenth-century thinkers.
The establishment of a Tocqueville program at Indiana University funded by the Philadelphia-based Jack Miller Center reflects the widespread interest in Tocquville’s work on modern democracy, as the first anthropologist of modern equality whose ideas offer us today an indispensable starting point in our own reflections on key topics such as civil society, pluralism, religion, participatory democracy, the democratic mind, and the limits of affluence. Today we feel the need to converse with Tocqueville’s complex mixed messages of dire warning and hopeful counsel because his ideas stimulate our reflection on contemporary political dilemmas even when we might find his unconventional form of liberalism puzzling.
In the recent past, both the Workshop and the Department of Political Science have been furthering research and teaching activities centered around the institutional aspects of modern democracy. They focused on the relationship between liberal democratic principles and the institutions and practices they make possible. Through its interdisciplinary focus, the new Tocqueville Program is expected to have an important and broad impact on undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty at Indiana as well as the larger academic world. The goal of the program is to foster an understanding of the central importance of principles of freedom and equality for democratic government and moral responsibility, as well as for economic and cultural life. It focuses on the theoretical foundations of democracy, and the development of liberal democratic institutions particularly in the American historical context.
It includes a lecture series that brings top scholars and public figures to Indiana to interact with undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty; an undergraduate course on the American democracy taught by an advanced graduate student, along with other activities meant to boost the reputation and profile of our graduate program in political theory. We also hope to be able to offer in the years ahead a pre-doctoral fellowship that give senior graduate students the opportunity to develop curriculum for use both at Indiana and in their future positions at other institutions. Finally, subject to future fundraising, we intend to create a post-doctoral fellow who teach in this area, and an annual conference on issues central to our concern, such as America’s ambivalent egalitarianism, elitism in America, and other related themes.
We see our program developing in a direction similar to the centers sponsored by the Jack Miller Center at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville and University of Texas, Austin, that are held up as model programs. The activities that we plan to carry out transcend the traditional political differences. We see as our main duty to teach students not the right answers, but how to ask the right questions about the good society, justice, freedom, responsibility, rights, and duties in light of the ideas that also inspired the Founding Fathers of the American democracy two centuries and a half ago. We have a committed faculty and staff ready to make this happen. We believe that our program in this way can become an even more prominent model for the cultivation of the knowledge of American principles and their importance for American practices and institutions.