Tocqueville Talks: A Farewell To Dingell
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
With Europe on the brink of Brexit, I was reading the papers at my favorite cafe in Paris. I had just ordered a cafe encore in my Americanized French when, to my left, a throat cleared, and I heard a thick Norman accent.
“Ahem, monsieur, pardon zee interruption, but ehm, may I ask – are you an Americain?”
“Why, yes, I am,” I allowed.
“Ah, I zee,” the voice continued, somewhat excited. “I ’eard it in your accent. And what eez it that brings you to Pah-ree?”
“Well, a . . . ” As I turned to reply, the sentence faltered in my throat. Before me was an open, friendly face, a fop of hair asymmetrically tossed to its right, pouring down into decidedly antiquated sideburns. A velvet collar framed this all, topping a double-breasted frock coat. An elaborately frilled shirt erupted between generous lapels. The eyes blinked expectantly.
“Non,” he said, “I will guess. A journalist, the adviser who comes every day unbidden…”
“And, you are, er, Monsieur …?”
“Alexis Charles Henri Clérel.” He enumerated each name.
My jaw must have dropped, and I gaped in amazement as, suddenly, I fumbled for my notebook.
“Might one,” I stammered, “shorten that to Viscount de Tocqueville?”
“Once viscount. And what eez eet you are reading this morning?”
“Err, something about Brexit,” I offered. “But, that’s not important, really, as much as, say, what you are reading, Viscount.”
“Ah!” With a finger, he traced a copy of the New York Times. “This notice nécrologique for one of your congressman, Monsieur John Dingell.”
“He served in Congress longer than anyone in history.”
“And ’e was an ambitious lawmaker, it would seem. A proponent of ‘Medicare-for-All,’ eet says ’ere. I take eet this means a series of sizeable sanatoria sanctioned by the Social Power? I am sympathetic, but this eez not what interests me about Monsieur Dingell.”
“And what is that?”
“Eet says ’ere, that, in ’eez book, Monsieur Dingell advocated the abolition of the Senate. Is this a popular opinion in the United States today?”
“It has gained some steam. Dingell feared it disenfranchises minorities, it’s a bastion of privilege, it’s undemocratic.”
“Ah yes, just as I remember.” The viscount’s eyes appear momentarily to glaze. “Eet is wonderful, no?”
“Wonderfully undemocratic. Surely the advocates understand, this is by design.”
“Ah, but . . .”
“You see, and per’aps you will forgive if I quote myself.” Here the great man laughed. “‘The greatest merit of the men who gave America its laws is that they clearly recognized this truth and had the courage to put it into practice.’”
“I’m sorry, what truth?”
“You Americans, so industrious, but so unphilosophical. The least philosophical people in the world, as I explained in my book. Any’ow, the truth that, whereas monarchies risk self-destruction by royal overreach, these democracies risk self-destruction by overreach of the people. One means your Founding Fathers concocted to counteract these caprices was the Senate.”
“Ah yes, as a sort of new aristocracy.”
“Ah, no. Even then it was obvious aristocracies were not long for this world. They did not intend the Senate as an ’ouse of aristocrats. N’oublions pas Article One, Sections 9 and 10: Not once but twice your own Constitution prohibits the granting of titles of nobility. Rather, the functions of your Senate are: first, to serve as an appellate court of sorts for revision of laws produced by the representatives, and second, to, and I quote again, ‘slow the movement of political assemblies.’ ”
“But that was the exact complaint of Congressman Dingell — that the Senate without fail stymied the work of the House.”
“What a beautiful thing — a slow democracy.”
Just here, a rock punctuates our exchange as it punctures a nearby storefront, sending glass and shoppers in all directions. A yellow vested protestor pumps his fist and takes off down the cobblestone street.
“But Congressman Dingell took issue with more than just the pace of the Senate — he also saw great danger in how unrepresentative it has come to be of the American people.”
“Oh, his district in Michigan alone boasts a greater population than say, the entire state of Vermont.”
“And so he says…”
“How can the Senate address the needs of his constituents when they enjoy a fraction of the voice per capita compared to the people of Vermont?”
“Ah, but surely they understand that the Senate does not exist for this purpose? To address their needs, and wield their power, les Michiganders ’ave the state government of Michigan. Through this tool they can craft their little society, without a care for the whims of the ’ill people of Vermont. The Senate exists to treat the issues from the perspective of the states themselves, not the individuals who live in them. Recall, as I wrote, that the ‘Federal system was created in order to combine the various advantages of large with those of smallness.’”
“But Viscount, the populations of these states are much more unequal than when you last visited. Perhaps you don’t appreciate the magnitude of the problem? There is real concern for the prospect of self-government in the States these days.”
“Eet eez not a question of degree, Monsieur. Eet eez a question of form. And I quote, ‘If America ever loses its liberty, the fault will surely lie with the omnipotence of the majority, which may drive minorities to despair and force them to resort to physical force.’ The Senate is not what you ’ave to fear, however frustrating eet may be. It eez the same problem as eets always been, with you Americains.”
Here another rock came through a window, and the Viscount arose.
“I didn’t get your name, monsieur.”
“Call me Simon,” I said. “Simon Silesia.”
“This may be improper, Mon Ami Silesia,” he said, “but might you cover zees coffee? I ’ave only Francs, and it seems zee cafe takes only Euros.”
“Bien sur,” I said.
And then he took his leave.
Image: Detail of Theodore Chasseriau’s portrait of Tocqueville, Palace of Versailles. Via Wikipedia.