Tocqueville and Journalism

by Jack Rooney

This isn’t the first time I’ve been assigned to read Tocqueville, but it is the first time I’ve actually read it (for the record, I still got an A in Political Theory). Even in the few pages I had to read for the class I missed,  I have now read Tocqueville in a rather remarkable and eclectic mix of places. I started reading while in Washington, continued on the plane and bus rides back to campus, and finished a few hours ago in the Observer office. Yes I am posting this at 3:30 AM, but I was busy doing the work of journalism and Notre Dame democracy (the damn Judicial Council didn’t release the election results until midnight). Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed our pal Alexis and what he had to say a few hundred years ago.

First of all, the dude had an absolute fascination with the first amendment, which let’s be honest, I can’t blame him for. It’s good stuff. Even though he doesn’t love freedom of the press the same way everyone else does (p. 205), he still recognizes it as a democratic necessity. He also totally digs the freedom of association, which doesn’t have anything to directly do with journalism per se, but the notion that “an association is an army” (p. 220) is some real spine-tingling stuff (I’ve now used the word “stuff” twice in the span of one paragraph, I’m sorry).

All joking aside, Tocqueville does provide a rather remarkable and undoubtedly unique assessment of American democracy in the 19th century. One of the more noteworthy aspects of the work is how relevant it remains to this day. Sure, it is studied in nearly all introductory political science courses and discussed as a work of political theory, but his candid take on American life nearly 200 years ago is surprisingly similar to today’s cultural and social landscape.

A lot has changed since Tocqueville wrote (you know, the end of slavery, a few world wars, that kind of stuff), but his observations as an outsider looking in on American life are fascinating when compared to modern American society. Americans still love equality (some more than others, though), and God knows this country is outlandish individualistic. And newspapers are still filled with ads, which he somehow found weird (p. 209).

My main point is this: Tocqueville certainly merits study in this day and age because his writing some 200 years ago bears a study-worthy resemblance to today. I look forward to tomorrow’s (today’s?) discussion because I feel it will be much more fruitful than me pounding on my keyboard, alone in my room, at 3:30 in the morning.

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