Attempting to elucidate what precisely Alexis de Tocqueville would have made of either Barack Obama the politician or the astonishing political phenomenon that swept the nation's first African-American president into office in 2008 is a fruitless endeavor. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville devotes relatively little attention to the presidency as an institution, and still less to the merits and accomplishments of particular presidents. In his account, what made American democracy unique and functional was neither its federalist institutional arrangements nor the virtues of its national leaders, but its culture of political participation in local democratic institutions. Tocqueville recognized the power of private pursuits, especially the pursuit of material gain, in American culture, and viewed political participation as a central mechanism for broadening the self-interest of Americans, to force them to temper individualistic tendencies with consideration of the good of the whole. The idea that the fate of the American republic could rest in the hands of an individual leader is no prominent in Democracy. Indeed, many of Tocqueville's observations about the presidency stress its weakness, especially vis-à-vis the force of public opinion.
Copyright © Lexington Books. This chapter first appeared in Alexis de Tocqueville and the Art of Democratic Statesmanship.
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Williamson, Thad."Changing the People, Not Simply the President: The Limitations and Possibilities of the Obama Presidency, in Tocquevillian Perspective." Alexis De Tocqueville and the Art of Democratic Statesmanship. Edited by Brian Danoff and L. Joseph Hebert, Jr. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2011. 155-178.