Foreign Observer: Alexis de Tocqueville

Myriads of foreign observers visiting America in the early nineteenth century marveled at the absence of rigid class distinctions and celebrated the glorification of equality in American society (of course, excluding slaves, indentured servants, and freedmen). The Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville was one of the best and yet one of the most critical of these foreign observers.

France had recently had a revolution that overthrew its nobility, but that nation was still having considerable problems with political instability. Tocqueville described what the American nonnobility culture was like in order to draw lessons that could be applied to his own country. Tocqueville saw, at least in part, that American egalitarianism reflected the absence of a nobility and its associated culture. He knew that America's social differences were not built on laws of privilege. For instance, there were no "estates" backed up by a hierarchy of feudal rights.

Tocqueville investigated America at the time of the Jacksonian revolution, a time that saw a great expansion of the number of citizens permitted to vote. Jacksonians believed in what today's Americans believe in -- an equality of opportunity. They did not expect or desire actual equality of results (Morison 1972, 2:161). They simply wanted a fair chance to rise in the social hierarchy. If they were not rich, they blamed it on unfortunate personal circumstances, rather than on faults in the system.

Tocqueville discovered something unique about America, which American social scientists have failed to understand. He described a nation ruled by the white middle class. Not only did this class rule politically, but it ruled in all matters of society, culture, and values. The French analyst was highly critical of middle-class America.

White middle-class American social scientists have responded by declaring that Tocqueville was snobbish and antidemocratic. Yet, it is not undemocratic to object to a society that gives too much power to one class of people. Tocqueville saw that the Jacksonian revolution overturned the balanced government envisioned by Jefferson. With Jackson the middle class came to power, gaining control of the legislature through its overwhelming number of votes. And with the onset of the direct election of the president, rather than an indirect election through the legislature, the middle class came to dominate the presidency as well.

Marxist and Neo-Marxist Theories

Karl Marx provided an antidote to the self-satisfaction of capitalist societies. His theory stressed that, under capitalism, the number of people in the working class was ever increasing. In addition, the ruling class so abused the working class that this impoverished group would eventually overthrow the capitalist system. Although history has not worked out the way Marx envisioned, his writings continue to provide the basis for critical theories of society because the analytic focus highlights the self-interests of social classes and their various self-justifying value systems.

One of the earliest versions of Marxist thought applied to American history was Charles Beard's (1941) An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution. The author showed how classbound the American founding fathers actually were and claimed that the American Revolution and government were actually expressions of the politicians' own selfish upper class interests.

Most criticisms of Marxist theories maintain that there is too much emphasis on economic factors. Marxist writers do take other factors into account, but the objection is largely valid. A more telling criticism is that Marxist theories downplay both racism and the role of the white middle class in perpetuating racism. The Marxist emphasis that the white middle class suffers from "false consciousness" is a very weak one, given the obvious and deliberate efforts of this class to enforce racial norms.

An example of how Marxism has blinded American radicalism is Robert Allen's Reluctant Reformers: Racism and Social Reform Movements in the United States (1974). This is one of the best books written about American racism, for it clearly shows how racist white liberals are and always have been. Nevertheless, the author spoils the brilliance of the analysis by draping the case studies in a modified Marxist-Leninist approach, stressing the association between colonialism and capitalism. Thankfully, the author does not actually apply this theory to the case studies, but waits to the end to present the theory, thereby saving the content chapters themselves. Sidney Wilhelm (1971) provided the best answer to the racism-as-colonialism argument by stressing that black ghettos are equivalents of Indian reservations rather than foreign colonies. The colonial capitalism argument actually downplays the role of race in America, for it does not emphasize the importance and virulence of the native sources of racism in America.

Nevertheless, books such as those by Beard and Allen are a breath of fresh air and an antidote to the majority of writers mindlessly celebrating America. Most historians now include discussions of class divisions in their works. Richard Hofstadter (1963) is a notable example. Other examples are Howard Zinn (1980) and Herbert Aptheker (1966). The class emphasis is even seen in such mainstream histories as those of Samuel Eliot Morison (1972).

Elite Theories

Reacting to Marxism and its stress on class were various theorists emphasizing the importance of elites. Elite theories maintain that elites, not economic and social class forces, determine what happens in society. (For a summary of the various elite theories see Parry 1969.) Writers such as the Italian Vilfredo Pareto criticized Marxists for ignoring the power of elites. Elite theorists criticized communism as actually practiced in the real world, pointing out that the communist countries themselves are dominated by various privileged elites and their progress stultified by inflexible bureaucracies (see Michels 1949).

American leftists responded to elite theory by uniting Marxism with the theory of elites to produce new theories focusing on the dominant role played by unfair coalitions of powerful elites. C. Wright Mills (1956) in The Power Elite discussed how a coalition between the military, business executives, and top politicians created an elite (but not actually a ruling class) that dominated the country in undemocratic ways. (For another theory in this vein, see Miliband 1974.)

Political scientists responded by saying that although elites dominate, there is a balance among them that still is democratic and fair. One of the outstanding spokesmen for this viewpoint was Robert Dahl in Who Governs? (1961). (For a critique of the power elite thesis on the national level, see Rose 1967). The problem with this perspective of balancing elites is that it ignores that these elites are largely reflective of the middle and upper classes only and that the elites cooperate to block progressive legislation. In fact, a serious flaw in the entire elite approach is the overemphasis on the power of elites. All too often, elites are absolutely powerless before the havoc created by class, race, ethnic, gender, and other social divisions.

Criticisms of American Government

Starting with the rise of the civil rights movement and encouraged by the protest against the Vietnam war, the student revolt, and the resurgence of feminism, the 1960s saw a virtual flood of books critical of America. In fact, so many attacks on the American system arose that other authors started a counterattack (see the writings of such neoconservatives as Norman Podhoretz and Nathan Glazer; see Steinfels 1979). These critical writings sharply contrast with the optimism of earlier treatments of the country.

There are so many of these critical books that it would take a separate volume to do them justice. But we can name a few of them. James MacGregor Burns in The Deadlock of Democracy: Four-Party Politics in America (1967) claims that there is a virtual paralysis of political will in America because there are actually four parties: the Republican and Democratic presidential parties and the Republican and Democratic congressional parties. None of these parties effectively cooperates with the others. He believes the outmoded American Constitution has created a nation with the worst system of top leadership selection in the Western world. In his 1984 book, The Power to Lead: The Crisis of the American Presidency, Burns laments that Americans have become so disillusioned with their political system that they are virtually deserting it in droves.

Reacting to such events as Lyndon Johnson's plunging the nation into the Vietnam war, the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in his The Imperial Presidency (1973) argues that the office of the presidency has become too powerful, and that limitations on the office should be imposed. Other historians became so critical of America that a school of New Left historians formed (see Bernstein 1968).

The problem with most of these governmental theories is that they are too narrow. After all, they are designed to explain the contemporary problems facing the nation, rather than apply to all periods of American government. These theories are also liable to encourage scapegoating, that is, finding someone or some aspect of government or society to blame for current problems facing the nation.

America as a Racist Nation

In the 1960s, amid race riots and southern resistance to forced integration, there was constant talk of America as a racist country. Prominent leftists of the time, such as Tom Hayden and Eldridge Cleaver, in fiery rhetoric condemned the United States as racist. Indeed, it virtually became a cliché to describe the United States as a racist society.

One of the social scientists describing America in this light was Sidney Willhelm (1971). He rejected the Marxist assertion that racism is the result of capitalism as well as the coassertion that the United States is controlled by a racist ruling elite. Wilhelm maintained that racism deeply affects the white middle class as well as the upper class. As in almost all sociological writings, however, Willhelm concentrated on the impact of racism on blacks, not on white Americans. His history is the history of black, separate from that of white, Americans.

One of the better sociological treatments of race was Lewis Killian's (1968) The Impossible Revolution, which described how the rise of the black power movement could be seen as constituting a revolutionary movement in the United States. Killian discussed the irony that in a country supposedly committed to liberty and equality, revolution appeared necessary. Given the conservative dominance of American society, the author was very pessimistic about the possibility for any real change. This makes it even more curious that Killian actually considered the possibility of a black revolution in the United States.

Although at first it may strike the reader as impossible, the 1960s view of the United States as racist actually underemphasized race. Rather than view violence and racism as American as apple pie and motherhood, we should acknowledge that the emphasis on Americanism and its associated puritanical virtues is actually an expression of racism itself.

It is important to stress that this approach to racism is too narrow because it concentrates almost exclusively on black Americans, thereby failing to delineate the impact of racism on white Americans. But all sociological writings on history seem to be partial history -- the history of race prejudice, rather than the history of racist America.

Attempts to Resolve Conflict and Structural-Functional Models

A recurring search in sociology has been for a resolution between the conflict and structural-functional perspectives. One of the best attempts was made by the German sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf (1958; 1959) in Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society. He suggested that all societies have two faces (conflict and consensus) and that analysts should use the functionalist model to study stability and the conflict model to study change. In this sense the author's perspective takes on elements of a cyclical theory. Dahrendorf stressed that those in dominant positions tend to maintain the status quo, while those in subordinate positions work for change. Nevertheless, he leaned toward the structural-functionalist perspective with an emphasis on the authority attached to hierarchical positions.

In Conflict Sociology, Randall Collins (1975) has provided an integrated conflict theory, but it is of less interest here because it focuses on a microsociological, instead of a macrosociological, approach to stratification. One important point Collins does make is that theory must focus on real life, not abstract formulations. Structural functionalism in particular has been guilty of constructing theories with little reference to American society itself.

It is curious that there has been so much discussion of the lack of resolution between consensus and conflict models when it appears that the students of the Old South had already developed a model that resolves the tension between the two perspectives. These analysts of the South show how consensus and values reinforce the racist caste system. We examine this perspective in the next chapter.


Back to Main Page Table of Contents

Return to Home Page