Adam Cohen: Democracy in America, Then and Now, a Struggle Against Majority Tyranny

Roundup: Talking About History

During the War of 1812, an angry mob smashed the printing presses of a Baltimore newspaper that dared to come out against the war. When the mob surrounded the paper's editors, and the state militia refused to protect them, the journalists were taken to prison for their own protection. That night, the mob broke into the prison, killed one journalist and left the others for dead. When the mob leaders were brought before a jury, they were acquitted.

Alexis de Tocqueville tells this chilling story in "Democracy in America," and warns that the greatest threat the United States faces is the tyranny of the majority, a phrase he is credited with coining. His account of his travels through America in the 1830's, which is often called the greatest book ever written about America, is both an appreciation of American democracy, and a cautionary tale about its fragility.

Bernard-Henri Lévy, the well-known French intellectual, has just written "American Vertigo," about his own travels along Tocqueville's route. It is an entertaining trip, as much in the tradition of Jack Kerouac as Tocqueville. Mr. Lévy visited Rikers Island and a Dallas gun show, and interviewed Americans ranging from Richard Perle to Sharon Stone. His outsider's perspective sometimes lends insight, as with his reflections on the sad plight of Detroit and Buffalo. At other times, it just leads to odd advice. (He puts surprising faith in Warren Beatty as a political leader.)

Unfortunately, Mr. Lévy, who is most passionate about American foreign policy, pays little attention to the issue Tocqueville was most intent on: how closely even a thriving democracy like America borders on tyranny. It is a subject that is particularly relevant today, with the president claiming he can wiretap ordinary Americans without a warrant, insisting on his right to imprison without trial anyone he labels an "enemy combatant," and warning critics of the Iraq war against "emboldening" the enemy. Entertaining as Mr. Lévy's book is, "Democracy in America" - 170 years old, and notoriously difficult to distill - still provides far greater insight into contemporary American democracy....

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