Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Ewa Atanassow's "Tocqueville's Dilemmas, and Ours"

Ewa Atanassow is Professor of Politics at Bard College Berlin. Her books include (with Alan S. Kahan) Liberal Moments: Reading Liberal Texts and (with Richard Boyd) Tocqueville and the Frontiers of Democracy.

Atanassow applied the "Page 99 Test" to her latest book, Tocqueville's Dilemmas, and Ours: Sovereignty, Nationalism, Globalization, and reported the following:
From page 99:
As Mill indicates, the English public’s insouciance about foreign policy went hand in hand with its trusting the government’s expertise and commitment to do the right thing. Public confidence left the ministry a free hand: a greater leeway for maneuver and, potentially, for abuse. It also left the public ignorant and helpless. Not only did the lack of meaningful debate over foreign policy rob the nation of learning opportunities and prevented it from grasping the complexities of its situation. Reducing foreign affairs to strategic or technical questions to be handled by experts behind closed doors runs the serious risk that the people and their representatives may find themselves committed “beyond redemption” to an international standing attained, as it were, in a fit of absentmindedness. It directly impacts their sovereignty.

For Tocqueville, by contrast, if the government is to be both liberal and democratic, involving the people in external affairs is no longer a matter of choice, but of double necessity. An alert and enlightened public opinion serves to uphold the legitimacy of the institutional order and provides an indispensable corrective to the government’s action. As Tocqueville conjectures (and Mill concurs), had the English public been involved, the Eastern crisis could have been averted. What is more, alongside providing policy correctives, informing public opinion about external affairs is a vital opportunity to shape national identity and thus sustain the moral preconditions for political freedom.
Serendipitously, page 99 falls into the central chapter and discusses a key issue in my book’s argument. The issue is whether foreign policy questions should be subject to broad-based democratic debate. Mill and Tocqueville, two foundational figures in the history of Western democracy, disagreed on this question.

Mill believed that foreign policy should be shielded from public scrutiny. As discussed on the preceding pages, international politics deals with foreign ways and modes of thinking that often exceed the experience and common sense of a democratic citizenry. It is also easily hijacked for populist and partisan ends.

The example Mill and Tocqueville debate was the Eastern crisis of 1840, when in response to Egypt’s invasion of Syria, the British government (unbeknownst to the British public and Egypt’ ally France) signed a secret treaty committing to a military intervention. Once the news of the treaty reached Paris, a nationalist mobilization fanned by the popular press prompted the government to declare an ill-considered war on England. And while a war was eventually averted, the incident brought both countries to the brink.

Recognizing Mill’s concerns, Tocqueville begs to differ and my page 99 clarifies his oft-misunderstood position. In Tocqueville’s view, an alert and informed British public may have prevented the signing of the treaty and therewith the Eastern crisis – a point Mill concedes. Moreover, in France as in England, a free and honest debate would have enhanced the ability of both government and people to appreciate a complex situation. Far from simply fanning nationalism, such a debate would be crucial to preventing nationalist excess.

By contrast, handing foreign policy to unaccountable experts robs the people and its representatives of learning opportunities that enhance their collective self-understanding and capacity to govern, in a word, their sovereignty. Last but not least, in a democratic age public opinion backing is a vital source of legitimacy. Lacking popular support dooms any policy or government to failure.

Canvassing the controversy between two influential liberal thinkers, page 99 illustrates one of my book’s main theses: that liberalism is a long tradition of thinking – and disagreeing! – about core questions of democratic governance. Far from being fundamentally elitist, liberalism, as I show, is not reducible to fixed dogmas such as individual autonomy or economic freedoms, as many today think. Nor is it opposed to sovereignty and nationalism but relies on a certain understanding of these concepts.
Learn more about Tocqueville's Dilemmas, and Ours at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue