'Despotism, which is at all times dangerous, is more particularly to be feared in democratic ages.' Demagoguery, over-expectation of government, the lust for equality that so readily becomes envy: there is nothing specially Russian about unfreedom.
De Tocqueville's generalisations about the dark side of democracy derived from his experience of his own country, post-revolutionary France, and from his experience of the country that he was writing about - the United States, barely half a century after its revolution.
Events in Russia come as a reminder that democracy can be suicidal. But the question is, how can it be stopped from tumbling into illiberalism? And what if there is no formula, no constitution for liberty and pluralism? What if all we have to offer Russian democrats is a convoluted narrative of our own chancy, historical construction of a democratic order?
The recipe is not just for humility in the face of the Russian example, but for self-awareness. We need to remind ourselves in the West both of the paradoxes that surround our own political good fortune and of the difficulties democracy has faced at its birth - even in that paradigm of Western democracy, the United States. These paradoxes and difficulties come across to us particularly sharply at the end of this year, the 250th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Jefferson, author of the American Declaration of Independence, democrat, constitution-builder - but also slave-owner, aristocrat, partisan and thief.
Jefferson is a shadowy figure in Britain. It is not just that he was a successful revolutionary. This urbane, cultivated Francophile cannot be patronised in the way even the most pro-American of Britons like to put the cousins in their place. Yet, however different the fundamentals of British democracy may be from those of America, we need Jefferson if we are to understand how the liberal order can have - perhaps has to have - contradictory foundations.
Jefferson was a Virginian landowner who, highly educated in 18th-century Scottish and English political thought and deeply imbued with the classical tradition, became, first at the state level then at the heart of the union of the states, the rhetorical leader of revolution, afterwards serving as ambassador to France, secretary of state and president.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal. But this did not apply to his slaves. No white supremacist, he admired the language and culture of native Americans, red Indians as they used to be called. But blacks . . . Jack Pole, former Rhodes Professor of American History at Oxford, concludes that the prophet of liberty and equality had intense and visceral feelings about them.
A democrat who disliked crowds, a federal president who barely stirred north of what subsequently became the Mason-Dixon line, an advocate of natural rights who extolled the common law of old England, Jefferson at least confronted the paradoxes.
Chief among these was how a democracy could ensconce pluralism. Jefferson hesitated. On one issue, the freedom of people from governmental coercion in religious matters, he was unwavering. But he believed no one generation could compel another; the laws of the land could and should be rewritten periodically.
In his attempt to fix the principle of pluralism once and for all, Jefferson took refuge in the undoubted capacity and nobility of purpose of the founding fathers. He believed that taking part in government, at least to the extent of electing representatives, was not only civilising, but also socialising. For him it was the civic equivalent of Adam Smith's belief in the beneficial effects of taking part in market operations.
Equally he believed that government needed to be shaken from time to time. He offended the more conservative founding fathers with the welcome he gave to Shay's rebellion against the federal government in 1787. Again and again we find that Jefferson failed to reconcile contradictions in his own thinking about democracy and liberty, government and freedom, subsumed into a sparkling career as a practical politician.
Down from his plantation he rode, to Philadelphia and to Washington to take an active part in politics, its factions and bargain-making. The man who had inveighed against over-extending the power of the federal government boldly - and possibly illegally - put up the money to buy Louisiana from Napoleon. The prophet of peace became a maker of
But that may be to say only that the leaders of democracy need a measure of hypocrisy, that the leaders of a fissiparous union need an amount of deceit, and that ultimately democracy is not a system at all but a series of reflexes meshing together thanks to the chance arrival in power of occasional good men - who happened once also to be slave owners?
Perhaps, though, this applies only to American democracy, which, of course, has proved durable. 'The manners and laws of the American are not the only ones which may suit a democratic people,' de Tocqueville opined, 'but the Americans have shown that it would be wrong to despair of regulating democracy by the aid of customs and laws.'
And that is why Jefferson is worth celebrating. 'The organisation and the establishment of democracy in Christendom is the great political problem of our times,' de Tocqueville said 160 years ago. 'The Americans unquestionably have not resolved this problem, but they furnish useful data to those who undertake to resolve it.' Russia, take note.
David Walker presents 'Emperor of Liberty' on BBC Radio 3 tonight at 10.45pm.
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