“Just last night I was talking about life and art; big, interesting things, and now we’re back to the minuscule things on politics,” Mr Obama complained after a dinner last month with Italian intellectuals in Rome. His cabin fever is tangible. On the plus side, there are only two and a half years to go.
Reminds me of another thoughtful man in power. Alexis de Tocqueville served in the Chamber of Deputies throughout the July Monarchy. Despite his rhetorical support for liberal-ish democracy, the reality — parliaments, the rule of law, legislative haggling — bored him to tears. A “little democratic and bourgeois pot of soup” was how he described it to one of his closest friends.
“Do you believe,” he wrote another of his correspondents, “that the political world will long remain as destitute of true passions as it is at this moment?” What is “most wanting,” he wrote another, is “political life itself.”
Beware politicians pining for “political life itself.” These men of ideas — what Theodore White called “action intellectuals” — tend to look for that life in the most deadly of places.
Usually abroad, in foreign wars and imperial exploits. As the British prepared to fight the Opium War, Tocqueville privately exulted, “I can only rejoice in the thought of the invasion of the Celestial Empire by a European War. So at last the mobility of Europe has come to grips with Chinese immobility!”
Upon the conclusion of the Treaty of London, which threatened to diminish France’s role in the Middle East and aroused cries for war throughout France, Tocqueville wrote Mill that though he was wary of the rush to war, he thought it “even more dangerous” to “chime in with those who were loudly asking for peace, at any price.”
Or, if these action intellectuals look inward, it’s to the politics of reaction and counterrevolution. Thus, in 1848, Tocqueville was among the leading voices calling for the full suspension of civil liberties, welcoming talk of a “dictatorship” in order to preserve “the alienable right of Society to protect itself.” Whence the exhilaration? Whence the passion with which he defended a polity he had spent the better part of two decades denouncing? In his memoir of the Revolution of 1848, he offered an answer:
Let me say, then, that when I came to search carefully into the depths of my own heart, I discovered, with some surprise, a certain sense of relief, a sort of gladness mingled with all the griefs and fears to which the Revolution had given rise. I suffered from this terrible event for my country, but clearly not for myself; on the contrary, I seemed to breathe more freely than before the catastrophe. I had always felt myself stifled in the atmosphere of the parliamentary world which had just been destroyed: I had had found it full of disappointments, both where others and where I myself was concerned.
Defending liberalism against radicalism, Tocqueville was given the chance to use illiberal means for liberal ends, and it’s not entirely clear whether it was the means or the ends that most stirred him.
There was no field left for uncertainty of mind: on this side lay the salvation of the country; on that, its destruction. There was no longer any mistake possible as to the road to follow; we were to walk in broad daylight, supported and encouraged by the crowd. The road seemed dangerous, it is true, but my mind is so constructed that it is less afraid of danger than of doubt.
Recall the words of Christopher Hitchens after 9/11:
I should perhaps confess that on September 11 last, once I had experienced all the usual mammalian gamut of emotions, from rage to nausea, I also discovered that another sensation was contending for mastery. On examination, and to my own surprise and pleasure, it turned out be exhilaration. Here was the most frightful enemy — theocratic barbarism — in plain view. . . I realized that if the battle went on until the last day of my life, I would never get bored in prosecuting it to the utmost.
Perhaps we have less to worry from Obama’s boredom. After all, he’s a writer and a politician who embraces — luxuriates in — moderation, skepticism, irony, and doubt. At least publicly.
Then again, so was Tocqueville.