Tocqueville, the Third Way and Obama

Article published on Nov. 16, 2009
community published
Article published on Nov. 16, 2009
"I confess that in America I saw more than America; I sought the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions, in order to learn what we have to fear or hope from its progress.
" Tocqueville

The city of Saint-Louis has been known as the "Gateway to the West" because of the important role it played in the westward expansion of the United States. The city is quite characteristic of a medium-level city in the US, in term of urban planning, population, level of life etc. During my stay in Saint-Louis, I met a few people working for non profit associations in various fields such as agricultural preservation, immigration, education and community gardening. Although an association is very different from one to another, they all seem to share the common objective of serving the “public interest” when it is not being handled by the public sector, in particular in the field of health, immigration and poverty reduction. Approximately 26.4 percent of Americans over the age of 16 volunteered through or for an organization in 2008 (not mentioning the percentage of Americans being actually employed by the non profit sector).

During his travels which took him from the East Coast to the Mississippi River, Tocqueville already highlighted the role played by institutions of associations and their connection to democracy. Tocqueville writes that "the strength of free peoples resides in the local community. Local institutions are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they put it within the people’s reach; they teach people to appreciate its peaceful enjoyment and accustom them to make use of it." Tocqueville’s famous views on American equality do not seem to be pertinent in modern America anymore. But his observation on the powerfulness of the grassroots’ movement is still very accurate.

Which parallel with today US politics? The absence of an identified ideological framework around Obama’s policies gives many opportunities to Republicans to attack his set of reform as being a kind of “disguised socialism.” This is wrong obviously but Obama has not yet a clear ideological reference which could explain what he is aiming to do. If Obama has a deep respect for the market and wants to minimize the state's footprint on it, he does not want to link his policies on climate change, healthcare reform and economy recovery with the Third Way ideology of the generation of New Democrats (a parallel can be drawn with the today’s attitude of European social democrats towards the Third Way). In the US, the concept refers to significantly right-wing and laissez-faire policies. The ideology has been severely undermined by the New Democrats, who were irrationally exuberant about the economic trends of the 1990s.

But as 80 years of communism in the USSR does not reflect Marxism, 10 years of Blair/Clinton does not necessarily reflect what the Third Way is. The Third Way mainly looks at redefining a new “contrat social” based on new relationships between the civil society (largely the non profit sector), the government and the business and ultimately strengthening the role of the civil society.

This is where Tocqueville’s views on the role of the civil society in the US could play a role – to help further defining the “Obamaism”. The "Obamaism" according to scholars Franklin Foer and Noam Scheiber, is still a “non-identified” ideology which reflects the market-friendly attitude of Bill Clinton's New Democrats tempered by a more traditional commitment to equality.

The present crisis presents an opportunity for Obama to recast the traditional divide in American politics. Americans seem to reject both government and conservative ideology. The empowerment of the non profit sector under a redefined Third Way could be a new way forward - as the Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria wrote in January 2009, Obama’s Third Way could create a new governing ideology for the West… (