Plains Folk

Democracy on the Prairies

Does a French aristocrat, writing about American democracy as he observed it in the 1830s, have anything to tell us about life on the northern plains in the 21st century? I’m talking, of course, about Alexis de Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America, the single most perceptive, most quoted book ever written about American habits. And I’m continuing a line of thought from last week, when I proposed that Tocqueville’s chapter entitled, “Characteristics of Historians in Democratic Ages,” has power for us here and now.

I’ll get back to the prairies soon, but first I need to lay out Tocqueville’s line of thought. He came to America to see how democracy worked on the ground—its promise, as well as its dangers. One of his observations was that historians in democratic times told different stories than those in the older, aristocratic times before the American and French revolutions.

“Historians who write in aristocratic ages,” Tocqueville tells us, “are wont to refer all occurrences to the particular will or temper of certain individuals. . . . When the historian of aristocratic ages surveys the theatre of the world, he at once perceives a very small number of prominent actors, who manage the whole piece.” This is to say, as aristocratic historians see the world, individuals and elites make history. They make things happen.

Democratic historians see things differently. As Tocqueville tells us, “Historians who live in democratic ages exhibit precisely opposite characteristics. Most of them attribute hardly any influence to the individual over the destiny of the race, nor to citizens over the fate of a people; but, on the other hand, they assign great general causes to all petty incidents.”

Tocqueville applauds the capacity of democratic historians to perceive underlying causes, but he worries that their habits of generalization make them lazy. They settle on what they think are the right general explanations, and they apply them indiscriminately. The democratic historians thereby obscure both the real possibility that individual actions might make a difference in history and the complex processes by which events work themselves out.

Here on the prairies, for instance—I told you I’d bring this home eventually—we have been accustomed, as democratic historians, to explain our situation with a history citing general causes. Our leading historian, Elwyn Robinson, codified these general causes for us with his famous Six Themes of North Dakota History—among them such factors as location, dependency, and of course, the Too-Much Mistake.

From these historical principles, these democratic generalizations, we have derived habits of thought that absolve us of responsibility. If our regional economy is distressed, if our young people are departing, if our communities are eroding, there is nothing we can do about these things, we figure. Large, powerful forces are at work, forces beyond our control.

Ah, but here is where Tocqueville helps us think better. While encouraging us to take large, general causes into consideration, he also empowers us to credit individual and popular initiative in making history. He says, determined citizens can scan the circumstances of their communities, the disadvantages as well as the possibilities, and take effective action.

Let us, then, go forth and make history on the northern plains. With economic renewal quickening in our region, with newcomers arriving daily, history will be made. And history is not a spectator sport.


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