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Tocqueville and Modern Democracy

Sam Gelman
Straus Center Communications and Program Officer

Alexis de Tocqueville

On Tuesday, Nov. 23, the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought hosted Dr. Ran Halévi, research director at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), for a lecture titled “Tocqueville and Modern Democracy." The lecture was hosted by Straus Center Associate Director Dr. Neil Rogachevsky in his Modern Political Thought course, which is being offered at Yeshiva College in partnership with the Straus Center, and was part of the Jack Miller Center lecture series.

Dr. Halévi began his presentation with an overview of Alexis de Tocqueville’s approach to political philosophy, labeling him an “observer” and stating that “he does not ask why—he is a man of the how.” Halévi explained that when Tocqueville first published his works in the mid-1800s, they did not catch on, as the public was very focused on the issue of class while Tocqueville was writing about the transition from aristocracy to democracy many states were undergoing.

Eight decades later, he became a household name with his three models of democracy. Halévi argued that Tocqueville viewed the French model as the weakest version, as it relies on revolution and terror. The English model serves as a middle ground of sorts. It is a slower process where the aristocracy looks on and participate in the transition, thus allowing certain traditions to remain intact while the major reforms occur. The final model is the American model, which is democracy built in its own image, without an aristocratic past to interfere with the process. Halévi called this the “purest product of the democratic process.”

Halévi took Tocqueville’s models one step further, making the case that Israel follows in the footsteps of the American model. Since the country has been a democracy its entire lifespan, its people cannot imagine another system. Halévi also cited Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri, who argues that Israel’s democracy thrives because it was founded by individuals who grew up in democratic countries.

The lecture concluded with a Q&A session, where students asked questions about immigration and its impact on democracies, the differences and similarities between 19th-century class struggle and today’s wealth disparity, and the importance of conventions and customs.

Previous lecturers in the Jack Miller Center lecture series include Dr. Paul Cantor, the Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of the English Department at the University of Virginia, Dr. Seth Jaffe, assistant professor of political science and international affairs at John Cabot University, Dr. Rita Koganzon, associate director of the Program on Constitutionalism and Democracy at the University of Virginia, and Dr. Alexander Orwin, assistant professor of political theory at Louisiana State University.

The Jack Miller Center partners with faculty, administrators and donors to transform student access to education in American political thought and history, an education the Center believes is necessary for informed civic engagement. By receiving this grant, Yeshiva University joins a list of many distinguished academic institutions that have worked with the Jack Miller Center, including Columbia University, the University of Notre Dame and Yale University.

The Straus Center trains Yeshiva University students to be Modern Orthodox intellectual leaders who are well versed in both Torah and the Western canon. Through a combination of unique, interdisciplinary courses taught in collaboration with faculty from across YU, communal events, and publications, the Straus Center seeks to cultivate the intellectual, religious, and civic leaders of tomorrow.

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