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Historian examines de Tocqueville's 'Democracy in America'

Democracy springs from the deepest precept of diverse religions — that all are created equal before God — and is destined to prevail throughout the world but in its own good time, according to history professor William Cook, who will give a presentation tonight at Southern Oregon University.

Cook, who has taught at the State University of New York at Geneseo since 1970, will speak tonight and Friday on democracy and French author Alexis de Tocqueville as part of a campuswide conversation called "Tocqueville Imagining America." The lectures are free.

Cook's views are based on de Tocqueville's 1835 classic, "Democracy in America," in which the French politician traveled the U.S. interviewing common people and luminaries such as President Andrew Jackson and Texas Gov. Sam Houston.

"Equality is the fundamental principle on which democracy is built," Cook said during an interview on campus. "We're on the right side of history, but it (democracy) is not going to be automatic. It takes different forms based on a country's history, geography and other factors."

De Tocqueville had visited Algeria and wrote that he doubted democracy could take root in Islamic lands, but Cook said he disagrees.

At a recent conclave in Prague that involved authorities from most faiths, including Islam, "everyone agreed the principle exists in all religions and is the underpinning of democracy — the equality of all people," Cook said. "At a basic level, we agreed that in all religions, human beings are all created equal and we're all God's creatures."

It's unrealistic, however, to expect to go into countries such as Iraq or Afghanistan and say, "make our Constitution your constitution — where it says America, just cross it out and put in your country's name," Cook said.

De Tocqueville saw the America of the 1830s as the "perfect laboratory" for democracy because it had broken off from the squabbles, systems and social classes of Europe. Everyone, rich or poor, had to "roll up their sleeves and cut wood for the cabins, even the aristocrats," Cook said.

In his book, de Tocqueville was wary of state and federal government and praised hands-on local government as "the great school of democracy," the place where "you can still get 50 people to sign your petition to fix the pothole," Cook said.

If de Tocqueville could look at American democracy today, he said, "he would think it's still strong and vigorous, but he would be worried that local government isn't working very well and might disappear, because there's so much administration coming from Salem and Washington."

Cook added, "He'd worry that the more the state and federal government takes over, the more unitary and paternalistic it becomes, like a mild dictatorship. We start to lose interest. It becomes so abstract. He'd worry that we lose the great genius of local government, in educating ourselves and being creative — and having other local governments copy what works."

De Tocqueville would be surprised by the low voter turnout and would be skeptical of the supposedly democratic innovations of initiative, referendum and recall, Cook said.

"He'd say democracy here has a lot of flaws, but America made the right moves to mitigate its problems" with a bicameral legislature and balance of powers. "However, he recognized that democracy needs curbs and needs to deal with facts, not use immediate majoritarianism."

The entire SOU campus is engaged in exploring de Tocqueville's views on American democracy this year, and the implications they hold for today.

The lectures are sponsored by the SOU Arts and Humanities Council and the Office of Student Affairs. For more information, contact Daniel Morris at morris@sou.edu, 552-6740, or Prakash Chenjeri at chenjeri@sou.edu, 552-6034.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org