Paul Greenberg

Attaway, Mr. President! Spoken like a real community organizer! But not necessarily like a president of the United States.

As a French visitor named Alexis de Tocqueville explained almost two centuries ago, after his grand tour of Jacksonian America in the 1830s, democracy in America is a perpetual balancing act between those two competing attractions, liberty and equality. There is an inverse relationship between the two. As one waxes, the other must necessarily wane. If democracy is to endure, it cannot choose to pursue only one of those goals. It must balance them. Instead, the president extolled The People, the Nation, as if we were one undifferentiated mass. One nation, one people! Ein reich, ein volk!

The president's most severe critics make the equal-but-opposite mistake of celebrating freedom and the free market above all -- without recognizing the indispensable role the state plays in making that freedom possible through the rule of law, and by assuring not just a free market but freedom of opportunity. For the unrestrained power of the individual is as great a threat to freedom as the unrestrained power of the state.

But this president doesn't seem to recognize that, in its zeal for equality, democracy must also respect liberty. Maybe he needs to read less Saul Alinsky and more Alexis de Tocqueville. For a democracy must know itself, its limits as well as its power, if it is to control itself. And there is no better primer on that complicated subject than Alexis de Tocqueville's study of "Democracy in America."

When his book first appeared in France, a reviewer unhappy with its complexity, its lack of simple answers, its balanced view, demanded to know just where its author stood: Was he for or against democracy? Was he for liberty or equality? He was for both, of course, and for preserving the always uneasy balance between the two. As he wrote in response to his critic:

"I had become aware that, in our time, the new social state that had produced and is still producing very great benefits was, however, giving birth to a number of quite dangerous tendencies. . . . My aim in writing (the) book was to point out these dreadful downward paths opening under the feet of our contemporaries, not to prove that they must be thrown back into an aristocratic state of society ... but to make these tendencies feared by painting them in vivid colors, and thus to secure the effort of mind and will which alone can combat them -- to teach democracy to know itself, and thereby to direct itself and contain itself."

Mr. President, meet M. de Tocqueville. You might learn a thing or, in a nation of 313 million free-spirited, free-minded individuals, three hundred and thirteen million of them.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.