Contrary to arguments that notions of state sovereignty have become outmoded, national identity has reasserted itself as a force in political life – from the election of Donald Trump in the United States, to the Brexit vote in Great Britain, to the rise of nationalist, anti-EU movements and governments in the nations of the European perimeter.

This two-week seminar will explore the idea of national identity and its role in maintaining a successful political order. In the first week, led by Professor James W. Ceaser, students will consider the question of American national character through a close reading of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Over the second week, led by scholar Richard Reinsch, students will explore the ancient roots of nationalism and assess its utility in contemporary politics.

Image: Childe Hassam, Allied Flags, April 1917, 1917 

James W. Ceaser on Tocqueville's World & Ours


James W. Ceaser

James W. Ceaser is Harry F. Byrd Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, where he has taught since 1976, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.  He has written several books on American politics and political thought, including Presidential Selection and Liberal Democracy and Political Science.

Richard M. Reinsch II

Richard M. Reinsch II is Editor-in-Chief and Director of Publications at AIER. He is coauthor, with the late Peter A. Lawler, of A Constitution in Full: The Unwritten Foundation of American Liberty.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session


Tocqueville, The Great Thinkers. Page assignments are pegged to the translation by Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (University of Chicago Press, 2000).


  • (Tocqueville’s) Introduction, pp. 3–15
  • Aristocracy, pp. 535–41, 234–35 (begin with “What do you ask of society”)

Varieties of regimes under the modern condition of “democracy”

  • Mild despotism, pp. 661–65 (assigned last week), 671 (begin with “I shall finish”)–76
  • Centralized administration, pp. 82–93
  • Omnipotence (or tyranny) of the majority, pp. 235–50
  • Single-person (or party) despotism, pp. 52–53
  • Liberal democracy (no specific reading)



  1. How does Tocqueville use the word “democracy?” Be careful, it has a slightly different meaning than our normal use today.
  2. What are the purposes or objectives of political science? What “work” is it supposed to do?
  3. What drives historical development? Is the path of history inevitable?
  4. Characterize each type or kind of rule under the modern condition of democracy.
  5. Give the best characterization of the elements of aristocracy, as Tocqueville uses the term. Who rules, how do aristocrats think and feel, what do they value? Which “regime,” aristocracy or democracy, is preferable? Why?


The maladies (dangerous tendencies) of democracy and some antidotes

  • Egalitarianism (love of equality), pp. 479–82
  • “Individualism” (better defined as “privatism” or apathy), 482–84, 506–08, 489–92, 496–500
  • Materialism, 506–08, 517–24
  • Fatalism, pp. 469–72, 425–26



  1. Characterize each malady and think about how it threatens liberty/civilization. For each malady Tocqueville suggests a number of antidotes, some of which you will not encounter until later in the week. What are they?
  2. If the maladies are as powerful as they seem, are the antidotes strong enough to counteract them? Is every antidote, over time, likely to be taken over by the maladies?


The “causes” of societal forms

  • Point of departure (culture or national character), pp. 27–44
  • Physical causes: geography, climate, demography (no specific reading)
  • Social state, pp. 45–49 (stop mid-page after footnote 3)
  • Laws: constitutional, statutory, civil (no specific reading)
  • Mores, pp. 274–82, 288–98



  1. How does the analysis of the causes help the practical task of the legislator in devising strategies to implement or save a liberal democracy? Which of the causes can humans influence by their choice? You can look here at pages 296–98, and also (unassigned) the paragraph that begins on the bottom of page 154, and the next paragraph on page 155.
  2. A “hidden” theme is this: in reading the chapter on the point of departure—and now I can tell you this, even though you will not be reading his whole account of the Founding—you will notice that Tocqueville never mentions the Declaration of Independence or the doctrine of natural rights. It is clear as well that he thinks the founding of America can’t be discussed without talking as much about what happened in colonial New England as during the revolutionary and constitutional period (1775–1789). Any thoughts on this? How might Tocqueville criticize the syllabus on American political thought from last week?


  • The effects of democracy on thought (“intellectual movement”), pp. 399–400, 403–24, 426–33, 445–52, 452–58, 433–43



  1. What is Tocqueville’s plan for Volume 2? How far is it possible to explain or deduce thought, sentiments, and manners from the social state of equality? What are the limitations of this approach, sometimes called “the sociology of knowledge”?
  2. Pages 403–24 are the most difficult or dense passages in the book, but they help open up much of Tocqueville’s thinking. Struggle with them, and try to see how successive chapters qualify previous ones.
  3. How does democracy influence the practice of the arts and sciences?
  4. Perhaps the chapter on monuments is not quite correct. Try reading it as a general description of democracy and aristocracy.
  5. Try reading Chapter 15 (on the study of Greek and Latin) as the study of philosophy and the liberal arts, which you have been engaged in this summer.


  • The effects of democracy on sentiments and manners, pp. 500–03, 506–08, 510–14, 578–81, 599–604
  • The effects of democracy on political varieties (again), pp. 639–46
  • A few peculiarities of the American character: frontier and mobility, pp. 268–69; practical knowledge of politics, pp. 291–92; entrepreneurialism, pp. 387–89; religiosity, pp. 278–72
  • Family/gender, pp. 558–67, 573–78



  1. What is the doctrine of self-interest rightly understood? What is to be said for it, and what are its limitations?
  2. What does Tocqueville mean by greatness?
  3. Democracy in America continually compares democracy and aristocracy. Is there anything we learn about aristocracy that is helpful for guiding life in a democratic age? In what way(s), if any, can aspects of aristocracy be fit into democracy?
  4. What is the status today of some of the special characteristics of Americans that Tocqueville identified?
  5. Tocqueville’s chapters on the family and women provoke a good deal of controversy. Is everything he says here “dated,” or is there anything you think you may have learned from his account?




  1. What does nationalism provide politically to a people?
  2. What are pre-political loyalties? Does nationalism foster and preserve these? Should it?
  3. Does it bind disparate families, groups, and peoples together in a manner superior to other political forms?

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