Originally published in the January 2017 issue of First Things.
The Art of Being Free: How Alexis de Tocqueville Can Save Us from Ourselves
by James Poulos
St Martin’s, 304 pages, $26.99
Alexis de Tocqueville was sensitive about his height, a mere 5 feet 4 inches, but it would have made him feel a giant to see some of the midgets who have followed after him. No amount of hair spray will ever make Bernard-Henri Lévy stand as tall as the man in whose footsteps he claimed to be traveling in American Vertigo (2006). Jean Baudrillard, Stephen Fry, and Karl Ove Knausgaard all retraced Democracy in America’s journey, and not one of them could summon their precursor’s sympathy for those money-grubbing, obese Yankees. On the other side of the spectrum, one Australian imitator whom I will not name promoted his self-styled Tocqueville reboot on a website that, when you opened it, auto-played Tina Turner singing “Simply the Best” over a background alternating his book jacket and billowing American flags. I wish I could tell you that that book was self-published.
James Poulos is not a foreigner, but he is nevertheless good casting for the part of a modern day Tocqueville, as an alien from outer space. Or so he seems in photographs of him in his alternate persona as a rock star, sporting fur coats, tattoos, and varying degrees of eyeliner. But that is only one side of our author. In addition to serving as frontman for the glam band Night Years, Poulos has studied for a Ph.D. in political theory at Georgetown University, covered the 2012 presidential campaign for VICE magazine, and briefly, with the greatest reluctance, worked as a lawyer. He has written for the wonky National Affairs and the dishy Daily Beast. There is no young writer on the right with a resume quite like his. Naturally, unlike everyone else in political punditry, Poulos lives in Los Angeles.