- Postmodern Prophet: Tocqueville Visits Vegas
If in the year 2000 Alexis de Tocqueville could somehow be given the opportunity to revisit the United States, he would be gratified to see how many of his observations concerning the country had proven to be correct. Yet for all his prescience, Tocqueville would find much to surprise him in contemporary America. Take Las Vegas, for example. Given Tocqueville’s emphasis on America’s Puritan origins and its austere republican morality, he might well find it odd that a community essentially founded by gangsters has become one of the most popular family vacation spots in the United States. And yet Las Vegas would not catch Tocqueville entirely by surprise. He did, after all, argue that American commercial society had emancipated the love of money and had even turned the willingness to take chances into a new kind of virtue. What is more interesting is that Tocqueville anticipated Las Vegas as a cultural phenomenon. Many commentators have claimed that Las Vegas has become the central cultural symbol of contemporary America, and that if we want to see what the United States will look like in the future, we need only turn to Las Vegas today. The post-modernist architect Robert Venturi has suggested by the very title of his book that we should all be Learning from Las Vegas. My contention is that, by reading Democracy in America carefully, we might have learned the same cultural lesson from Tocqueville. [End Page 111]
Tocqueville in fact had a premonition of Las Vegas—at the very first moment he caught a glimpse of America:
When I arrived for the first time at New York, by that part of the Atlantic Ocean which is called the East River, I was surprised to perceive along the shore . . . a number of little palaces of white marble, several of which were of classic architecture. When I went the next day to inspect more closely one which had particularly attracted my notice, I found that its walls were of whitewashed brick, and its columns of painted wood(II, 52).
Tocqueville recounts this incident in the course of explaining how and why democratic societies cultivate the arts differently from aristocratic societies. He points out that aristocratic societies turn out artistic products that are long-lasting and of high quality, whereas democratic societies are obsessed with producing goods cheaply, swiftly, and abundantly:
The productions of artists are more numerous, but the merit of each production is diminished. No longer able to soar to what is great, they cultivate what is pretty and elegant, and appearance is more attended to than reality. In aristocracies a few great pictures are produced; in democratic countries a vast number of insignificant ones. In the former statues are raised of bronze; in the latter they are modelled in plaster(II, 51).
Tocqueville is chiefly struck by the cheapness of American building materials: What looked initially and from a distance like “white marble” turned out on closer inspection to be only “whitewashed brick” and “painted wood.” But he is making a cultural point, not just an economic one. The cheap American building materials are used to imitate the great cultural monuments of Europe, its “palaces” and “classic architecture.” Tocqueville generally presents a brash America taking on the challenge of conquering nature on a new continent, exulting in its technological and economic power. Yet when it comes to cultural matters, Tocqueville’s America is timid, following in Europe’s footsteps, trying to democratize an aristocratic artistic heritage by making the cultural icons of Europe available cheaply (and hence widely) to the common man.
In that sense, Las Vegas is the fullest and most perfect embodiment of Tocqueville’s cultural vision of America as a democratically inspired (and cheap) imitation of Europe. If Tocqueville were to visit Las Vegas today, he would find the “palaces” and “classic architecture” he first saw on the shores of the East River recreated many times over and on a scale he would have found unimaginable in the 1830s (indeed he would all but see the East River itself recreated at the New York-New York Hotel & Casino). Tocqueville might first visit Caesar...