A journalist expands on Alexis de Tocqueville’s cultural critiques of American life.
In his earnest, opinionated, and frustrating debut book, journalist Poulos, a columnist for The Week and The Federalist, uses de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, published in 1835, as a basis for his own “romp through the territory of the American soul.” Poulos assumes that readers “feel pretty crazy” because of “the weirdness of American life, and the intractability of its predicaments.” The adverbs “crazily, selfishly, melodramatically” describe this weirdness, he asserts and promises that his book “is a sort of extended inquiry into what the hell these defining adverbs mean.” He warns, at the outset, that he mixes highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow references throughout: Socrates, Hamlet, Emerson, and philosopher Richard Rorty make appearances alongside Homer Simpson, Batman, Kanye West, Zoolander, Katy Perry, and the “hit web series” Between Two Ferns, which he says will be familiar to anyone “not a complete loser.” De Tocqueville, writes the author, maintained that Americans are living out a democratic experiment necessarily characterized by change and predicated on equality. Poulos takes issue, therefore, with Americans’ current focus on economic inequality for two reasons: first, great wealth is “unenviably precarious…and our wealthy go broke, in the space of a generation or two—or less!” Second, he claims that “our favorite rich people” love us, just as we love them. “We can’t sanely live without the rich mingling in our midst, and the rich can’t sanely live without mingling in ours,” he writes. Poulos takes on the topics of change, faith, money, play, sex, death, and love in chapters that riff on de Tocqueville’s “cosmic vision,” without giving concrete examples that might clarify his own broadly abstract ideas. “As you may have noticed,” he admits early on, “the imprecision of language is a problem.” So are convoluted sentences where the author seems to be talking to himself.
Provocative assertions buried in a confusing presentation.