"Many people in Europe are apt to believe without saying it, or to say without believing it," Alexis de Tocqueville wrote some 150 years ago, "that one of the great advantages of universal suffrage is that it entrusts the direction of affairs to men who are worthy of the public confidence."

De Tocqueville's classic work, "Democracy in America," the result of a visit to these shores that encompassed nine months and 7,000 miles, was published in France in two parts, the first in 1835 and the second five years later, and very quickly translated into English. Its impact was immediate, and in the United States its reception was generally enthusiastic: the brilliant observations of a keenly brilliant observer -- young, aristocratic, liberal -- of our unique political system.

"Art," Ezra Pound once wrote, "is news that stays news." By that definition, de Tocqueville was an artist. Certainly he had the artist's eye. In contrast with much of what passes for social science these days, "Democracy in America" remains as pertinent, as worthy of reflection now as then. Especially on this day, as we celebrate once again the advantages of universal suffrage. It is as much a day for reflection as for celebration.

Citing de Tocqueville is a bit like citing the Bible; you can find almost anything in it to support your argument. "On my arrival in the United States I was surprised to find so much distinguished talent among the citizens and so little among the heads of the government," he wrote. "It is a constant fact that at the present day the ablest men in the United States are rarely placed at the head of affairs; and it must be acknowledged that such has been the result in proportion as democracy has exceeded all its former limits. The race of American statesmen has evidently dwindled most remarkably in the course of the last 50 years."

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? But de Tocqueville's visit began in 1831. He never saw a televised national political convention. He didn't know about the polls of public opinion that presume to tell us the election result before the election. He never watched a television commercial for a candidate for national office, a commercial that works by manipulating the familiar symbols of our mythology in the most sophisticated, technologically dazzling manner, and whose true and only purpose is not to make us think at all but to make us feel good -- about ourselves and, by extension, about the candidate it attempts to sell.

"Long and patient observation and much acquired knowledge are requisite to form a just estimate of the character of a single individual," de Tocqueville wrote. "Men of the greatest genius often fail to do it, and can it be supposed that the . . . people will always succeed? The people have neither the time nor the means for an investigation of this kind. Their conclusions are hastily formed from a superficial inspection of the more prominent features of a question. Hence it often happens that mountebanks of all sorts are able to please the people, while their truest friends frequently fail to gain their confidence."

Who knows what de Tocqueville might have written if he had visited the United States this election year -- perhaps nothing very different, but that is mere speculation. What is important is what he wrote then, and its continuing freshness, despite the very different country, the very different and vastly more dangerous world we inhabit. The more things change, as the French say, the more things remain the same.

That, of course, is no argument for failing to try. "The proper object . . . of our most strenuous resistance is far less either anarchy or despotism," de Tocqueville wrote, "than that apathy which may almost indifferently beget the one or the other." Democracy is a terrible burden. Like freedom. Only when we consider the alternatives does it become not only bearable but essential, like the air we breathe and the water we drink, and, like the air and the water, it requires our continuing care and our most strenuous effort.

De Tocqueville concludes one of his sections with these words: "I hold it to be sufficiently demonstrated that universal suffrage is by no means a guarantee of the wisdom of the popular choice. Whatever its advantages may be, this is not one of them." But he begins the very next section, "When serious dangers threaten the state, the people frequently succeed in selecting the citizens who are the most able to save it. It has been observed that man rarely retains his customary level in very critical circumstances; he rises above or sinks below his usual condition, and the same thing is true of nations."

We can hope, this Election Day, that we succeed in rising. The writer is a member of the editorial page staff. water, it requires our continuing care and our most strenuous effort.

De Tocqueville concludes one of his sections with these words: "I hold it to be sufficiently demonstrated that universal suffrage is by no means a guarantee of the wisdom of the popular choice. Whatever its advantages may be, this is not one of them." But he begins the very next section, "When serious dangers threaten the state, the people frequently succeed in selecting the citizens who are the most able to save it. It has been observed that man rarely retains his customary level in very critical circumstances; he rises above or sinks below his usual condition, and the same thing is true of nations."

We can hope, this Election Day, that we succeed in rising.