Democracy in America

Born on this day in 1805 was Alexis de Tocqueville, the French statesman who wrote Democracy in America following a nine month visit to the United States in 1831-32.  The young country he found on his trip, the democracy still in its infancy, continues to flourish, and his book, published in 1840, remains an influential book about the United States.

tocquevilleOur contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions; they want to be led, and they wish to remain free: as they cannot destroy either one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once. They devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people.  They combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite: they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians.  Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large that holds the end of his chain.

By this system the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master, and then relapse into it again.  A great many persons at the present day are quite contented with this sort of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people; and they think they have done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation at large. This does not satisfy me: the nature of him I am to obey signifies less to me than the fact of extorted obedience.”

It does not satisfy me, either.  Even in the process of selecting our ‘master’, we do not shake off dependence, for we rely on others to lead us.  Democracy is a participatory system.  It demands involvement and awareness on the part of its citizens.  Our current state of affairs is one of the consequences of too little intellectual participation.

I’m not the only one who can’t get no satisfaction.  In this year’s selection process, people on both sides are dissatisfied with their choice.  Choice may be an illusion. When the alternatives for selection are forced by external powers, choice does not exist.  Too often we don’t get to choose the best of the best, rather we choose what is handed to us.

Simultaneously, it seems that fate has taken a hand this time around, and the differences between the two alternatives seems startlingly clear.  Although, this too, may be a mirage.

Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”  This implies that democracy is the best simply because it works better.  Hillarie Belloc remarked that the “use of such language connotes that the user of it is fatigued by the effort of thought.”  He went on to say “The institution ‘works’ in proportion as it satisfies that political sense which perfect democracy would . . .”*

Because in democracy, the people are sovereign, we should never be satisfied and always strive to be greater collectively than we are.  A greater democracy means a greater community of people.  On the individual level, we can stay involved by thinking and studying about democracy.  I wish more Americans felt the need to think past the political slogans, read more of the news as opposed to just listening to it, and then, read beyond the headlines.

For Tocqueville, civic and professional associations (people coming together) and participation in the public sphere were the vital components of any true democracy.  Democracy doesn’t ‘work’; we, the people, make it work.  But only, when we are involved in it, only when we put our mind to it.

Democracy in America, what a quandary . . .

I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.

Alexis de Tocqueville

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Hilarie Belloc, The French Revolution, Oxford University Press, 1966, 3

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