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


“We Have Seen an Honest Man.”

“We have seen an honest man.” Those were the words Michelle Obama used to describe her husband Monday night at the last rally in Iowa. She is a wonderful woman. I have been proud these past four years that she has been our First Lady, thrilled actually.

When Barack Obama took the stage and began to reminisce about the Iowa campaign of 2008, and talked about how the campaign workers there labored without heat, sleep, and food, tears trickled out of his left eye, which he had to wipe away several times. He gave a superb speech. It brought back the feeling I had four years ago, when I thought, here is a man who has the mark of greatness on him. This year I have been pessimistic about the President’s chances for reelection. However, listening to him Monday night, I was struck once again with a strong sense that history must be on his side, and ours.

We have seen an honest man. And we have seen a dishonest man.

I have been through quite a few presidential elections, but never before have I seen a candidate lie so brazenly as Obama’s challenger. The worst part was that when caught in his lies, he didn’t care, he continued to tell them, or as Bill Clinton put it the other day, “shove his hand deeper into the cookie jar.” I thought it betrayed a troubling cynicism about the people he sought to serve. It seemed to me that the only principle he held to was the maxim attributed to H. L. Mencken, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

Well, you can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time. Someone said something like that. But it wasn’t Lincoln.

One would hope that this election would cause the Republican Party to change their tactics and move away from the politics of deception, demagoguery, hate, and division. Yet, I think that might be just too much to expect.

We have seen an honest man. Thank goodness, we will see more of him.

The only real losers of this election are those who will refuse to join in the march of history to an America where we work together, where we take care of not just our own, but everyone. The losers will be those who would stand in the way, block up the hall. The winners are us, we the people – all the people.

Photo: Damon Winter/The New York Times


He Heard America Singing

Walt Whitman is often identified with Transcendentalism, a literary, political, and philosophical movement of the 1900’s that included such people as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, and Margaret Fuller among its number. However, Whitman was actually more of a humanist or perhaps a populist.  The range of his vision was wide and it included everything, and one gets a sense that he wanted to celebrate everything, that he wanted to put his arms around and embrace the entire universe. Santayana once called Whitman’s vision of America, “the charm of uniformity in multiplicity.”

I have a hunch that Whitman didn’t have much use for labels. He was just transcendental by nature. It was as basic to him as breathing.

In Walt Whitman A Life, Justin Kaplan reports that Whitman once shared his view of religion with Sara Tyndale, an abolitionist and Fourierist from Philadelphia. He related to her a conversation he had with a certain pastor who expressed his hope that Whitman would stick with his Dutch Reformed faith:

I not only assured him of my retaining faith in that sect, but that I had perfect faith in all sects, and was not inclined to reject one single one – but believed each to be as far advanced as it could be, considering what had preceded it.”

Whitman’s true religion was his poetry – he called Leaves of Grass the “new American Bible” – and his object of worship was our country, America, in its most idealized aspect, as a nation of people living together in equality and forever working for greater freedom, even while he was not blind to the harsh realities of injustice and intolerance. I don’t know what Whitman thought of the Statue of Liberty, he died not many years after it was completed, but I imagine he might have looked upon Lady Liberty as the personification of perfection, not unlike Prajna-paramita, the mother of all buddhas.

In Whitman’s  I Hear America Singing,  the songs being sung are those of the working man, perhaps the noblest of all Americans. As we celebrate the founding of our nation this July 4th weekend, you might enjoy reading this poem once again, or for the first time . . .

I Hear America Singing

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand
singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or
at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of
the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows,
robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.


Some Nuts Go to Washington

I’m glad Election Day is finally here. Frankly, I’ve had enough of politics for a while. If I had my way there would be a moratorium on politicking until six months before the 2012 election. Maybe if our elected representatives weren’t so busy campaigning and slinging mud at each other, they could get something done. Dream on, right?

I may be pleased with the outcome of a few races, but in general I don’t think I’m going to be that happy a camper. The pundits say that Americans are angry. That’s what they said in ’92. And we were. And now we are again. It’s the same old cycle: throw the bums out and then complain about the new bums. This time around we’ve got some real nuts to choose from.

Sadly, I am rather pessimistic about things in America these days. It’s frustrating, hoping for change but never seeing it. Or not the kind of change I feel we need. Some of the issues we are dealing with have been bubbling over for forty years or more. When are we going to get around to solving some real problems?

I suppose it’s true that we have had some dramatic and historic change during the last two years. It’s hard to tell, though. Big change should be heralded by fanfare. Something by Wagner. The Ninth Symphony. Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” Change needs to be accompanied by grand gestures and stirring speeches, so that we know change is taking place. All I’m hearing are some penny whistles . . .

Now, I can point to one visible change:  the way the filibuster is being abused in the US Senate. The filibuster is actually pretty cool. Have you ever seen Mr. Smith Goes to Washington?

Mr. Smith talking his head off.

James Stewart plays a sincere but naive guy named Jefferson Smith who is appointed to fill a vacancy in the US Senate. He discovers political corruption and when he decides to do something about it, his state’s political boss tries to ruin him with a phony scandal. Just before the vote to expel him from the Senate, Smith launches his filibuster to stop a bloated Works bill and to prove his innocence. Here’s how the filibuster is described by a radio announcer in the movie:

Half of official Washington is here to see democracy’s finest show, the filibuster, the right to talk your head off, the American privilege of free speech in its most dramatic form. The least man in that chamber, once he gets and holds that floor by the rules, can hold it and talk as long as he can stand on his feet providing always, first, that he does not sit down, second, that he does not leave the chamber or stop talking. The galleries are packed. In the diplomatic gallery are the envoys of two dictator powers. They have come here to see what they can’t see at home. DEMOCRACY IN ACTION.

The least man has the right to talk his head off. That’s a big part of what America is all about to me. However, it helps if you are making some kind of sense while you are talking your head off. One’s speech should be grounded in thoughts that have some resemblance to reality. And maybe the willingness to compromise thrown in every once in a while.

I did some research. Here is part of what Wikipedia has to say about “filibuster“:

The term “filibuster” was first used in 1851. It was derived from the Spanish filibustero, which translates as “pirate” or “freebooter.” This term had evolved from the French word flibustier, which itself evolved from the Dutch vrijbuiter (free outsider). This term was applied at the time to American adventurers, mostly from Southern states, who sought to overthrow the governments of the Northern and Central states. Later the term was applied to the users of the filibuster, which was viewed as a tactic for pirating or hijacking debate.

Some people are talking about doing away with it. I think that would be a shame. The filibuster has traditionally been used rather sparingly. I read where Barbara Sinclair, a political scientist at UCLA, found that 8% of major legislation faced a filibuster in the 1960s, while today is it around 70%.

“Pirating” is one way to look at it, in some cases though, it might be standing up for a principle. Jefferson Smith did not filibuster because he wanted to be disagreeable, it was for something noble:

I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine. All you people don’t know about lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for. And he fought for them once, for the only reason any man ever fights for them; because of just one plain simple rule: ‘Love thy neighbor’ . . . And you know that you fight for the lost causes harder than for any other. Yes, you even die for them.

Thomas Paine, author of "Common Sense"

Of course, it’s just a movie, and a melodramatic and sentimental one at that. Right up my alley. It does represent a certain kind of spirit that I admire, the same kind of spirit that motivated a character named Otter in another movie to say, “I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part.” That’s right up my alley, too.

The present situation with the filibuster is representative of the current political climate, where no one can get along and people stand on principle simply for the sake of taking a stand, which really is stupid and futile.

There was another Mr. Paine, a real person, named Thomas, who left these words behind for us to keep in mind on Election day, to remind us that along with all we find unsatisfactory and distasteful, there is this one shining point:

The right of voting for representatives is the primary right by which other rights are protected. To take away this right is to reduce a man to slavery, for slavery consists in being subject to the will of another, and he that has not a vote in the election of representatives is in this case.

Our right to vote is precious. I hope everyone will exercise it today. If mixed in with all the nuts we are about to send to Washington this year, let’s hope that there is at least one Mr. Smith in the bunch.