Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

TOQUEVILLE: Democracy in America

What sort of people are Americans? It’s hard to say. After all there are more than three hundred million of us. How can that many people be neatly summarized in a phrase or two? On the other hand can anyone seriously argue that the English aren’t somehow fundamentally different from the French? Not to mention the Russians? There’s something distinctly characteristic about each of them. Despite individual quirks of individual citizens living within each country there is definitely something that stands out collectively to make England what it is, France what it is, and Russia what it is. The food, architecture and general outlook of the people is distinctly different in each country. So what is it that makes Americans what they are – distinctly different from the English or the French or the Russians?

This is one of the questions Tocqueville sets out to answer in Democracy in America. Whether or not he is successful is a question historians can debate amongst themselves. I’m convinced that Tocqueville is remarkably perceptive in assessing the general American character. Two words summarize his overall judgment: politics and business. Some folks might argue that entertainment and sports are also two favorite American pursuits but those two arenas have been nearly consumed by politics and business. In 2005 Americans spent over 50 billion dollars on sporting goods. In 2006 Americans spent almost 10 billion dollars on movie tickets alone. Sports and entertainment are big business and where there’s money to be made politics can’t be far behind. Example: Congress getting involved in the latest scandals involving steroid use in amateur and professional athletics. Example: Congress threatening to pass legislation to make movie ratings mandatory if the film industry didn’t clean up its act on its own.

Tocqueville states outright that “I do not regard the American Constitution as the best, or as the only one, that a democratic people may establish.” But he thinks the constitution of the United States is almost perfectly adapted for the energies and the interests of the American people. Tocqueville admits that “Democracy does not confer the most skillful kind of government upon the people…” but that’s ok with Americans because what American-style democracy does confer is “an all-pervading and restless activity…” It’s this restless activity which keeps the economy going, which in turn fuels the heated political climate of the country, which promises in return to keep the economy strong, and so on in an endless cycle. Tocqueville points out that “the country that exerts itself so strenuously to promote its welfare is generally more wealthy and more prosperous than the country that appears to be so contented with its lot.” That makes a lot of sense to no-nonsense Americans. So the goal to promote the general welfare is built right into the Constitution of the United States. It’s one of the cherished notions of American citizens that they have a constitutional right to get rich.

For better or for worse this is the climate into which Americans are born. We’re nurtured by it and we thrive in it. We live within the context of a hyperactive community of intense participation. We want to keep up with what’s going on around us. Tocqueville makes the observation that “if an American were condemned to confine his activity to his own affairs, he would be robbed of one half of his existence.” In short, as long as Americans flourish there’ll be a market for People magazine, political action committees and shopping malls. And every summer, baseball. Welcome to America.

-- RDP


Blogger SMJ said...

As an observer of American democracy, Tocqueville tried to identify tendencies which he felt were distinctively "American" from those which characterize the various monarchies and aristocracies of Europe. He is right to say that democracy is a flawed model of government, but he is wrong to assume that aristocracy is politically superior.

Most criticism of democracy starts with a basic assumption regarding human nature: namely, that man always pursues his own interest. Thus, in order to rise above this primal instinct, man must be educated to embrace a higher moral principle which is not part of his original nature. The Hobbesian view, that we band together like a tribe of criminals drawn by a state of mutual fear and loathing, is one that Tocqueville and other aristocrats always associate with the state of democracy, which parallels the Christian view of the fallen state of man. Tocqueville assumes that man, being a flawed creature of nature, is incapable of ruling his baser instincts, unless compelled to do so. Yet his faith in aristocracy is a rejection of his original premise—that man is a weak creature in need of authority to control his primal urges.

Aristocracy, as Aristotle believed, is based on the idea that some men are superior to others, and that the superior man should rule over the inferior. In theory, this might be a reasonable proposition, but history shows that aristocrats often exhibit the same moral failures as the lower classes. Having membership in the nobility simply because of an inherited family name does not, by itself, ensure you possess any talent for governing, or that you can inspire people to live better lives. In short, aristocracy has no monopoly of virtue. Moral instruction is required by everyone, rich and poor alike. Otherwise, the Hobbesian view of immoral man will continue to prevail.

Democracy, on the other hand, is founded on the idea that power should rest with the majority. There is no assumption that everyone is biologically equal, but only that everyone is equal "under the law." Government is empowered to protect the rights of everyone, not just the wealthy. To the aristocrat, equality subverts nature. Only the best and brightest should govern. But intelligence alone is no guard against corruption. What happens when the brightest join forces with the demonic (as happened when Martin Heidegger, perhaps the most intelligent philosopher in the 20th century, enrolled himself in the Nazi party)? Plato's Republic shows what will occur when authority is left to the "aristoi."

Another criticism of democracy is that it is a less stable form of government than aristocracy. Tocqueville feels that Americans are obsessed with politics, and that our constitution allows for too much legislation and not enough contemplation. Though, it is true that democracies often appear chaotic, with too much emphasis on elections and new members of Congress arriving even as old ones depart, the mistakes of one administration are readily correctable by another. What democracies lose in stability, they gain from a renewed energy and boldness of vision that older, more stable (conservative) regimes usually lack. Democracy by its nature is inherently progressive. It expands its reach as the economy and population grow, and it displays a capacity for innovation and self-improvement that is not found in aristocratic regimes.

Although the genius of democracy is not always expressed in great artistic achievement, the test of whether a democracy works cannot be determined by how much wealth it generates, but in how many applications for visas and requests for naturalization papers are processed each year. If it is true that people follow their own interest, then it is equally true that all people seek happiness. And more than any other country on earth, people desire to come to America and experience the quality of life which democracy has made possible. Tocqueville's aristocracy is a model of government based on an unchanging view of the world, a residue of the feudalistic manor from the middle ages. Democracy rests on a dynamic view of the world, going all the way back to Heraclitus, who proposed that everything changes, both in man and nature. The challenge for all Americans (both democrats and republicans) is to discover what things in our society are worth preserving, even as we adapt to a world of constant upheaval.

4/05/2007 12:21 PM  

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