Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy in America (Book 1, ch. 5-7)

Many people are old enough to remember two distinct trends in American politics. One trend is Ronald Reagan running for president on a philosophy that believes “Government isn’t the solution to the problem. Government is the problem.” The other trend can be observed after natural disasters such as hurricanes. Many Americans start asking “Why isn’t the government doing something?” In both cases the “government” is the federal government. What should government be doing for American citizens? What should it not be doing? Tocqueville makes it clear that he doesn’t approve of a man who “thinks that everything is outside his concern and belongs to a powerful stranger called the government…if his own safety or that of his children is threatened, instead of trying to ward off the danger he folds his arms and waits for the entire nation to come to his rescue.” What is the purpose of the federal government anyway? This is a real dilemma for Americans. It was a dilemma when the U.S. Constitution was drafted. It was a dilemma when the Federalist Papers were published. It’s a dilemma today. For Tocqueville it was a dilemma too. On one hand he states that “in general one can say that the overwhelming characteristic of public administration in the United States is its extraordinary decentralization.” But on the other hand he admires America’s political achievement and points out “I cannot conceive that a nation can exist, much less prosper, without a strong centralization of government…” These two statements reveal the underlying tension between power at the local level and power at the federal level. Tocqueville sounds contemporary when he goes on to say that “Those who support centralization in Europe maintain that the government is better able to administer localities than they can themselves.” Can a city like Clarksville be governed better from Nashville? From Washington? Who can say for sure? Tocqueville knew the strength and weakness of the U.S. Constitution better than most Americans know it themselves.

Tocqueville saw other things too. He foresaw what would happen in cases like the 2000 presidential election, for example. We can talk about the purpose of government. We can talk about the power of government. We can talk about what should be done or not be done. But somewhere along the line talking has to stop. Decisions have to be made. What happens when the decision is contested by one party? Then who decides? That’s where American judges step in. Tocqueville lists three characteristics of judges: (1) For there to be a judge, an action must be brought to court; (2) to pronounce individual cases and not general principles; (3) so the court can act only when summoned…it does not, on its own, prosecute criminals, seek out injustices, or investigate facts. The good news is that judges don’t go out looking for trouble. The bad news is that trouble comes to them anyway. The Supreme Court probably preferred to stay out of the contentious 2000 presidential election. But they couldn’t. Why not? Because no other choice was available. Someone has to decide. Tocqueville points out that “an American judge is dragged, despite himself, on to the political field. He judges the law only because he has to take on a case and he has no choice but to take on a case. The political question he has to resolve is linked to the interests of the litigants and he could not possibly refuse to deal with it without denying them justice…” Is this fair? That depends. E.B. White once wrote that “I have never seen a piece of writing, political or non-political, that does not have a slant. It slants the way a writer leans, and no man is born perpendicular.” That’s the way it is with ordinary people. That’s the way it is with judges too. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? The answer depends on whether your side wins or loses. If your side wins? Is this a great country or what? If your side loses? Then it’s obvious the whole system is going down the tubes. Welcome to America.


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