Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy in America (Book 1, Ch. 8)

Every four years Americans go through the ritual process of electing a new president or re-electing the one already in office. In recent years that means that about half the people will like the outcome and about half won’t. Even in Tocqueville’s day elections were a tumultuous business. He notes that “Americans are accustomed to all kinds of elections. Experience has taught them what degree of turmoil is tolerable and where they should stop (and yet)…As the election draws near, intrigues multiply and turmoil spreads…The whole nation descends into a feverish state.” In the past few elections intrigues have indeed multiplied. Every few days there’s a new scandal, new allegations that an opponent is stooping to a new low and using gutter tactics, etc. Tempers sometimes flare. The Founding Fathers knew this would happen. Tocqueville explains that “The problem was to find that method of election which expressed the genuine will of the people, while least arousing their passions.” The Electoral College is the result. It is possible to win the popular vote and yet lose the election. That has, in fact, happened in modern times. Is it fair to get more votes than your opponent and still lose? Because of that dilemma many people think the Electoral College is an anachronism and should be dropped. Others think it protects the smaller states and should be kept at all costs. If we can’t even agree on the process is it any surprise that we don’t agree on the candidates?

Elections may get feverish and tempers may flare but in the end it all works out somehow. Many countries go through violent upheavals during the election process. But Americans have always had a relatively peaceful transition from one administration to the next. Why is that? Tocqueville believes Americans have a good fundamental understanding of justice. And he points out that “The major objective of justice is to substitute the concept of law for that of violence and to position intermediate authorities between the government and the use of physical force.” Americans have confidence that the law is better than a gun to resolve disputes. The courts are set up to serve as the “intermediate authorities” between the government and mob rule. If the citizens think an election isn’t fair they can always take it to the courts and let judges decide. Of course being legal doesn’t always mean being fair. But this arrangement assumes that the people will obey the judge’s decision. As Tocqueville puts it, the courts “are all powerful as long as the people agree to obey the law; they are powerless when people have contempt for it.” In other words the law works only so long as we all agree to obey it.

This is a scary thought. Tocqueville thought so too when he proclaimed that “The government of the Union rests almost entirely upon legal fictions. The Union is an idealized nation which exists only in men’s imagination.” A country is strong when it shares a common idea and purpose. “Union” is the idea holding America together as one people. When we abandon that idea we lose our country. Tocqueville goes on to say that “The history of the world affords no example of a great nation which has remained for a long time a republic.” So far - we’re it. But who knows what challenges and problems the future holds? Can America survive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? An image that Tocqueville uses is the legislator as captain of a ship: “The legislator is like the man who steers his route upon the ocean. He is able to guide the ship he is on but cannot change its structure, create winds, or stop the ocean from heaving…” The tides of history come and go. So do nations. That’s why every four years we choose a new captain to navigate the ship of state through new and perilous waters. For over two hundred years America has weathered the storm. We just take it four years at a time.


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