Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, September 29, 2008

TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy in America - Volume 1, Part 2 (chap. 1 - 5)

When Tocqueville was writing about America in the 1830’s he noted that “At this time, America is possibly the country which harbors the fewest seeds of revolution in the world.” Why is that? Are Americans, of all the people in the world, the ones who are most satisfied with their government? It certainly doesn’t seem like it. Pick up any newspaper or turn on any news channel and you’ll find plenty of folks complaining about the government, either because of its policies or its lack of policies. And it doesn’t matter which party is in power. Americans will complain anyway. Perhaps this is natural. People tend to form together in groups who believe the same way. Tocqueville points out that “most of these groups are connected to one or the other of the two great parties which have divided men from the onset of free societies…some are seen to be pursuing the restriction of public power, others to widen it…” In America two great parties have formed around these great ideas about the proper use of power by the federal government. No one lives in a vacuum. We’re all affected by what the government does.

That’s the reason the media plays such an important role in American politics. Voters need to learn about the issues so they can make informed decisions. In Tocqueville’s day voters needed the same thing. But he makes an odd observation: “In France, the trade advertisements take up a very limited space; the news items themselves are few; the essential part of a newspaper is that devoted to political discussion. In America, three-quarters of the bulky newspaper set before the reader’s eyes is filled with advertisements; the rest is most frequently full of political news or just anecdotes.” The conclusion seems to be that Americans are at least as interested in being consumers as they are in being good citizens. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but it does tend to make us pause and consider the role of the media in our lives today. In Tocqueville’s opinion “The freedom of the press makes its influence felt not only upon political opinions but also on all men’s opinions. It modifies customs as well as laws.” He believes we tend to be shaped by the media whether we like it or not. Furthermore, he believes that “generally, journalists in the United States have a lowly status, their education is rudimentary and the expression of their ideas is frequently coarse…” This is not good news for Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann.

But whose fault is it if Americans let themselves be shaped by the media? It’s a free country. We have lots of options about where we get our news. According to Tocqueville here’s the problem: “When an idea has seized the mind of the American people, be it correct or unreasonable, nothing is harder than to rid them of it.” That’s because many Americans tend to get their news from sources which they already know will agree with their own pre-conceived notions. This is not good. But Tocqueville has the cure: “A great man has said that ignorance lies at both ends of knowledge. Perhaps it would have been truer to state that deep convictions lie at the two ends, with doubt in the middle…Man has strong beliefs because he adopts them without looking deeply into them. Doubt arises when he is faced with objections. He often succeeds in resolving these doubts and thereupon he believes once again. This time he no longer seizes truth by accident or in the dark; he sees it face to face and walks straight toward the light.” This is good advice for a philosophical mind. But would it work in the modern political arena? In spite of all the talk about bipartisan efforts the two great parties in American political life seem to be drifting farther apart than ever. And having partisan media doesn’t help. The great question facing America at the outset was this: can ordinary people govern themselves? The great question facing America now is: can ordinary people govern themselves?


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