Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy in America (Volume 2 / Part 4)

By the end of this big long sprawling book the reader comes away with a pretty good grasp of some fundamentals: What are the strengths of democracy? What are its weaknesses? Answering those questions inevitably leads the serious reader to wonder: What does the future hold for American-style democracy?

What are the strengths of democracy? To start with, in American democracy the belief in equality is a core building block of society. It’s non-negotiable. Tocqueville believes that Americans would rather all be poor than for any citizen to feel inferior to any other citizen. Secondly, Americans take freedom of association for granted. These associations have coalesced around two major political parties. So every four years elections are held to choose which party will be in power. Many observers think these elections have turned nasty but Tocqueville points out that “Americans are accustomed to all kinds of elections. Experience has taught them what degree of turmoil is tolerable and where they should stop.” The 2000 presidential elections are a good example. There was a strong fight from both sides and strong bitterness but Americans knew where to draw the line and when to stop. A third strength for many Americans is its patriotism. Even Tocqueville noted that “They have for their homeland a feeling much the same as they have for their own families.” A fourth strength is that these values give Americans a great deal of energy that can be used to perform amazing feats of economic productivity. And last but not least is America’s strong belief in God and its firm anchor of religious faith. For many Americans religion and freedom are intertwined. Tocqueville said that from the very beginning “Puritanism was almost as much a political theory as a religious doctrine.” This was wise in Tocqueville’s view because “…in America religion leads to wisdom; the observance of divine laws guides man to freedom.” The strengths of democracy are many. What about its weaknesses?

What are democracy’s weaknesses? The weaknesses are almost a reverse image of its strengths. Equality can be a good thing but it can also be used as an excuse for either the majority or a minority group to get its own way. Freedom of association is a good thing but the overwhelming strength of two political parties means, in practical terms, that other voices don’t get heard. Patriotism can also be a good thing but there’s quite a bit of controversy right now about what patriotism means exactly. Both sides claim they only have the best interests of the country in mind. But their notions of what’s in the country’s best interests aren’t even close. How can a house divided continue to stand? American economic energy has begun to sputter lately. Some want to go green while others want to become more efficient. Even our religious outlook has started to splinter and crack.

So what does the future hold for American-style democracy? Tocqueville said that “The Englishman quietly enjoys the real or supposed advantages which, in his view, his country possesses…Foreigners’ criticisms do not affect him at all and their compliments hardly flatter him.” To some Americans this sounds great. To others it sounds arrogant and hateful. Should Americans be good Americans or be good world citizens? Good question. The success or failure of democracy depends on the ability of ordinary people to live together and get along with one another. Can Americans do it? We shall see.


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