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Friday, October 14, 2016

TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy in America I (Public Opinion)

Every four years America turns its national attention to politics.  This is a good time to read Tocqueville on democracy in America.  Even though he lived over 150 years ago his political insights are still on target.  Americans generally believe democracy is a good thing and is the best form of government.  Tocqueville puts the idea behind democracy in this little maxim: “The moral power of the majority is founded upon the principle that the interests of the many are to be preferred to those of the few.”  The United States Constitution and its laws are designed to protect the rights of the few while granting the power to govern to the majority.  Modern political parties are supposed to represent the will of the American People.  It’s not perfect but we believe this form of government is much better than the old monarchies that ruled in Europe.  Better that “the people” should have power rather than a king.  Many kings throughout history misused their power and became tyrants.  But Tocqueville wants us to consider this question.  “If it be admitted that a man possessing absolute power may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should a majority not be liable to the same reproach?  Men are not apt to change their characters by agglomeration.”  Why should “the people” be trusted with power any more than a king?  Tocqueville says “I can never willingly invest any number of my fellow-creatures with that unlimited authority which I should refuse to give to any one of them individually.”  In modern terms Tocqueville would think the two party system is a good idea.  Power can be transferred from one political party to another.  That helps keep them both in check over the long haul.  And it’s important to keep them in check because Tocqueville believes “unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing; human beings are not competent to exercise it with discretion; and God alone can be omnipotent because his wisdom and his justice are equal to his power.”  The founding fathers created a constitution for real-life flesh and blood men and women, not for angels.  So heated political debate is good for the country. 

Tocqueville thinks debate is a healthy sign but here’s what worries him.  “In America as long as the majority is still undecided, discussion is carried on; but as soon as its decision is irrevocably pronounced a submissive silence is observed.”  An unpopular opinion means losing at the polls.  Tocqueville thinks that’s what makes the power of the majority so coercive.  In fact, he says “I know of no country in which there is so little true independence of mind and freedom of discussion as in America.”  True democracy cannot exist without true independence of mind and freedom of discussion.  To be successful in American politics you have to know how to play the game.  You have to use the tools available in a democratic system of government.  Take the concept of patriotism.  Even in his own day Tocqueville had already noted that “Patriotism in the United States is a virtue which may be found among the people, but never among the leaders of the people.”  Is that true?  Many people go into politics because they love their country and want to do good things.  But a democratic system requires lots of compromise and pandering to the public.  That’s why Tocqueville says politicians “are forever talking of the natural intelligence of the people they serve… they assure the people that they possess all the virtues under heaven without having acquired them, or without caring to acquire them.”  What happens to democracy when we “the people” have neither intelligence nor virtue?  Politicians flatter us; we vote for them.  That’s how the game is played.  Tocqueville thinks this is what should bother us.  Who will tell us the truth?  Not politicians.  They need our votes.  Not the media.  They want us to keep reading their papers and watching their news shows.  Not the entertainment industry.  They want us to keep coming to their movies and listening to their songs.  We, the people, keep hearing we’re smart and virtuous too.  So it must be true.  Everybody thinks so, don’t you?


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