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Thursday, October 20, 2016

Democracy in America

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) was a Prophet, born in the immediate wake of the French Revolution, and one of the great western thinkers of the modern age.  A French aristocrat with an English wife, he combined intense historical research with the inquiring and generalizing spirit of his age, and became in my opinion its greatest political theorist.   Like my contemporaries and I, he grew up after the end of a tremendous ideological struggle, in a world dominated by competing political systems.  I was introduced to probably his greatest work, The Old Regime and the French Revolution, nearly 50 years ago, and I read portions of Democracy in America at the same time.  Now I am reading the latter work--which appeared many years before the former--from start to finish for the first time.  I thought it might provide important insights in the midst of one of the great crises of American democracy, and I have not been disappointed.

In the last thirty years, our political thinking has become extraordinarily unsophisticated. Democracy = good, Everything else = bad has become our credo, and the basis of our foreign policy as well.  The strength of Tocqueville--and also or Rousseau--was their skepticism about every system, owing to their skepticism about human nature.  Both seem to have been influenced by Aristotle, who had defined three classic forms of government: monarchy, aristocracy and democracy.  Each, in his opinion could provide good government, but each also could degenerate into an evil form--monarchy into tyranny, aristocracy into oligarchy, and democracy into mob rule.  Tocqueville lived in an age in which all those transformations had taken place.  Monarchy became tyranny under Napoleon I and again near the end of his life under Napoleon III, the British aristocracy became more of an oligarchy in the early 19th century than it had been in the 18th, and mob rule overwhelmed France at the height of the revolution and had threatened some of the American colonies before the adoption of the Constitution.  Nearly all his writing is comparative, dominated by the contrasts between monarchical France, aristocratic Britain, and the democratic United States.  In the same way that Clausewitz--who was 23 years older, and who also died in his early fifties with a great work unfinished--built his great work around the different types of war, Tocqueville built his around different forms of government.  Last but hardly least, while out of sympathy with his own age, Tocqueville did not allow his preferences to cloud his powers of observation.  He believed aristocracy to be the best form of government, because he thought that powerful aristocrats could protect both their own and the people's liberty against a tyrannical government far more easily than a mass of equal citizens could.  Yet as he explained in the forward and at the conclusion of Democracy in America, he, like Jefferson, had no doubt whatever that democracy was the unstoppable wave of the future to which all western nations would have to adjust.  By democracy he meant, more than anything else, the end of class distinctions among men, and the great question that dominates the book is whether democracy can in fact protect liberty.  That is the question we face in different ways today.

Reading Democracy in America is a major project, and I expect that it will lead to a series of blogs both before and after November 8, the date which in my opinion will mark a turning point of sorts for American history.  I begin today with some relatively general observations and some comparisons between the American Tocqueville toured in the early 1830s, and the one we live in today.

The first section of the book describes the governing structures of the United States that Tocqueville visited--and leaves no doubt that if we are still a democracy, it is of a very different kind than the one he described.  Tocqueville found the essence of the democratic spirit at the lowest level of government, the township.  He appears to have investigated New England townships most carefully, but he had traveled through all the regions of the young country and he assures us that there are very few aristocratic regions left.  That is partly because American inheritance laws made it very difficult to pass on landed estates, as in Europe and families, he says, rarely remained rich for very long.  Rough equality of fortune prevailed alongside of equality of rights.  Within townships, Tocqueville found, town meetings of all adult males decided virtually every question.  Each town had roughly the same set of officials, including a constable, a tax assessor, a tax collector, a clerk, a justice of the peace, and a supervisor of local roads.  Each town also maintained its schools, the institution that impressed Tocqueville more than any other.  In contrast to the peoples of continental Europe, the Americans administered themselves, and there were very small state bureaucracies and almost no national federal institutions, except for the federal courts.  It was in part because America had no large cities and few enormous fortunes, he felt, that American democracy functioned so well. Obviously all of that has now changed.

Tocqueville described the United States as a confederation, but he thought the federal government, even then, was significantly stronger than the government of most confederations since it directly collected taxes, raised and maintained and army and navy, and had a national court system.  In once fascinating discussion, he turns his comparative bent in another direction, and argues that it is easier for smaller nations to be happy, prosperous, and self-governing than large ones.  "In small nations," he wrote, "the watchfulness of society penetrates everywhere and attention is paid to the improvement of the smallest details; national ambition is greatly tempered by weakness, and their efforts and resources are almost entirely directed towards their well-being and not liable to be dissipated in vain dreams of glory. . .Moderate fortunes make conditions roughly equal; mores are simple and quiet."  In large nations, on the other hand, "The ambition of individuals grows with the power of the state, , ,Great wealth and dire poverty, huge cities, depraved morals, individual egoism, and complication of interests are so many perios which almost always arise from the large size of the state."  These problems, he said, had led many writers (including Rousseau, if I remember correctly) to deny that large states could remain republics, but Tocqueville insisted that this was not necessarily so,  Reading this passage, however, it seemed to me that my own nation today had much more in common with great monarchies of Tocqueville's age and that it had fallen prey to their national and personal vices.  Ironically, thanks to the military supremacy which the United States established within the western world after 1945 and has maintained ever since, it is the European nations who have enjoyed more of the benefits Tocqueville ascribed to smaller nations while we have fallen prey to the temptation of large ones.  The European nations have even surrendered a good deal of their sovereignty to the EU, although that decision, of course, has become very controversial, and seems likely to be reversed, to some extent at least, in years to come.

"It is therefore permissible to say," he continued in chilling terms, "in general terms that nothing is more inimical to human prosperity and freedom than great empires."  But such nations reflect very real aspects of human nature, and he quickly adds that they also "have peculair advantages, which must be recognized.  "In a large state thought on all subjects is stimulated and accelerated; ideas circulate more reely; the capitals are vast intlelectual centers concentrating all the rays of thought in one bright glow; that is why great nations contribute more and aster to the increase of knowledge and the general progress of civilization than small ones."  He was evidently thinking of Athens and Rome, of the Russian and Ottoman Empires, of the great French monarchy and the British Empire--and in our own time the United States and, yes, the Soviet Union have played this role too.  For the time being, Tocqueville argued, the United States had successfully combined that advantages of small and large states, both because of its federal character and because it was not threatened by any foreign nation and did not need a large army or navy.  The question now is whether we, like other great nations of the past, are likely to succumb to the defects of our greatness, rather than continue to display its advantages.  That question to me is a very open one. 

As I worked my way through the early sections of this remarkable work, I could not help contrasting Tocqueville's well-informed analysis of different systems with prevailing views in academia today.  The chief feature of early America, most historians would now claim, was that white males had a monopoly on political power while women, and especially Indians and slaves, suffered oppression.  Progress, to them, consists in removing these disabilities, and nothing else is very important. As a matter of fact, Tocqueville was very interested both in the status of women and the relations among the three races of the United States, as wel shall have occasion to see.  But in our single-minded obsession with issues of race, gender, and even sexual orientation (which he did not discuss), we have cast aside the classical questions relating to the government of nations and the welfare of their inhabitants.  It is not a coincidence, in my opinion, that our political system is suffering from such grave ills.

Last but hardly least, Tocqueville began his discussion of American society by quoting from a 17th-century Constitution of the colony of Connecticut--distinguished, in his eyes, by a mixture of political liberalism and moral dictatorship.  On the one hand, all males had equal political rights and the people governed itself; on the other hand, adultery and homosexuality could be punished with death.  Such discipline had eased by the 1830s, of course, but Tocqueville still believed that democracy worked in America in large part because of the relatively strict moral code which all classes of American society tended to observe.  That, too, is now a thing of the past, and I look forward to exploring whether our looser moral standards have indeed hurt the functioning of our democracy. Great works never grow old and future generations can always benefit from grappling with them.  That is what I plan to continue to do in the weeks to come as we look forward, perhaps. to a new stage in American history.


Bozon said...


Thanks for this post. I confess I never read much Tocqueville. I know this is a large gap in my knowledge. I did read a little Rousseau, and of course other writers' squibbs.

Here is an excerpt from an old post of mine, sort of on your topic here:

"...it is a little ironic that the Enlightenment philosophes had been the ones rendered declasse by the Revolution, a radical solution which they themselves had been the main ones promoting in the mid 18th Century.

Not really so ironic, when one considers their overwhelmingly aristocratic patronage.

Rousseau was the only one they, the French Revolutionaries, later kept, apparently.

He had taken the position, more or less, that all traditional authority was contrary to nature."

All the best

Energyflow said...

This promises to be a very good series of posts which will rise above the current din of petty partisanship to offer a larger hoistorical perspective on the American project and I look forward to it. Regardless of the election winner the world is in for hrd times. America has passed its peak influence and cannot hold onto it, like post WWII Britain. Whether this period of adjustment will occur peacefully or not is the question. Oligarchy, plutocracy, corruption are widespread in America. Democracy exists only prima facie. The arrogance and stupidity of the ruling generation is enormous. Let us hope the youth learn from their impoverishment and destitution imposed upon them and do not end upnas cannon fodder for dreams of grandeur.

Unknown said...

I am very happy that you are reading and commenting on de Tocqueville. I have read parts of Democracy in America, and will now revisit it in more depth, as you are doing.

I was amazed at the relevancy of Democracy in America, written over 150 years ago, and very soon after the establishment of the US. My recollection is that much of what was written then is still applicable today, though time and growth have changed the emphasis on the hierarchy of town to federal levels.

Life in1830’s America was harsh. People, especially in less populated areas, were of necessity both self-reliant and community-reliant. Today, individualism is the dominant theme of American society and although citizens are still reliant on community (especially their government) they do not acknowledge this, believing instead that their successes are due to their own special set of skills alone.

Your comments on “single-minded obsession with issue of race, gender and even sexual orientation” it seems to me, are primarily an observation that only a white, male, heterosexual citizen can appreciate. Social progress is the only brake on the animalistic tendencies of human nature, though one characterized by lengthy evolution.

I happily look forward to further posts on this subject.

Larry said...

I too look forward also to your articles on Tocqueville. I have had both editions of Democracy in America and once tried trudging through it with little success. I have pulled them off the shelves and started digging back into them, encouraged by your interests and hoping to keep pace with you on it.

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