As a person who has long been interested in social issues but has also so far only been old enough to vote in one presidential election, most of the talk I’ve heard in recent years centers around wondering how our political system got so distorted from its origin. During the most recent election, choosing “the lesser of two evils” seemed to be the selection method of choice of both sides of the political spectrum. This less-than-ideal version of the election process is just one of the reasons why much of my generation (I'm in my early 20s) is growing disillusioned with the government as a whole. With so much discontent brewing, I became more and more curious about how our current state of “democracy” resulted from what the founding fathers so ardently defended as worthy of creating.
Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America considers the basics of the democratic system, the theory and application of various forms of democracy, and its effect on the American people. Originally published in 1835, many of the observations Tocqueville describes about American society are outdated, but the political philosophy of the book remains crucial to being an active, knowledgeable member of a democratic society.
He breaks democracy into its most fundamental components from the perspective of an outsider relatively unfamiliar to the idea (as France was still in the recovery process from the French Revolution and not yet fully democratized). He also raises questions regarding the application of democracy that may not naturally be brought to citizens’ attention.
One of the most important ideas raised: the relationship between equality and freedom in the application of democracy, as various proportions of each of these result in entirely different governments. The equality that comes along with democracy does not automatically protect freedom, and even the equality itself can manifest in different ways. Too much of a priority on equality, even at the expense of freedom, can put the country in the hands of a despot. On the other hand, if freedom is not monitored or regulated in any way, it can be argued that anarchy could follow.
These ideas are more than just speculations of a curious 19th century Frenchman — they’re the basis of the fundamental issues of our conflicting political parties. While America’s government was set up to be representative and put the real power in the hands of the people, one merely needs to turn on their television to see the depth of the disagreement about what the relationship between these two entities should be. The level of government involvement sought from parties ranging from Socialists to Libertarians is a question of what each party believes the ratio should be of equality to freedom in everyday life.
Perhaps one of the faults of Tocqueville’s view of democracy, however, is his conviction that democracy fosters mediocrity. He explains that, compared to the aristocratic societies of the time where an entire class of people had enough worldly comforts to aspire to greatness in other areas, democracy equalizes each citizen and therefore makes them only concerned with what will enable them to rise in wealth in the quickest manner — for instance, he claims Americans only value science for its applicability in optimizing production methods in manufacturing and industry, rather than partaking in theoretical study that has little to no practical application. This, too, may just be an antiquated part of his observations, as the United States has overall grown in wealth and status and now pays more attention to less immediately applicable professions. At best, this idea can be viewed as a more critical version of Max Weber’s perception of the Protestant work ethic, as it acknowledges the ambition to be found in America and only criticizes the methods used and outcomes produced with said ambition. However, the repeated statement of this observation throughout the book so staunchly criticizes American work in nearly all professions that it is worth mentioning as a debatable aspect of his theory.
While it’s hardly a typical summer beach read, it’s worth the effort to dig into a staple of political theory like Democracy in America in a time when it seems that faith in our political system is wavering. Anyone who has taken an American elementary social studies class knows what democracy is, so it is easy to take a book explaining its foundations for granted, but the why of democracy is not often explored today besides basic comparisons to a more despotic or otherwise unsavory form of government. Debating democracy against itself gets deeper than a simple “pros” and “cons” list, and the reader is asked to consider the long-term societal effects of democracy and ensure proper application because in the eyes of Tocqueville, not all democracies are created equal.
Photo credit: Bauman Rare Books