As part of our ongoing series of discussions, PJ and I will be covering selections from Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America. The first of these comes courtesy of Princeton Readings in Political Thought. We hope to add further selections from the text at a later date.
Tocqueville was a French aristocrat, who journeyed to the United States to study its penal system. Enthralled with the young nation, he jettisoned his topic to pen his masterwork.
In his introduction, Tocqueville describes this enchantment: "Among the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of condition among the people." No doubt this would have been surprising to someone from a country such as France, where, while the people were becoming daily more democratic, the political institutions lagged behind.
This equality was the key to understanding the American people: "The more I advanced in the study of American society, the more I perceived that this equality of condition is the fundamental fact from which all others seem to be derived and the central point at which all my observations constantly terminated."
That America would be an interesting topic for a book seems obvious, yet it was far from evident that this country, so very new to the old lands of Europe, could have much, if anything, to teach France. Tocqueville argues that "a great democratic revolution is going on among us"; later he will add that, whether it is desirable or not, it is "irresistible." The virtue of studying the American republic and her people is that it demonstrates "the most peaceful and the most complete" democratic development. France can thus be instructed, not only in ways in which such a transformation can be affected, but also in the advantages and disadvantages of such a transformation.
To this end, Tocqueville sketches a brief history of the decay of aristocracy. The essential points being that, first, it is upon us, whether we like it or not: "The noble has gone down the social ladder, and the commoner has gone up; the one descends as the other rises. Every half-century brings them nearer to each other, and they will soon meet." Even those who resist democracy's march ensure its success.
Second, the rise of democracy brings with it some tradeoffs as against aristocracy: "If there were less splendor than in an aristocracy, misery would also be less prevalent; the pleasures of enjoyment might be less excessive, but those of comfort would be more general; the sciences might be less perfectly cultivated, but ignorance would be less common; the ardor of the feelings would be constrained, and the habits of the nation softened; there would be more vices and fewer crimes."
This last point is important. Our country is still very fond of democracy, but we often mean by it, not the cultural forms which Tocqueville discusses, but the singular American system of government--or something akin to it. Yet Tocqueville teaches us that democracy, too, has its drawbacks. So we see that while most Americans can watch football on HDTV's, our culture is incapable of producing Molière.
It is important to realize that there are advantages and disadvantages to democracy, but not necessarily because we can seek to change our culture. Whereas Burke, gazing upon the demise of an English aristocracy, lamenting that which he is powerless to stop, Tocqueville frankly examines what he knows is upon him. As a fellow champion of seemingly lost causes, I have considerable sympathy with Burke; but one can admire Tocqueville's realism, which, for what it's worth, seems to possess more by way of practical value.