Monday, May 16, 2011

Tocqueville - Democracy in America - Author's Introduction

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.

1 comment:

PJ said...

What I find most interesting in these passages--and also most relevant for us today--is Tocqueville's distinction between social democratization and its formal institutionalization. He depicts the democratization of society as inevitable, going to far as to claim that the "gradual development of the principle of equality" is "a Providential fact" (400). Its institutionalization, however, is another matter.

The worldly processes to which he attributes social democratization are capitalism and education (399). Business opens a new avenue to wealth--and so to influence--even for those without a title or estate. The expansion of letters beyond the monastery allows those of learning to exercise influence on governance; and, we could add, the printing press makes revolutionary pamphleteering possible as an effective means of raising consciousness and organizing. Even where an entrenched nobility refuses to relinquish its privilege, money and education alter the self-perception of the people, who will no longer accept their subordination as naturally or divinely sanctioned.

Although the process of social democratization is inevitable, we have a great deal of leeway in how we institutionalize these newly developing social relations. Tocqueville declares: "A new science of politics is needed for a new world" (401). For, at present, the people has "abandoned whatever advantages the old state of things afforded, without receiving any compensation from [their] present condition" (404).

Most importantly, the people must be educated as to their true interests; they must learn to identify their personal interests with those of the community (403). Religion and morality, as well, must be reinvigorated and sustained. Christianity must be divorced from its feudal institutionalization, incompatible with its teaching of our fundamental equality (404-5). In a wonderfully paternalistic metaphor, Tocqueville likens the expansion of democracy of his day to the growth of children in the streets without any paternal guidance (401-2). Only when the democratic self-understanding of social agents is properly institutionalized will we be able reap the benefits of this revolution (402). In a language recalling that of Rousseau and Kant, Tocqueville projects a society "in which all men would feel an equal love and respect for the laws of which they consider themselves as the authors; in which the authority of the government would be respected as necessary, though not as divine; and in which the loyalty of the subject to the chief magistrate would not be a passion, but a quite and rational persuasion" (403). A glorious vision!