Democracy in America

In the furtherance of my critique of Democracy, I’ve gone back to re-read de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, an original critique, though with much promise at the time.

In the introductory chapter, de Tocqueville notes the tradeoffs democracy makes. Essentially, he recognises the mediocrity, but he senses it’s somehow worth it. I break up his paragraphs and italicise for emphasis.

I admit that, in a democratic State thus constituted, society will not be stationary; but the impulses of the social body may be regulated and directed forwards;

Here de Tocqueville presumes the metanarrative of progress and all it entails.

if there be less splendor than in the halls of an aristocracy, the contrast of misery will be less frequent also;

The middle class served this purpose, but this benefit is being eroded as the acquisitive classes have learnt how to game the system and pillage the public coffers.

the pleasures of enjoyment may be less excessive, but those of comfort will be more general;

Here he considers the masses, but he fails to distinguish them from the aristocracy, now manifest as the 1%.

the sciences may be less perfectly cultivated, but ignorance will be less common;

Literacy may be elevated under this system, perhaps owing as much to the needs of Capitalism than of Democracy. In the US, the pair are inextricable.

Here, de Tocqueville is spot on. I won’t defend science or progress, but if this is a goal, the post-truth era is testament to the need for cultivation. Science is like investing: there is a compounding effect. Failing to progress effects downstream advancements, not linearly, but geometrically.

the impetuosity of the feelings will be repressed, and the habits of the nation softened;

there will be more vices and fewer crimes.

Interesting point, but I won’t linger; vices are morality plays, and crimes are tautological—though I suppose he is hinting that the demos will consider fewer situations to qualify as crimes, and so they’ll be relinquished to the realm of vices.

In the absence of enthusiasm and of an ardent faith, great sacrifices may be obtained from the members of a commonwealth by an appeal to their understandings and their experience;

each individual will feel the same necessity for uniting with his fellow-citizens to protect his own weakness; and as he knows that if they are to assist he must coöperate, he will readily perceive that his personal interest is identified with the interest of the community.

The nation, taken as a whole, will be less brilliant, less glorious, and perhaps less strong

Alexis de Tocqueville

The nation, taken as a whole, will be less brilliant, less glorious, and perhaps less strong;

Indeed.

but the majority of the citizens will enjoy a greater degree of prosperity, and the people will remain quiet, not because it despairs of amelioration, but because it is conscious of the advantages of its condition.

Tocqueville gets partial credit for this insight.

If all the consequences of this state of things were not good or useful, society would at least have appropriated all such as were useful and good;

Tocqueville misses the mark a bit here, tripping himself up on a somewhat Utilitarian—if not Pollyanna—worldview.

and having once and for ever renounced the social advantages of aristocracy, mankind would enter into possession of all the benefits which democracy can afford.

But here it may be asked what we have adopted in the place of those institutions, those ideas, and those customs of our forefathers which we have abandoned.

The spell of royalty is broken, but it has not been succeeded by the majesty of the laws;

the people has learned to despise all authority, but fear now extorts a larger tribute of obedience than that which was formerly paid by reverence and by love.

Here de Tocqueville appears to suggest a citizenry that fears rather than reveres its government in classic Machiavellian splendour.

I perceive that we have destroyed those independent beings which were able to cope with tyranny single-handed;

the weakness of the whole community has therefore succeeded that influence of a small body of citizens, which, if it was sometimes oppressive, was often conservative.

the Government that has inherited the privileges of which families, corporations, and individuals have been deprived

Alexis de Tocqueville

but it is the Government that has inherited the privileges of which families, corporations, and individuals have been deprived;

Ever the Madisonian, de Tocqueville shows concern of the consolidation of power.

the weakness of the whole community has therefore succeeded that influence of a small body of citizens, which, if it was sometimes oppressive, was often conservative.

The division of property has lessened the distance which separated the rich from the poor;

Although there was more egality…

but it would seem that the nearer they draw to each other, the greater is their mutual hatred, and the more vehement the envy and the dread with which they resist each other’s claims to power;

…and Tocqueville was prescient here—, the enmity of the haves of the moneyed classes crashes full-force into the have nots as the fabric of separation becomes more and more threadbare, as with Samhain this weekend.

the notion of Right is alike insensible to both classes, and Force affords to both the only argument for the present, and the only guarantee for the future.

The poor man retains the prejudices of his forefathers without their faith, and their ignorance without their virtues;

he has adopted the doctrine of self-interest as the rule of his actions, without understanding the science which controls it, and his egotism is no less blind than his devotedness was formerly.

If society is tranquil, it is not because it relies upon its strength and its well-being, but because it knows its weakness and its infirmities;

a single effort may cost it its life;

everybody feels the evil, but no one has courage or energy enough to seek the cure;

Alexis de Tocqueville

everybody feels the evil, but no one has courage or energy enough to seek the cure;

the desires, the regret, the sorrows, and the joys of the time produce nothing that is visible or permanent, like the passions of old men which terminate in impotence.

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