Knowledge Boost #3: Democracy In America, Part One

Tocqueville is one of those great titans of political science that I've never actually sat down and read. I gravitated more towards comparative politics than the domestic side of things, so I never really had a reason to- but if you're going to have two degrees in political science, there are some books like Democracy In America or the Federalist Papers that you should probably sit down and read- so I grabbed a copy of the former and dove right into Part One. All four hundred and eighty-nine pages of it. Here are my thoughts:

What strikes me about Tocqueville is how prescient he seems. There's a lot of: "the more things change, the more things stay the same" in volume one of this book. Largely based on his experiences visiting America in 1831, the most striking declaration comes right out of the gate in the introduction, where he proclaims that "A new political science is needed for a totally new world." I think we forget that our emergence as a nation was a unique phenomenon at the time. Whether democratic revolutions were coming, regardless, I don't know- but the time that Tocqueville was writing, they were very much roiling the world-- causing friction between old ways and new- but also, at least according to him, 'reducing the gap between rich and poor.' Which stands in stark contrast to our situation today.

Let's unpack some stuff that really blew me away-- there's this quote from Chapter Two:
"By contrast, the wealthy man always evades prison in civil matters. Furthermore, if he has committed an offense, he has no difficulty in wriggling out of the punishment which should come his way. After providing bail money, he vanishes. Therefore, it can be stated that the only penality inflicted upon him by the law boils down to a fine. Could there be any legislation more aristocratic than that?" 
Yes, you read that right. A Frenchman writing in 1832 is pointing out that wealth gives people an advantage in our justice system even then and there are inherent disparities in cash bail. A Frenchman, writing in 1832. 

He then follows this up by pointing out that the basis for civil laws in a lot of countries don't really get altered all that much, because there are deep cultural and historical traditions that inform those, so nations have this tendency to stick with what they know, as it were. In America's case, a lot of the English common law we imported over post-independence is structured in a way that privileges the upper class- which remains a problem today- even if it doesn't appear to be quite as obvious or visible as perhaps it was in times past.

But wait, the insights don't stop there! I'm sure we've all groaned and bitched and moaned about the influence of those damn Puritans that washed up on our shores all those centuries ago- and for sure, Alexis picks up on that as well. He ties liberty and religion together quite closely-- where the original colonists view themselves as "guardians of moral order." I think that attitude still infects many of our laws today-- but as Conservative commentators are quick to point out today- we might (if you accept the premise of the argument) be reaching a problem point today as secular humanism runs into a cul-de-sac and religion seems to be tanking in a lot of the old mainline Protestant denominations. So what happens to liberty if you lose religion?

Tocqueville weighs in:
"Liberty looks upon religion as its companion in its struggles and triumphs, as the cradle of its young life, as the divine source of its claims. It considers religion as the guardian or morality, morality as the guarantee of law and the security that freedom will last."
He also ties this sort of connection between liberty/morality and religion back to the Ottomans as well- which by this point in history aren't exactly doing great:
"they have achieved huge undertakings as long as they saw the triumph of the religion of Mohammed in the conquest of the sultans. Today their religion is disappearing, despotism alone remains and they are declining."
Might be historically true at the time of writing, but their religion hasn't disappeared-- not by a long shot. So, I can see why Tocqueville came to this conclusion when he was writing, but it's one of those insights that make sense but ultimately his idea of liberty/morality gets undermined just by history itself as it turns out. What that might mean for contemporary America I don't know- I tend to find the notion that in the absence of more traditional modes of meaning and spirituality, people will either find or make their own.

He moves off of philosophy and delves into the actual structure of the country at the time. He goes deep into the differences between New England township type of government and concludes that government in the United States is all about decentralization- which seems a little weird, given what we've got going on now- but when you consider that he's coming from France which at the time was far more centralization and unitary than the United States even was or even is now. Had DeTocqueville written this after the Civil War, it would be interesting to see how his perspective shifted. 

(Twitter, admittedly, is not a good place for quality discourse- but you'd be surprised how many people think states are irrelevant and seem to be advocating for a straight-up unitary state- which to me would be the end of the country as we know it.)

But the moments where Tocqueville seems prescient as all giddy-up continue. On judicial tyranny:
"By preventing political courts from pronouncing judicial penalties, Americans seem to me to have thus provided against the most terrible consequences of legal tyranny rather than tyranny itself. Everything considered I wonder whether political jurisdiction as understood in the United States, is not the most fearsome weapon ever lodged in the hands of the majority. Once the American republics begin to degenerate, I believe we shall easily recognize that to be so; it will be enough to notice whether the number of political judgments increasing."
Yup. And this seems to ring true today-- he has some misses and weird notions today. His exploration of the Executive Branch doesn't really envision a scenario where Congress secedes its power to the Executive Branch, but that's pretty much where we are now. 

He finds the whole concept of elections kind of strange-- in the European context, there weren't that many Republics around, so the alienness of it and how revolutionary it must have felt are understandable. But he's also against the idea of re-election-- fearing that it would make the Presidency too concerned with winning and holding onto power- and again, that whole idea of no re-election stands in stark contrast to Mexico, where no re-election motivated their Revolution. (France used to have seven-year terms- but they dropped it back to five years and made it a two-term maximum only in 2008. Mexico stuck pretty hard with the no re-election thing. Their Presidents get one six-year term even today.)

But despite the weirdness of elections-- he seems to approve of the electoral college, reasoning that the majority could be too fickle and the regular legislature could be equally fickle- sort of a 'trust no one, so create a weird-ass institution to do one thing. That said though:
"We shall see further on that in America, real power resides in provincial government rather more than in federal government."
Yeah, no. That's not true anymore.

Looking at the rest of my notes for Volume One it's just quote after quote after quote that surprises you about what holds true today still and what doesn't. It's both depressing and comforting to think about how little has apparently changed and that people were still wrestling with some of the same stuff we talk about today. I mean, look at all of these:

"The policy of Americans toward the world at large is simple; it might almost be said that no one needs them and they need no one." 

Yeah, pretty much sums up the isolationist strain in our foreign policy quite nicely. In 1832. I mean, I know that isolationism wasn't really in vogue for the past century or so, but it's always been there in one form or another and it seems to be on the upswing again, given the problems domestically and the costs of maintaining endless wars abroad internationally. 

He worries that America is too big to govern:
"The history of the world affords no example of a great nation which has remained for long time a republic."
and then this:
"You have, therefore, to change the people en masse, not simply the President, if you wish to alter the guiding political principles."
and then this:
"Political parties know this well enough. Therefore, they challenge the validity of the majority whenever possible. When they fail to gain a majority of those who voted, they claim it among those who abstained from voting, when that fails, they seek a majority among those who have no right to vote."
Sit back and consider those three quotes in the context of the present moment we're in right now. The old Andrew Breitbart quote that everyone trots out is that "politics is downstream of culture" and it seems like Tocqueville caught at least a hint of that with the second quote. Whether in 1832 you could argue that America had any kind of mass culture to war over is an open question- given the transportation and communication difficulties, I would lean away from that notion-- I don't think 'mass culture' really became a thing until after the industrial revolution and you could even argue after World War II if you wanted too- but changing the people en masse to change guiding political principles...

You could argue that The New Deal represented that. But increasingly, it seems like The New Deal is an isolated phenomenon. Yes, it altered the political landscape of America for much of the 20th Century--but I think it altered the guiding principles of the country in a way that the Reagen Revolution did not. And it gets even more fascinating when you think about the trendlines of today- where an increasingly affluent and disconnected elite drifts further and further away from the problems at ground level America, as it were. (I'm more or less convinced at this point that the divide is not going to fit into the neat media narratives at all. But I could be proven wrong on that score. We'll see.)

The first quote also goes way back to the Revolution- it's the idea of "A republic if you can keep it" echoed by Benjamin Franklin, but I think it's Churchill that really speaks to America: "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the rest." And yea, verily, our form of Presidentialism is our worst export hands down and it's only ever worked here and that's only if you apply a very loose definition of 'worked' to the idea. 

That last quote...  wow. Just think about that last quote. And think about the events of 2021 SO FAR and then you see why Tocqueville is so widely read even today. Just... wow.

All right three more quote bombs:
"If freedom is lost in America, blame will be laid at the door of the omnipotence of the majority, which will have driven minorities to despair and will have forced them to appeal to physical force. Then one will anarchy which will come as a consequence of despotism."
and then there's this:
"Since the first human societies, I do not think that one single example can be cited of a nation which, left to its own devices and by its own exertions, has ever created an aristocracy within its boundaries."
and probably my favorite:
"In contrast, if an American were to be reduced to minding only his own business, he would be deprived of half his existence, he would experience it as a gaping void in his life and would become unbelievably unhappy."

OK, let's unpack these bad boys. The first one could be seen as underlining the tired old saw about how we should avoid the whole 'tyranny of the majority' thing-- but really, in this day and age, you have to question just how many majorities there actually are. There's a perceived majority in this country and then there's the rest of us- if the latter can organize around some political principles the Establishment (which is very much made up of a cross-party, multi-racial, usually upper-class clerisy/gentry) will no longer be perceived as a majority, but a minority. This is what they don't want- really, his quote becomes more apt if you switch majority and minority around.

The second quote underlines this: I think we are creating an aristocracy in our borders. I've seen persuasive arguments on this time and time again. Education is becoming a status symbol and a self-sorting mechanism for our societies. If your parents don't have college degrees you're less likely to get one- if you have one, you're more likely to marry someone with a college degree as well. Now, the hitch here is that higher education right now is a complete mess. So it could be that this self-sorting mechanism is sort of an artificially inflated bubble if you like, that will fade out over time, especially as the Zoomers and Millennials start having kids and if their attitudes on higher education shift. (Which they might be shifting already- it'd be fascinating to dig up some information on that either way.)

The third quote is just hilarious. Long have I thought that this country would be vastly improved if people would just mind their own fucking business even if it's just for say 50% more of the time than they do now. A Frenchman writing one hundred and eighty-eight years ago sure had our number (as a country anyway) even then.

Overall: Okay I get it now, all the fuss about Tocqueville that is. A fascinating read- it's long and very very dense in parts- which is why I'm breaking it up into two posts. I'll be taking an extended hiatus from Democracy In America for a while and then coming back to finish volume two when my brain isn't so overloaded.  I would say though that if you haven't, for whatever reason, sat down and read this yet- and you're doing anything in political science or even history that's remotely relevant to the time period or this country, you should take some time to read this one.


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