Knowledge Boost #4: Democracy In America Part Two
Look, I'll be honest: I didn't read the appendices of this book, and the last third or so of this book was a damn chore. There have been plenty of articles out there about the joy of just not finishing a book and how it's good for readers to do that sometimes, but when you're dealing with a book as large and as complicated as Democracy In America, there comes a certain point where you're committed. You've gone too far to quit now and by God, if you're going to keep going, you're going to finish the damn thing once and for all.
So, Democracy In America, Part II:
Tocqueville continues to surprise with his prescience. It remains a constant throughout the book a comfort because you realize that history may not repeat itself, but it very often rhymes, but also kind of depressing, because nothing has really changed all that much either.
In the early going, Tocqueville meanders a lot on the subject of equality and it's here where he starts to lose his magic touch a little bit to me. Let's talk about his thoughts on knowledge-- here's the first quote:
"Gradually, as citizens become more equal and similar, the inclination for each man to have a blind belief in one particular man or class lessens. The predisposition to believe in mass opinion increases and becomes progressively the opinion which commands the world."
and then, there's this quote:
"In equality, I see two tendencies: one which leads every man's thought into new paths and another which would force him willingly to cease thinking at all."
This was kind of a fascinating point to explore, given the current media landscape. His underlying point is probably true. Mass democracy may well increase mass knowledge, but the evolution that citizenry goes through is from blind belief in one man/class/institution and trading that in for blind belief in new ideas. It's interesting to consider where we are in this process in America today. Again, I'm going to hypothesize here, because media consumption is so hard to measure. I think an increasing number of people are aware of "an official narrative" but I also think we might be at the point of a Pravda-like recognition that one needs to read between the lines to discover what's really going on. We seem to have moved beyond a "blind belief in ideals" to a "blind disbelief in ideas" and with the internet, you've got more knowledge at your fingertips than ever before- but that mass culture/knowledge is largely an illusion now. The absence of that mass ideal or that mass delivery system for knowledge produces a sort of weird inverse effect, where people realize that the delivery systems of old are broken and unreliable, but aren't sure what to do about it yet.
(Yes, I do want to read Martin Gurri at some point. It's on my list.)
Where he sort of strays from the plot a little bit is his extensive exploration of religion. On the one hand, you've got this quote, which still remains very true today:
"Religious insanity is very common in the United States"
But then, you've got quotes like this:
"When a nation's religion is destroyed, doubt takes a grip upon the highest areas of intelligence, partially paralyzing all the others. Each man gets used to having only confused and vacillating ideas on matters which have the greatest interest for himself and his fellows. He puts up a poor defense of his opinions or abandons them and, as he despairs of ever resolving by himself the greatest problems presented by human destiny, he beats a cowardly retreat into not thinking at all."
I sort of see what he's getting at here. Freedom and equality increase individualism and religion provide a counterbalance to that to remind citizens of their collective moral duty to society as a whole. But he also compounds things by adding that religion only does that when it remains within the boundaries of democratic norms- which is sort of confusing to me-- but where he is correct is that the decline of religion does open up a vacuum in society and that's sort of where we are now in contemporary America. Whether you argue that's because of a rise of Godless secular culture (I don't) or it's more due to the moral bankruptcy of the institutions of the American church (a better explanation, IMO) we're sort of at that weird point where these institutions aren't what they used to be for society, but people aren't sure what do about it yet.
(Again, Gurri. I know.)
Where he wanders off the plot a little bit when he starts looking at things like art and poetry and culture more generally. The emergence of the United States at that time was revolutionary and unique and generally democratic society might be generating differing cultural attitudes about any number of things ranging from writing to art to poetry to theater--- I get that. But in 1832, I would argue that Toqueville's assertions are still too early in the game. Plus, Republicanism wasn't unheard of either.
For the first time in this book, this feels very much like a product of the time in which it was written.
But despite that wobble, he gets back on the horse:
"If a nation could ever succeed in destroying or simply diminishing the equality at its heart, it would manage it only by long and laborious efforts. It would have to modify the state of society, abolish its laws, renew its ideas, change its customs and debase its ways. but destroying political freedom is easy, for loosening one's grip is enough for it to slip away."
And then there's this quote as well:
"The evils brought occasionally by freedom have an immediate effect; they are obvious to everyone and more or less experienced by everyone. the evils produced by extreme equality become apparent only gradually; little by little they creep into the heart of society; they are noticed every now and again so that, when they are at their most disturbing, habit has already nullified their effect."
There's an extensive exploration of the relationship between freedom and equality that's fascinating and has echoes in a lot of the discourse we have to do- at what point does the (usually laudable) drive for equality (or equity or whatever we're calling it these days) become counterproductive to freedom. He even warns of the limitations on the idea of ever achieving fundamentally equal conditions:
"No matter what a nation does, it will never succeed in reaching perfectly equal conditions. If it did have the misfortune to achieve an absolute and complete leveling there would still remain the inequalities of intelligence which come directly from God and will always elude the lawmakers."
Again, just... wow. We're having these debates today. We're talking about this in our discourse today. This dude wrote this in 1832. I see why this book is so venerated, even if the last third or so was a heavy lift to actually get through. But the final exit quotes- after he points out that an aristocracy could easily emerge from industry (hey, look at that! Wealth inequality!) First up we got this:
"But American preachers return constantly to this world and have some difficulty detaching their gaze from it. So as to touch their listeners more profoundly, they show them every day how religious belief is beneficial to freedom and public order. It is often hard to know from listening to them whether the main intention of religion is to obtain everlasting joy in the next world or prosperity in this one."
1832. 1832 and he's anticipating that noxious mixture of capitalism and Christianity that makes up shit like the prosperity gospel. I keep saying it over and over again I know, and it probably makes me a broken record at this point, but was Alexis de Toqueville some kind of Nostradamus? Am I reading too much into this? Are we that predictable as a people? But holy shit... if that ain't the problem of problems for the American church, I don't know what is. But wait, there's more:
"When a taste for physical pleasures in such a nation grows more speedily than education or the habit of liberty, a time occurs when men are carried away and lose self-control at the sight of the new possessions they are ready to grasp. Intent only on getting rich, they fail to perceive the close link between their own private fortunes and general prosperity. There is no need to wrench their rights from such citizens. They let them slip voluntarily through their fingers."
If that's not a dead-on accurate summation on America today, I don't know what is. Mic drop. Nothing more to say.
Overall: Like I said at the top-- this one was a bit of a chore in the back half to third of the book, but if you're a hardcore polisci nerd or just generally interested in the history of early America, this is sort of a must-read. Amazing, impactful book. I've heard a lot of hype over the years about it and now for the first time, I can truly say: I get it. My Grade: **** out of ****