In late 2006, ten years ago, I started reading an abridged (317 pages) version of Democracy in America, the classic work by French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville. It took several years to finish it, but I noted de Tocqueville’s observations and my reactions along the way. Below are my comments at that time, along with my retrospective on the 2016 election and its implications so far.
DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA – ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE – 1832
Democracy in America, the much quoted tome by French aristocrat and dilettante Alexis de Tocqueville, was written after a nine-month tour of the United States in 1831-2. This 317-paged abridged version was edited by Richard D. Heffner, who wrote the introduction. It was published in 1956.
Even in 1831, apparently, de Tocqueville recognized attitudes that have led to today’s problems in America, such as the driving greed of all layers of society, and the work-driven ethic. At that time, class distinctions weren’t so clear, but this is shifting, and the oligarchy today consists in large part of so-called “public servants” who have commandeered public property and cordon it off against the public.
De Tocqueville also astutely observes that a comfortable populace will not revolt. He didn’t anticipate they would not work, either, if the government makes life too comfortable, as is presumably happening now.
It bugs me that he calls this “democracy,” but I suppose it’s the closest form anyone in recent history has known.
De Tocqueville is optimistic and extremely perceptive, recognizing trends that have become so pronounced now that they are almost pathological, as the preoccupation with material things, for instance.
He was struck even then with the American love for money. He did not see then the gradual centralization of power, but we didn’t have a democracy, either. Slaves, Native Americans, and women were irrelevant in the political paradigms.
De Tocqueville’s observations provide perspective on America’s early ideals. They show to some extent where we went awry.
He distinguishes, for one thing, between centralized government and centralized administration. He says we have the former but an absence of the latter.
No more, I claim. De Tocqueville wondered about the wisdom of the arrangement. He said centralized administration saps initiative from local communities.
THEN AND NOW
Democracy in America points to US priorities in the 1830s, and they are becoming ever more obvious today. The fixation on material wealth and status stand out. The idea that we have centralized government, and now centralized administration, too, seem particularly relevant with the president-elect’s cabinet and administrative picks.
I was one of those who stood aside during this 2016 election year, a part of the process by default but as removed as I could get. My general belief is it doesn’t matter who the president is. The machinery of government grinds on as if leaderless and, according to me, has been cruising downhill throughout my life. That the pace has picked up recently, since the tech explosion, perhaps, or since 9/11, has less to do with the presidency than with general mass awareness and passive collusion with hitherto unseen forces.
Blame social media, “fake news,” the widespread sense of betrayal, and the general—albeit semi-conscious—preoccupation with money and status at all levels of society. Blame the dissolving faith that government has answers, the disillusionment with delegated power and authority. Passive aggression and passive resistance make for a general sense of social malaise that leads to personal and social stagnation. What is left?
I’d like to believe we are undergoing a revolution in consciousness, a period of confusion in which we re-assess what we have believed and whether it remains valid. We are all—all of humanity and other life and non-life–in this stew pot together, for better or worse. The fortune tellers on the payroll are busy trying to predict what disasters a Trump administration can wreak. Even his supporters seem disgruntled over his choices of advisors and cabinet heads.
I say we got what we deserved, for better or worse, and, in retrospect it seems we have been heading along this path at least since de Tocqueville visited in 1831.
I doubt de Tocqueville or anyone else from his era would recognize what the U.S. has become. And it is certainly a far cry from what the Founding Fathers – imperfect though their goals may have been – had in mind.