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Tocqueville Celebrates Democracy

June 29, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

"Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." - Winston Churchill

Alexis de Tocqueville recognized that democracy presented major changes in the political world which would also affect the social world. Therefore, in his two-part volume, Democracy in America, he set out to discover how democracy functioned in America. He explains that this one experiment will affect a wide variety of nations, institutions and behaviors. Tocqueville is both heartened and saddened at the equalizing forces which accompany democracy. He sees equality as a necessary and just system, but with it comes loss of education and intellectual excellence. Whether or not this is true, he notes that from freedom follow necessary outcomes, many of which are unintended, but deserve calm, thoughtful discussion and contemplation.

Tocqueville views the blossoming equality with interest, but also fear. He notes how equalizing forces have the potential to lessen the quality of education, to minimize interest in political affairs, and that democracy allows little time for reflection. Everyone in democracy rushes to pursue an object of personal interest, but not necessarily one of societal benefit. He terms this quick pace “habitual inattention” and labels it “the great vice of the democratic spirit”. (329B) His solution to this naturally arising problem is contemplation. He does not spell out a specific plan, but rather asks that citizens spend time contemplating their existence, their fellows’ existences and that of society as a whole. He recognizes that information in an age of equality is constant and feels like a barrage. In aristocratic ages, on the other hand, Tocqueville notes that only a small, elite group controlled and disseminated information. In fact, information for the masses was altogether rare. Furthermore, the lower-classes understood their position, knew their place, and therefore, poor treatment was almost an expectation and rarely questioned. There was no path to question injustice. On the other hand, democracy reverses the problem of aristocracies by removing information controls. It is the citizen’s responsibility to seek and process information.

In democracy, Tocqueville warns, the potential for abuse actually widens because the masses must take care of and be involved with issues regarding the masses. He claims that a habitual inattention leads citizens to miss clues to their own well-being. Following a section about the level of uniformity achieved by majority-run governments, he writes, “The government’s faults are forgiven for the sake of its tastes.” By this, I think he intends to say that the majority drives contemporary rhetoric, issues and tastes, which, in turn, forces the government toward action. However, it is also the citizens who must evaluate and re-evaluate their decisions. Therefore, while contemporary taste forces government to act, we cannot condemn democracy for acting. Rather, the government’s faults are “forgiven” by future generations as people work to address inequities.

While he is sad to perceive the loss of aristocratic education, he is happy to find a more just system. Equality, he believes, stems directly from God. Democratic systems are more fair, more just and reflect the way that God perceives humanity. Pulling his thoughts together in conclusion, he writes:

“When the world was full of men of great importance and extreme insignificance, very wealthy and very poor, very learned and very ignorant, I turned my attention from the latter to concentrate on the pleasure of contemplating the former. But I see that this pleasure arose from my weakness. It is because I am unable to see all at once all that is around me that I am allowed thus to select and separate the objects of my choice from among so many others which it pleases me to contemplate. It is not so with the Almighty and Eternal Being, whose gaze and necessity includes the whole of created things and who surveys distinctly and simultaneously all mankind and each single man.

“It is natural to suppose that not the particular prosperity of the few, but the greater well-being of all, is most pleasing in the sight of the Creator and Preserver of men. What seems to me decay is thus in His eyes progress; what pains me is acceptable to Him. Equality may be less elevated, but it is more just, and in its justice lies its greatness and beauty.”

A little later, he adds: “The task is no longer to preserve the particular advantages which inequality of conditions had procured for men, but to secure those new benefits which equality may supply. We should not strive to be like our fathers but should try to attain that form of greatness and of happiness which is proper to ourselves.

“For myself, looking back now from the extreme end of my task and seeing at a distance, but collected together, all the various things which had attracted my close attention upon my way, I am full of fears and of hopes. I see great dangers which may be warded off and mighty evils which may be avoided or kept in check; and I am ever increasingly confirmed in my belief that for democratic nations to be virtuous and prosperous, it is enough if they will to be so.”

Tocqueville introduces the idea of democratic will in his final words. It is this will which still lives in the current American “experiment,” as he terms it. Though we are still learning and re-evaluating, we can also honor those authors of our past who set us on this path. With the Fourth of July just around the corner, we can also celebrate the thoughts and ideas of our founders.

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