Democracy in America

by Alexis de Tocqueville


Caveat: I read the 320 page abridged version, so some of my complaints may be simple misunderstandings due to ignorance.

I’ll start by saying that I’m not sure what gives a 25 year-old rich French kid on a pleasure cruise through the New World the credibility to make completely unsupported assertions on the political and social climate of early America and then have them accepted as gospel.

After slogging through 300 or so pages, I’m exceedingly grateful that this abridged version exists, because I can’t imagine ever wasting the time on the complete edition. I was interested in reading a book that has been perpetually hailed for its timeliness, foresight, and penetrating insight into early American democracy, but I was sorely disappointed on every single front.

Tocqueville does occasionally make some interesting observations. In the beginning he spends a significant amount of time talking about the political power inherent in the townships (i.e. small, local groups), which is an incredibly important point, and one still relevant today. It was also particularly interesting to me after reading Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution, where she heavily emphasizes the same. (Incidentally, I highly recommend Arendt’s analysis of the beginning of our country and the formation of the Constitution — it is much more penetrating than Tocqueville, mainly because she’s insanely brilliant and is able to utilize hindsight.)

Later in the book, there is a 2-3 page section in chapter 34 (“How An Aristocracy May Be Created By Manufactures”) that I found particularly prescient, essentially describing the division and alienation of labor about a half-century before Marx popularized the idea.

These two observations were about the extent of the positives. The rest is so mired in sweeping generalizations and arrogant condescension as to be virtually worthless. His analysis of the manners and temperament of the American people is completely irrelevant now, but couldn’t have been much more relevant then, being based on only one man’s observation (and since he clearly wrote with an aristocratic chip on his shoulder). 

His predictions, which are hailed as so sage, are wrong at least half the time, making him about as wise as me. My favorite was when he talked about how unlikely it would be for the U.S. to experience a civil war, and this a whopping 25 years before civil war broke out.

There are two huge oversights that led Tocqueville to severely miscalculate America’s trajectory. One — the rise of corporations and their near-invincible power — was only hinted at in Ch. 34, but its omission is forgiveable since the phenomenon was not necessarily intuitive. In reality, Tocqueville’s “tyranny of the majority” is a red herring, because an elite oligarchy ended up controlling everything more or less by the beginning of the 20th century.

His other oversight, however, was less pardonable. He spent shockingly little time talking about how easily manipulable by propaganda his tyrannical majority would be. This would essentially make them a tool of the wealthy elite. His only references to public opinion were oblique and clearly not indicating anything like the extent of the media manipulation that we started to see, again around the turn of the 20th century. His reference to a free press hints at it, but the omission of a deeper discussion is noticeable.

I could give more examples, through quotations, of some of the generalizations I’m talking about, but I honestly don’t want to waste the time. Instead, I’ll give my favorite quote, from Ch. 48 (“Why Great Revolutions Will Become More Rare”). I like it because it is actually timely, describing pretty deftly what is going on right now in the U.S.:

. . .When property becomes so fluctuating, and the love of property so restless and so ardent, I cannot but fear that men may arrive at such a state as to regard every new theory as a peril, every innovation as an irksome toil, every social improvement as a stepping-stone to revolution, and so refuse to move altogether for fear of being moved too far. I dread, and I confess it, lest they should at last so entirely give way to a cowardly love of present enjoyment, as to lose sight of the interests of their future selves and those of their descendants; and prefer to glide along the easy current of life, rather than to make, when it is necessary, a strong and sudden effort to a higher purpose.

I must admit that overall I am glad to have gotten the general idea of what people are talking about when they refer to Tocqueville. After thinking two stars (based mostly on enjoyability and disappointed expectations), I have to go ahead with three, just because of the scope of the thing. It’s darn impressive to pen a thousand page study of the political and social landscape of early America. Even if you’re only right around half the time, it still takes some impressive nerve to give it a go. And I respect that.

For more info. . .

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