The Book in which We talk de Tocque (Part 1)

October 24, 2010 § 2 Comments


Democracy in America – Volume 1, Part I (de Tocqueville, Alexis)

“Of all the great unread writers, I believe Tocqueville to be the most quoted”
Russell Baker, New York Times

Having launched into Alexis de Tocqueville‘s magnum opus, I find Baker’s quote extremely surprising – not the part about Tocqueville’s quotability or greatness, but the bit about his being unread. Democracy in America should be mandatory reading, not just for every American, but for citizens of every democracy;  and not just for them, but for any sane person anywhere who has views about the way his society is organized. This post covers only the first part of his first volume – this book is possibly the most important one I’ve read this year, and merits at least three posts.

In 1996, Clinton and Gingrich both quoted The Tocquevillean Scripture to suit their purposes

Tocqueville was a minor aristocrat in the France of “citizen-king” Louis Philippe. He visited America in 1830-31, traveling extensively and studying the political economy of the country in painstaking detail. The French had just gone through an eventful half-century, involving a revolution, a Terror, a republic, an empire and a restored Bourbon monarchy, and the ideal form of government was the subject of much soul-searching among the French intelligentsia. America, in the meanwhile, had had its own revolution, embarked upon a novel experiment in democratic government, and enjoyed fifty years of growth and prosperity.

Tocqueville returned to France in 1831, and eventually published his book in two volumes in 1835 and 1840. So while his subject is America, his intended readership is international; while his observations and examples are rooted in the past and present, his analysis stretches far into the future, exploring the long-term consequences of  political structures, legal decisions and social behavior. Implicit in Tocqueville’s words is the belief that every action on human society has long-term ramifications,  which are inherently predictable. Further, that similar actions on any two  societies would lead to similar consequences. In other words, society can be studied as a body under the influence of forces: its study is as measurable a science as gravity. It is armed with these beliefs, and aided by his tremendous powers of observation, that Tocqueville arrives at his insights.

Some of these insights are startlingly accurate. For instance, he states with nonchalance what has proved to be almost a general law in 20th century political history. The gradual transfer of power from the colonial masters of Europe to the eventually independent nations of Africa and Asia could be cited as examples, but one of its most striking occurrances took place in Soviet Russia, where the Glasnost and Perestroika of Mikhail Gorbachev led almost inevitably to the complete collapse of the Communist super-structure. The sheikhs and dictators in the Middle East may do well to pay attention to the quote below, in the wake of the Arab Spring:

“When a nation starts to tamper with electoral qualification, we can anticipate sooner or later, their complete abolition. That is one of the most unchanging rules governing society: the further the limits of electoral rights are pushed back, the more we feel the need to push them back. For after each concession, the strength of democracy increases and its demands grow with every new power it gains. The ambition of those left below the level of qualification is frustrated in proportion to the great number of those above it. The exception in the end becomes the rule; concessions follow each other  without respite and the process can be stopped only when universal suffrage is achieved”

Little wonder, then, that they believe that allowing women to drive is just the edge of a very slippery slope!

Was Tocqueville the first, I wonder, to observe how democratic governments grew stronger in times of war? The inevitable temptation of a government in trouble to rattle sabres and preach war in the hope of rallying the nation around itself is a natural corollary, as is the unfortunately common ruse of leaders to subdue opposition and demand more totalitarian power under the pretext of a military or terrorist threat to the nation:

“Consequently all nations which have had to wage mighty wars have been forced almost despite themselves to increase the powers of their governments. Those unsuccessful in this have been conquered. A lengthy war almost always confronts nations with this sad choice: either defeat involves destruction or victory brings tyranny.”

I encountered a line on every other page that made me sit up and think, and re-read the line, and think again – always the hallmark of a great reading experience. One of my favorite passages was the one linking the inheritance laws in America with the higher equality of its people, the single trait that makes the country so amenable to democratic government. Unlike European inheritance law prevalent in his time, American law did not rest on primogeniture. It mandated estates to be equally divided among all the children of a deceased owner. This, Tocqueville points out, meant that estates broke up into pieces with every generation, thus preventing the creation of either a permanently rich landed gentry or a permanently bonded serf class. Of course, what Tocqueville could not foresee was the ability of the rich to find other ways, not linked to land, to perpetuate their familial advantages, but I thought it highly perceptive to have discovered a connection between a seemingly innocuous piece of legislation and a critical socio-economic statistic.

Tocqueville’s observations went beyond the socio-economic into the political sphere. He was also, perhaps, the first to note the effects of a system of governance on socio-political behavior. His thoughts on local government are extremely thought-provoking, and one wonders why more developing nations do not pay heed to them.

“The inhabitant of New England is devoted to his township, not because he was born there as much as because he views the township as a strong free social body of which he is part and which merits the care he devotes to his management…What i most admire in America are not the administrative results of decentralization but the political effects. In the United States …it is from a sort of self-centeredness that they interest themselves in the welfare of their country”.

Tocqueville’s understanding of America and Americans is consummate. Despite the fact that he spent less than a year in the land, much of what he says about America is still valid today, nearly two centuries later. For instance, here are two statements about contemporary America I have felt to be true ever since I first set foot here, 11 years ago, but could never have articulated better:

“In the United States, one is correct in thinking that the love of one’s country is a brand of religion to which men become devoted through ritual observance.”

And this:

“From the state of Maine to that of Georgia is a distance of some one thousand miles. However there is less difference between the civilization of Maine and that of Georgia than between that of Normandy and that of Brittany.”

In addition, Tocqueville identifies the many subtle paradoxes involved in running a democracy. Americans are more materialistic and self-centered than others, and yet they are more patriotic. The federal government is the weakest form of government in certain ways and the most powerful in others. The President of the United States has far fewer powers than the French King in certain circumstances, but more than the mightiest monarch in the world in other circumstances. The law has a single, absolute, almost tyrannical voice in America, more than in any other country – but far more people actively participate in making the law here, than elsewhere. American law places no faith in fundamental human honesty and integrity – but it blindly assumes human rationality and intelligence. It is a basic tenet of the American system that “the office should be strong…and the officer weak”. This, in his opinion, is what makes it possible for society to be free – and yet, paradoxically again, well-governed.

Each of these pronouncements could easily be the subject of weighty tomes, disputed and asserted by Senators and Supreme Court judges, but they come trippingly to Tocqueville’s tongue,  yet without a hint of flippancy or bias.

Make no mistake – despite the eminently readable style of writing, this is a very serious book, and a very balanced one. Tocqueville is no starry-eyed tourist, writing breathlessly of New World wonders that he has seen for the first time. He documents the many benefits of multi-party democratic government, but is not unaware of its pitfalls, either. Here’s a classic:

“In general, only simple ideas take hold of the minds of a people. A false yet clear and precise idea will always have more potency in society at large than a true but complex one … Those governments which rely upon only one single idea or upon one single easily definable feeling are perhaps not the best but undoubtedly they are the strongest and longest lasting”

He knows democracy is far better than a dictatorship, but is under no illusion that it is a perfect system. At times, he even sounds almost nostalgic, for a simpler, more innocent, non-democratic age, an era when everyone knew his station in life, and behaved accordingly:

“Since the nobleman did not entertain the thought that anyone might wish to snatch away his privileges, which he regarded as legitimate, and since the serf looked upon his inferior position as a result of the immutable social order, we may imagine that a kind of mutual goodwill might be established between these two classes so differently endowed by fate. At that time, society beheld inequality and unhappiness but men’s souls were not humiliated …It is not the exercise of power nor the habit of obedience that degrade men but the exercise of a power which is regarded as unlawful, or obedience to a power seen as wrongly held and oppressive”

It is the combination of his incisive analysis and his balanced perspective, that make Tocqueville so eminently quotable by speakers of every political hue. He has been quoted by those in favor of American-style democracy, as well as those who criticize its negatives. America itself re-discovered the book on the hundredth anniversary of its publication, and soon clutched it to its bosom as its own, as only America can. During the Cold War, as the preface to my volume points out, when the German philosopher Marx was Russia’s philosopher, it was the French Tocqueville who served as America’s ideologue. Today, liberal and conservative, champions of big business and small governments, and those of big government and small businesses, can all claim support from Tocqueville, and it is perhaps just as well that they quote him without reading him, because if they did, they would be disappointed to find this line right in his Introduction:

“This book does not follow any particular person; in writing it, I did not set out to serve or oppose any party; I attempted not to view things differently from others but to look further; while they busy themselves with tomorrow, my wish was to contemplate the future.”

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