The Book in which we Talk de Tocque (Part 2)

November 14, 2010 § Leave a comment

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

Democracy index according to The Economist, 20...
Democracy, 180 years later (Courtesy The Economist and Wikipedia)

“Only foreigners or experience might be able to bring certain truths to the ears of Americans.”
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

What, asks Tocqueville in his book, caused democracy to be such an unqualified success in America, when it was still struggling to take root in Europe? He concludes, upon reflection, that the biggest reasons for this success are America’s customs and traditions. Democracy spawns political equality, which  influences social behavior, in turn, and eventually shapes the unique-  and uniquely homogenous – American national character. Tocqueville’s documentation of this fascinating cycle continues in Part II, as he continues to observe, analyze, interpret and make bold predictions for the future.

Some of the predictions have turned out to be accurate (the slavery-related flashpoint in the South, and the extinction of the American Indian tribes) and some have not (“I do not think the white and black races will ever manage to live in any country on an equal footing“), but one cannot but marvel at his powers of observation and analysis at every step. For instance, he points out the difference between French and American newspapers:

In France, the trade advertisements take up a very limited space; the news items themselves are few; the essential part of a newspaper is that devoted to political discussion. In America, three quarters of the bulky newspaper set before the reader’s eyes is filled with advertisements; the rest is most frequently full of political news or just anecdotes. Only occasionally and in some obscure corner will you spot one of those burning discussions which are the daily nourishment of French readers…

I recalled Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow, who did a reverse-Tocqueville in 1999, and remarked on essentially the same difference, in the enjoyable Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong. French newspapers are never shy of taking sides and stating opinions; American ones strain every nerve to look unbiased, factual and objective, while trying to propagate their viewpoints by judicious projection or omission of certain facts and figures.

Curiously, Tocqueville points to a very similar distinction between the French and American legal tradition.

Listening to an English or American lawyer, you are surprised to hear him citing so often others’ opinions and talking so little of his own, while the opposite subsists in France. The French lawyer will introduce his own system of ideas in however small a case he agrees to conduct and he will take the discussion back to the constituent principles of the law with a view to persuading the court to move the boundary of the contested inheritance by a couple of yards…

But the analogy stops there. Behind the timidity of the newspapers, Tocqueville says, lies a fatal weakness, the result of their wide proliferation and the attendant inability of any one to command respect and fashion opinion. Behind the American legal obsession with precedence, on the other hand, is a strength that comes from specialized knowledge, based on which he prophesies the ascendancy of the American legal professionals.

Nothing could be more obscure and less within the reach of the common man than legislation based on precedents…the French lawyer is only a man of learning but the English or American lawyers resemble somewhat Egyptian priests and are like them the sole interpreters of an obscure science…if you ask me where American aristocracy is to be found, my reply would be that it would not be among the wealthy… American aristocracy is to be found at the bar and on the bench.

As in the first part, Tocqueville’s views are balanced, and he periodically warns his readers about democracy’s pitfalls even while recommending it. One pernicious effect of democracy that he points out is a heightened sense of envy and insecurity in democratic society.”Democratic institutions awaken and flatter the passion for equality without ever being able to satisfy it entirely.” He also believes that there is something coarse and vulgar about the corruption of commoners who ascend to political power – it is contagious, he says, and soon afflicts the entire population; whereas, in his opinion, in monarchies, “at the very center of the depravity of the nobility there prevails a certain aristocratic refinement and an air of grandeur which often prevents it from spreading elsewhere.” While I consider this highly contestable, Tocqueville also suggests, with rather more justification, that the knack of getting elected via majority vote is different from (and at times even contradictory to) the capability necessary to do a good job in a public post. He quotes a prominent American as admitting as much:

Chancellor Kent… adds, “it is probable, in fact, that the most appropriate men to fill these places would have too much reserve in their manners and too much severity in their principles ever to be able to gather the majority of votes at an election that rested on universal suffrage.”

Elsewhere, he thinks the patriotism in democracies, based as it is on reason and self-interest, is somehow inferior to the instinctive, congenital love for the motherland in Europe. “The inhabitants of the United States speak much about their love for their country; I confess to having little faith in this calculated patriotism which is founded on self-interest and may be destroyed if that changes direction.”And then he unfurls the phrase for which he is most famous: the tyranny of the majority.

The majority in a democracy, Tocqueville explains, has exactly the same function that a King has in a monarchy.

“The French, under the old monarchy, took it as read that the king could do no wrong and that whenever he acted badly, the blame should be laid at the door of his advisors. This made obedience wonderfully simple. One could grumble against the law while continuing to love and respect the legislator. Americans hold the same opinion of the majority.”

But Kings have been known to be magnanimous, to benevolently condone criticism from courtiers. Democratic majorities, on the other hand, take themselves very seriously:

“But the dominating power in the United States does not understand being mocked… The slightest reproach offends it; the smallest sharp truth stimulates its angry response and it must be praised…the majority lives, therefore, in an everlasting self-adoration.”

It is possible to poke fun at the President or to criticize the government, even today; it is not done to mock the ways of the American people. In addition to being grimmer, the majority is also more powerful than a king in many respects.

“And what I find most repulsive in America is … the shortage of any guarantee against tyranny. When a man or a party suffers from an injustice in the United States, to whom can he turn? To public opinion? That is what forms the majority. To the legislative body? That represents the majority and obeys it blindly. To the executive power? That is appointed by the majority and serves as its passive instrument. To the public police force? They are nothing but the majority under arms. To the jury? That is the majority invested with the right to pronounce judgments; the very judges…are elected by the majority.”

The way Tocqueville describes it, the power of the majority is  chillingly Orwellian. “I know of no country where there is generally less independence of thought and real freedom of debate than in America,” he says, somewhat meanly. But he has a point. The most repressive dictatorships in history have, willy-nilly, fostered a bustling underground economy of anti-government literature and art; but the mute terror of ostracism by the majority has been enough to discourage most thought of dissidence in America. In other countries, the colour of your skin, your accent and the god you pray to, can make you part of the minority, and there’s not a lot you can do about it. In a mature democracy like America’s, it is only your opinion that can set you apart, and that is entirely within your control. Consequently, a paranoia of being in the minority grips the population. This helps align political and social attitudes in the same broad direction; even today, the spectrum of mainstream political opinion in the United States spans a fraction of what is possible, or of what we see in other nations. Is this a bad thing? Perhaps not, but Tocqueville knows that already, and hastens to add: “I speak only of power in itself. This irresistible power is a continuous fact and its good use is only an accident.

The bottomline? Democracy has its merits and its demerits,  and whether a people should adopt it or not depends on what they set out to achieve as a nation. Dictatorships can be more consistent, persistent, visionary, inspirational, methodical and orderly; they can cause the arts to flourish, undertake mighty projects and leave an indelible mark on history; but for all that, over a period of time, democracy achieves more than tyranny; each task may be less well-done, many may be abandoned mid-way, but, in sum total, more tasks are completed. Less people are miserable. More people are well-off.

Tocqueville follows this up with his sharpest observation yet, the one that settles the argument once and for all. The real question isn’t about which form of government achieves more. It is about under which form of government the citizens of the country can achieve more  without the need for government help. And it is in this that democracy wins hands down. Under its authority, he says,

“Democracy does not give its nation  the most skilful administration, but it ensures what the most skilful administration is often too powerless to create, namely to spread through the whole social community a restless activity, an over-abundant force, an energy which never exists without it, but which … can perform wonders. “

There are those back home in India, who rue the higher economic growth rates, superior military power, and better human development  indices of China, and mutter wrathfully to anyone who cares to listen that it is our democracy that is to blame for our many shortcomings. A few years under martial law, they suggest, would be exactly what the doctor ordered.

To them, I say this: read Tocqueville.


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