Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America isn’t exactly what I expected when I began it. What I had read of it suggested something of a high-minded travelogue, a paean to the United States, that most democratic of democracies, full of insights and admiration. What I found instead is a straight-out political analysis of a form of government with which Europe was largely unfamiliar, an analysis as clear-eyed as it is dense, and only very carefully complementary. It is no more a travelogue than Rouseau’s Social Contract is a business manual. Though he was here for 9 months in 1831 and traveled extensively during that time, he rarely mentions place-names at all and never descends to a personal anecdote or reveals the name of a single person he spoke with. His one and only concern is the subject in the title: how democracy worked in America.
As a post-Revolution Frenchman, De Toqueville was perhaps naturally curious. Democracy in France had vanished under Napoleon and been interred during the subsequent restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. Coming from an aristocratic family tied to the Bourbons and with fresh memories in his family of members who had been executed during the Reign of Terror, we might have suspected De Toqueville’s fascination with democratic government to have arisen from fear or a loathing of “mob rule”, as aristocrats of the time often thought of it.
Nothing could be further from the truth. De Toqueville’s brilliant and perceptive mind was combined with a capacity for objective observation and analysis that admitted no denial of what he saw, however much he disliked it or wished it were different. What he saw in the idea of democracy was not its ideal or its dangers but its undeniable power over the minds of men. He saw quite clearly that it would have to be the wave of the future, and his intention in coming to America was no less than to understand and perhaps prepare his fellow Europeans for a future they did not see and probably did not want.
It is evident to all alike that a great democratic revolution is going on amongst us; but all do not look at it in the same light. To some it appears to be novel but accidental, and, as such, they hope it may still be checked; to others it seems irresistable, because it is the most uniform, the most ancient, and the most permanent tendency which is to be found in history.
Whithersoever we turn our eyes, we perceive the same revolution going on throughout the Christian world. The various occurrences of national existence have everywhere turned to the advantage of democracy; all men have aided it by their exertions, both those who have intentionally labored in its cause, and those who have served it unwittingly….
Would it, then, be wise to imagine that a social movement, the causes of which lie so far back, can be checked by the efforts of a single generation? Can it be believed that the democracy which has overthrown the feudal system and vanquished kings, will retreat before tradesmen and capitalists?
Perhaps. As we sit here in 2010, the end of the first decade of the 21st century, it certainly looks as if that is precisely what has happened. De Toqueville, rather, thought that if American democracy was to give way to tyranny, it would not be to a despot but to what he called the Tyranny of the Majority.
If ever the free institutions of America are destroyed, that event mat be attributed to the omnipotence of the majority, which may at some future time urge the minorities to desperation, and oblige them to have recourse to physical force. Anarchy will then be the result, but it will have been brought about by despotism.
From his point of view, this must indeed have seemed like the greatest danger liberty faced in a majority-ruled democracy. From our vantage point 180 years later, we would have to admit he was wrong. We have lost our democracy alright, but not in any original way peculiar only to democracies. We lost it in the most old-fashioned of old-fashioned ways: the plutocracy bought it out from under us. Since the days of the Greek city-states when the aristocracy could buy its way into or out of any democratic govt the people may have attempted to choose, it has been the rich and powerful who have destroyed democracies, replacing “mob rule” with the stable thievery of aristocratic and plutocratic elites.
As the world’s first and greatest large-scale democracy, it would have been fitting for us to go down to autocracy through the tyrannical actions of a citizenry that, like the McCarthyite public of the ’50’s, demanded obedience to its mistakes on pain of secular excommunication. But no. We succumbed as most – if not all – other democracies succumbed before us: to the greed, wealth, and power of a special-interest minority who care only for themselves. And their bank accounts.
It is an ignominious end for a nation with such promise, a nation which made such grandiose promises to the rest of the world. It’s a little as if Jonas Salk had died from a cold. If we were going to contrive to surrender our great democracy, couldn’t we at least have found a way to do it democratically?