Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I struggle to penetrate God’s point of view, from which vantage point I try to observe and judge human affairs.
A few months ago, bored at work and with no other obligations to tie me to New York, I decided that I would look into employment in Europe; and now, several months and an irksome visa process later, I am on the verge of setting off to Madrid. Unsurprisingly, I’m very excited to go; but of course leaving one’s home is always bittersweet. This is partly why I picked up Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, as a sort of literary good-bye kiss to this odd, uncouth, chaotic, and fantastic place which has, up until now, molded my character, sustained my body, and contained my thoughts.
This turned out to be an excellent choice, for this book is without a doubt the best book ever written on the United States. I am able to say this, even though I haven’t even read a fraction of the books written on this country, because I simply can’t imagine how anyone could have done it better. As it is, I can hardly believe that Tocqueville could understand so much in the short span of his life; and when I recall that he wrote this book after only 9 months in America, while he was still in his thirties, I am doubly astounded. This seems scarcely human.
Part of the reason for his seemingly miraculous ability is that, with Tocqueville, you find two things conjoined which are normally encountered separately: extremely keen powers of observation, and a forceful analytic mind. With most travel writers, you encounter only the former; and with most political philosophers, only the latter. The product of this combination is a nearly perfect marriage of facts and reasoning, of survey and criticism, the ideas always hovering just above the reality, transforming the apparently senseless fabric of society into a sensible and intelligible whole. Almost everything he sees, he understands; and not only does he understand what he sees, but so often hits upon the why.
Although this book covers an enormous amount of ground—religion, slavery, culture, government, the role of women, just to name a few topics—there is one central question that runs through every subject: What does the appearance of democracy mean for the future of humanity? Tocqueville sees this question as the most pressing and significant one of his time; for, as he perceived, what was happening then in America was destined to inspire Europe and perhaps the whole world to adopt this new form of government, which would forever change the face of society. In short, Tocqueville is seeking to understand America so that he could understand the future; and the plan of the book follows these two goals successively. The first volume, published in 1835, is a thorough analysis of the United States; and the second volume, published in 1840, is a comparison of democracy and aristocracy, an attempt to pinpoint how a switch to a democratic government causes far-reaching changes in the whole culture.
Tocqueville is famously ambivalent about American democracy. He often sounds greatly impressed at what he finds, noting how hardworking and self-reliant are most Americans; and yet so often, particularly in the second volume, Tocqueville sounds gloomy and pessimistic about what the future holds. Much of his analysis is centered on the idea of social equality. He often reminds the reader—and by the way, Tocqueville wrote this for a French audience—that Americans, rich or poor, famous or obscure, will treat everyone as an equal. The entire idea of castes or classes has, in Tocqueville’s opinion, been abolished; and this has had many effects. Most obviously, it gives free reign to American ambition, for anyone can potentially climb from the bottom to the top; thus results the ceaseless activity and endless financial scheming of Americans. And even those who are quite well-off are not spared from this fever of ambition, for the lack of inherited wealth and stable fortunes means that the rich must continually exert effort to maintain their fortunes. (Whether this is true anymore is another story.)
Thus we find a kind of money-obsession, where everyone must constantly keep their minds in their wallets. In America, money is not only real currency, but cultural currency as well, a marker of success; and in this context, the creature comforts of life, which after all only money can buy, are elevated to great importance. Rich food, warm beds, spacious houses—these are praised above the simpler pleasures in life, such as agreeable conversation or pleasant walks on sunny days, as the former require money while the latter are free and available to anyone. The central irony of a classless society is that it forces everyone to focus constantly on their status, as it is always in jeopardy. You can imagine how shocking this must have been for Tocqueville, the son of an aristocratic family. There simply was no class of Americans who had the leisure of retiring from the cares of the world and contemplating the “higher” but less practical things in life. All thought was consumed in activity.
This results in a society of the ordinary individual. In America, there are few “great men” (as Tocqueville would say) but a great many good ones. Americans are self-reliant, but not daring; they are often decent, but never saintly. They will sometimes risk their lives in pursuit of a fortune, but never their fortunes for the sake their lives. An American might temporarily accept hardship if there is a financial reward on the other end; but how many Americans would forsake their fortunes, their comforts, their houses and property, for the sake of an idea, a principle, a dream? Thus a kind of narrow ambition pervades the society, where everyone is hoping to better their lot, but almost nobody is hoping to do something beyond acquiring money and things. One can easily imagine the young Tocqueville, his mind filled with Machiavelli and Montesquieu, meeting American after American with no time or inclination for something as intangible as knowledge.
In the midst of his large-scale cultural analysis, Tocqueville sometimes pauses for a time, putting off the role of philosopher to take up the role of prophet. Tocqueville does get many of his predictions wrong. For example, he did not at all foresee the Civil War—and in fact he thought Americans would never willingly risk their property fighting each other—and instead he thought that there would be a gigantic race war between blacks and whites in the south. But Tocqueville was otherwise quite right about race relations in the slave-owning states. He predicts that slavery could not possibly last, and that it would soon be abolished; and he notes that abolishing slavery will probably be the easiest task in improving the relationship between blacks and whites. For although slavery can be destroyed through legal action, the effects of slavery, the deep-rooted racial prejudice and hatred, cannot so easily be wiped clean. In support of this view, Tocqueville notes how badly treated are free blacks in the northern states, where slavery is banned. Without a place in society, they are shunned and fall into poverty. The persistence of the color line in America is a testament to Tocqueville’s genius and our failure to prove him wrong.
But perhaps the most arresting prediction Tocqueville makes is about the future rivalry of the United States with Russia. Here are his words:
Americans struggle against obstacles placed there by nature; Russians are in conflict with men. The former fight the wilderness and barbarity; the latter, civilization with all its weaponry: thus, American victories are achieved with the plowshare, Russia’s with the soldier’s sword.
To achieve their aim, the former rely upon self-interest and allow free scope to the unguided strength and common sense of individuals.
The latter focus the whole power of society upon a single man.
The former deploy freedom as their main mode of action; the latter, slavish obedience.
The point of departure is different, their paths are diverse but each of them seems destined by some secret providential design to hold in their hands the fate of half the world at some date in the future.
While discussing such an obviously brilliant man as was Tocqueville, whose ideas have become foundational in the study of American society, it seems almost petty to praise his prose style. But I would be doing an injustice to any readers of this review if I failed to mention that Tocqueville is an extraordinary writer. I was consistently captivated by his ability to sum up his thoughts into crisp aphorisms and to compress his analyses into perfectly composed paragraphs. I can only imagine how much better it is in the original French. Here is only a brief example:
Commerce is a natural opponent of all violent passions. It likes moderation, delights in compromise, carefully avoid angry outbursts. It is patient, flexible, subtle, and has recourse to extreme measures only when absolute necessity obliges it to do so. Commerce makes men independent of each other, gives them quite another idea of their personal value, persuades them to manage their own affairs, and teaches them to be successful. Hence it inclines them to liberty but draws them away from revolutions.
In the brief space of a book review—even a long one—I cannot hope to do justice to such a wide-ranging, carefully argued, and incisive book as this. So I hope that I have managed to persuade you to at least add this work to your to-read list, long as it may be already. For my part, I can’t imagine a better book to have read as I prepare myself to visit a new continent, about the same age as was Tocqueville when he visited these shores, for my own travels in a strange place. And although, lowly American that I am, I cannot hope to achieve even a fraction of what Tocqueville has, perhaps his voice echoing in my ears will be enough to encourage me to look, to listen, and to understand.