Every time I use the word “democracy” to describe the process by which Americans elect their representatives, someone leaps to their computer to inform me that America is a “republic” and not a democracy. I am well aware of this, but it does not change the process.
It got me thinking about Alexis de Tocqueville’s trip throughout America in 1831-1832. It resulted in his famed analysis, “Democracy in America.” By coincidence, I just read a new book by Leo Damrosch, “Tocqueville’s Discovery of America,” that chronicles his journey, accompanied by his friend Gustave de Beaumont.
At the time, Tocqueville was twenty-five years old. Born an aristocrat in France, his immediate family had escaped the horrors of its Revolution, though several relatives had been guillotined. France would undergo a number of “Republics” as politics roiled the nation.
At that time America was composed of 24 States and a population of approximately 13 million.
The nine-month journey took the two young men throughout much of what was then America; Boston, New York, Philadelphia being the major cities of the time. Longing to see the “frontier” they journeyed by steamer, the only way to get around via navigable rivers other than by stagecoach or via horseback to areas served by neither. There were no trains and the Civil War was yet to be fought for another thirty years.
Ostensibly on a trip to study the American penal system for the French government, it was in fact a great adventure both men wanted to undertake in order to understand what the comparatively new American experiment in democracy was all about and what it was that distinguished Americans from their European cousins. The U.S. Constitution had been ratified a scant 43 years earlier.
Together they would journey as far south as New Orleans with stops in Memphis, Nashville, Cincinnati, Detroit, briefly in Washington, D.C., and other cities which at that time barely qualified to be so described.
Beyond the Mississippi and up into the Great Lakes area, the nation was still forested and wild. Reading Damrosch’s excellent account of the journey is to be transported back to a distant time, but one that lay the foundations for today’s America.
Damrosch notes that what Tocqueville produced was not an account of “Americans” as a unique national type, “but rather a structural explanation of some profound reasons why democracy, by its very nature, tends to produce certain characteristics in its citizens.”
By 1831, America already had class distinctions; all related either to wealth as opposed to aristocracy. The other distinction was the institution of slavery on which the South depended for its economy. It was bitterness itself to be black.
“In France,” Tocqueville noted, “even the most minor local decisions were made in Paris. In the United States, on the other hand, the federal government legislated for the whole country but left administration and enforcement to the states and localities.” Today, the States have largely forfeited their sovereignty as distinct republics.
Tocqueville noted that “Democracy doesn’t give people the most competent government, but it does what the most competent government is often powerless to do. It spreads throughout the entire social body a restless activity, a superabundant strength, an energy that never exists without it.”
An observer today might come to a very different conclusion as Americans now labor under a huge centralized government that intrudes into every aspect of their lives and into the commerce of the nation, as often as not creating obstacles and penalties to entrepreneurs and corporations alike.
Today’s government requires a virtual army of lobbyists in Washington, D.C. to try to steer a ship of state that, under the present administration, is indifferent to the public will. It is one that is as close to despotism as America has ever come.
Prophetically, Tocqueville feared a huge, centralized government no matter where it occurred, warning that “It is absolute, detailed, regular, farsighted, and mild. It would resemble paternal power if its object was to prepare men for adult life, but it seeks on the contrary to keep them in permanent childhood.”
“It likes citizens to enjoy themselves, so long as all they think about is enjoyment. It labors willingly for their happiness, but it wants to be the sole agent and arbiter of their happiness…The sovereign power doesn’t break their will, but it softens, bends, and directs them. It rarely compels action, but it constantly opposes action.”
“It doesn’t destroy, but it prevents birth; it doesn’t tyrannize, but it hinders, represses, enervates, restrains, and numbs, until it reduces each nation to a mere flock of timid and industrious animals, with government as their shepherd.”
This, written 180 years ago, is a description of communism and socialism. It is the antithesis of the Tea Party movement and the protest rallies currently being demonized by the news media and by the Democrat Party as it plots to retain control of Congress and over our lives.
Presciently, Tocqueville wrote, “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.” That day has arrived.