1992-06-01: Democracy in America

Democracy In America (1835-1840)

by Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859)
edited and abridged by Richard D. Heffner

The edition I read was published as Mentor Book (paperback), and as I read each page, it separated from the binding. I would avoid this line if possible. The text is taken from the “original Henry Reeve translation as revised by Frances Bowen.” I found Heffner’s introduction useful in providing a context and some background on Tocqueville and his aims. There is no index.

The original was in two parts, of which I read the first. Part Two is further divided into Books I through IV. Part I is a description of the conditions in America which led to the triumph of democracy, and the conditions which prevailed at the time of Tocqueville’s visit (nine months in 1831-32). The second part is concerned with the consequences of democracy.

It is an eery feeling to read his observations, and recognize many aspects that are still characteristic of American society, and often very different from the Europeans. For example, the propensity to form organizations to further any social aim, from small local matters to major political parties; the extreme ease of establishing a newspaper, and the quantity of advertising which most of them contain; the low quality of writing in the popular press; the emphasis on personal material gain, and lack of interest in the welfare of the society as a whole. Equally striking is the intolerance, for example of religious difference, that he saw as a prominent part of the national character.

He saw the main part of the people as composing a nearly homogeneous mass, without division into classes (as he knew them from aristocratic France). In this he leaves out those who have no franchise, such as the blacks, Indians and women. He only mentions slavery once in Part I: “Slavery … dishonors labor; it introduces idleness into society, and with idleness, ignorance and pride, and benumbs the activity of man.” Some of the greatest differences between what he observed and today’s situations are attributable to the more heterogeneous population and more distinct class lines of today.

He sees a danger of tyranny of the majority, where the minority is oppressed, and outlines some of causes which mitigate it. Prominent among them is the role of lawyers, and the litigiousness which allows any person to seek redress from any other, regardless of difference of rank. Similarly, the prominent role of the judiciary in checking the other branches works against the establishment of tyrannny.

The book is filled with fascinating observations and deductions based on them. Some of them have become dated, and even these are instructive. I’m sure a book about the similarities and differences between his predictions and the present state of the nation would be interesting.

Every page of this book illustrates something else: the notion of four worlds (physical, biological, social, reflective) and the natural history of memes in the development of the reflective from the social. Another book could be devoted to just the memes mentioned in this one, and to the interaction between memes which took place in Tocqueville’s mind.

 

 

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