Monday, February 1, 2010

Democracy in America

" Democracy in America " by Alexis de Tocqueville, tranlated by George Lawrence, edited by J.P. Mayer, Penguin Press, Selection of Watha T Daniel Book Club

Because of the recent debates about Health Care and Environmental legislation there has been a companion discussion by many about the nature of how the popular will should be expressed in a democracy and consideration of a possible manipulation of the voters by populist organizations. In my group house in Takoma there are skeptics about the validity of these groups and those who really feel their protest is valid. This discussion inspired me to take a new look at the classic work on democracy, “Democracy in America” by the French traveler Alexis de Tocqueville. "Democracy in America” is important because it is the first study that attempted to create a portrait of how government and society in a democracy actually worked. It was written during the emerging democracy of the United States during the Jackson Administration in the early Nineteenth Century.

What I found when I looked into this work was a surprise. This is a profound book that sheds light on the causes and conditions for real democratic expression in the United States, even in our own day. De Tocqueville came up the idea of the reality of society, society was apart from the state, politically significant. It was an idea that revolutionized the understanding of political science and has great import for us today. Alexis de Tocqueville believed that there were two distinct realities: the patterns or habits of social life and the governmental structures of the state. They influenced each other but were separate.

In de Tocqueville’s view, democracy was not so much a government as a way of life, as a set of patterns of political participation and expression that were connected to how relationships within families, among neighbors and life in larger communities were conducted. American society itself, then, established habits of political activism that were part of the personality and associations of each citizen. They were patterns established by the mores of the early settlers and shaped the town meeting and other institutions of early American democracy.

Now with regard to the controversies today about health care and other issues, one can conclude that every kind of expression of opinion, even the rancorous ones, may have some value, because it is an expression of the people’s habitual expression of concern. This may be true even if the message is not well thought-out or articulate. It is still an expression of a determination to have one’s say. Democracy is nourished by these movements even if they come in the form of strident statements. It seems one has to take a larger view regarding the import of these events and view them as part of a continual back and forth movement of ideas that is part of our political culture. Even though there was strong expression of dislike for a specific health care program in those town meetings and this was expressed in a rude and strident way that expression may not be by itself destructive.

These movements can be seen as part of the pattern of direct expression of the passions of a particular group in society that feels threatened. Overall, it is an expression that is healthy for both the body of society and the government that represents it. As de Tocqueville found in his tour of America in the 1830s, the expression of popular sentiment in politics causes disorder and disturbs governance. Democratic debate is a messy business that often offended the sensibility of Alexis de Tocqueville as an aristocrat. But he saw how those habits of political participation were deeply ingrained in American social life. It was those long held patterns that are the foundation for a well functioning republican government. We can take heart today to find that our political life is just as disorderly and disturbing as it was in the times of the early republic when de Tocqueville observed it.

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