By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Alexis de Tocqueville
Narration by: Frederick Davidson
“Democracy in America”, published in 1835, argues that the pursuit of equality makes America unique. Actually published in two volumes, the first in 1835 and the second in 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville explains the essential difference between America and the rest of the 19TH century world. Surprisingly, it is not the quest for freedom. It is the pursuit of equality.
Some believe what makes America unique is freedom but Hobbes notes that freedom is anarchic. Evidence of that truth is apparent today in Libya and other nations; i.e. nations bereft of government, or severely challenged by civil unrest. Countries without government, or overwhelming civil unrest are anarchic. De Tocqueville notes that pursuit of equality mitigates anarchy. He argues that the drive for equality in early nineteenth century America (not the drive for sameness or economic leveling, but the equality of being human) is America’s uniqueness.
De Tocqueville anticipates the American civil war because of the inequality of slavery. He is appalled by America’s displacement and degradation of indigenous American Indians. He decries the lies told Indian leaders about land that they are given for peace and taken from by murder, theft, and exploitation. Though not foreseen or understood by de Tocqueville in 1835, women’s drive for equality becomes an American obsession. Much of America’s history is founded on American citizen’s pursuit of human equality.
De Tocqueville does not view America through rose-tinted glasses. He records the maladies of American governance and the threat of industrial self-interest. He disdains the Presidency of Andrew Jackson, his ignorance and discriminatory practices; his arrogance and disrespect for the Constitution and rule of law. He warns of the consequence of self-interest that measures one’s worth by material wealth.
At the same time, de Tocqueville acknowledges the energy created by individual self-interest that makes Americans restless, inventive, and highly productive in an industrializing economy. He sees how self-interest, in a society that believes in equality of opportunity, will make America a superpower one day. He lauds the American effort to provide public education.
De Tocqueville warns America against tyranny of the majority and the potential for political corruption based on capitalist materialism. In spite of that danger, he notes the value of widely dispersed land ownership that passes through generations of different families. He notes that private property ownership mitigates the rise of aristocracy in America. One may argue that is untrue in the 21st century because the politics and economics of the present day are raising the issue of income inequality.
Present day political movements like “Occupy Wall Street” are a reflection of America’s continuing drive for equality.
De Tocqueville infers freedom is a fiction. He agrees with Hobbes’ belief that the nature of humankind requires regulation to insure fairness among equals; beginning with childhood education, and continuing through maturity and old age.
It is a battle that de Tocqueville is unsure America will win because of the two faces of materialist capitalism. One that encourages innovation and the other that leads to indolence and immorality.
He argues that Americans work hard for materialist reward and become susceptible to the indolent pursuit of pleasure with no other discernible purpose in life. He believes ancient Greeks and 19th century aristocratic leaders view life more philosophically and less materialistically. De Tocqueville’s point is that materialism is less important than believing in meaning or purpose in life; i.e. the idea of the good versus the attainment and experience of pleasure.
An equally ominous caution is capsulized in this quote from de Tocqueville: “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.” The current state of affairs twists this caution into the influence of corporate wealth on the American election process.
When the Supreme Court rules that corporations are like people and cannot be stopped from expressing their opinion with cash donations, the role of public money geometrically increases to bribe, or at least influence, politicians.
He notes that the second nation that will grow into a superpower is Russia; i.e. a monarchy growing under the leadership of the second Romanov, Alexander I.
De Tocqueville contrasts the democracy of America with the aristocracy of Russia. De Tocqueville argues that wars are more effectively won by aristocratic than democratic states. Wars, he suggests, are more efficiently executed in a monarchy than in a democracy. He explains that a democracy is too slow to effectively start a war and even slower to remove itself from war. Of course, he had little inkling of the rise of Russian communism and the impact of state ownership of property on its progress.
Bill Browder’s book about his business experience in Russia suggests Sergei Magnitsky is murdered at the direction of Putin’s government.
De Tocqueville offers great insight to American Democracy. Many think freedom is the most important aspect of democracy but de Tocqueville’s argument is that the drive for equality is what makes America historically unique.
America is still struggling with equality. The drive for equality remains America’s hope and its opportunity to remain a great nation. America’s drive for equality is playing out in the politics of twenty-first century Democratic and Republican elections. Drive for equality is evident in the “Black Lives Matter” movement in America’s cities. Sadly, it is playing out in violence between police and the public.