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Will We Heed Tocqueville’s Warnings?

Surveying the American political scene, he would be dismayed at the ignorance, lies, and lack of dialogue that prevent serious debate.
September 25, 2020
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(Hannah Yoest / Photos: GettyImages)

As we enter the last stretch before the 2020 elections, the future of American democracy appears to be in question. The country seems divided into irreconcilable political camps and is struggling to come to terms with growing economic inequality and the long legacy of discrimination. Violence and unrest have added to the fear and uncertainty unleashed by the pandemic. Nobody can predict what will happen after the elections. Yet, history offers some clues about how America should address its daunting challenges. Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America is arguably both the best book on democracy and the best book on America, might be unsurprised by the current crisis. He might, in fact, have useful advice for resolving it.

When Tocqueville visited America in 1831-32, he was impressed to find a functioning democracy based on a vibrant civil society and strong tradition of self-government. America, he hoped, could serve as a model for other countries around the world. Yet, only two decades later, arguments over slavery and states’ rights were dividing the country, and by the time James Buchanan became president in 1857, America stood on the brink of civil war. Tocqueville died in 1859 and did not witness the Civil War. What would he say about us if he visited America today?

A rereading of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and his correspondence with his American friends in the 1850s might provide some clues. His letters from that period suggest that many of the dangers he warned about in Democracy in America had come to pass. For example, he had cautioned that the concentration of wealth in a new “industrial aristocracy,” if left unchecked, could threaten the future of democracy. He also warned that the quest for wealth could encourage an excessive commercialism that would fuel boundless desires and unbridled materialism.

Today, Tocqueville’s premonitions have become a reality. The top one percent possess nearly a third of the nation’s total wealth and use their money and power to influence government economic policy in their favor. The exponential growth in economic inequality is marginalizing America’s middle and working classes. Our billionaire “aristocrats” amass their great wealth not in manufacturing but through their control of finance, high tech, real estate, and communications companies in global markets. Many of them have seen their stocks shoot upward during the current pandemic. The gap between Wall Street and Main Street has increased despite the economic havoc and rising unemployment caused by COVID-19.

Tocqueville admired America’s embrace of “self-interest properly understood” and self-government based on combining individual freedom with civic solidarity and community service. He believed that they helped curb extreme forms of individualism and allowed Americans to form effective associations and institutions at the local level. Americans pooled their resources and skills to provide schools, roads, security, and other public services. Today, self-interest “properly understood” is on the wane, the art of association in decline, and the polarization and unraveling of communities on the rise.

Tocqueville hoped that religion would restrain the excessive quest for wealth and comfort and remind individuals of their obligations to others. America’s commitment to religious freedom and separation of church and state avoided public clashes over religious issues and enabled religious minorities to follow their own paths. Today, however, organized religion has become highly polarized and politicized, as reflected in the sharp divisions between orthodox and heterdox forces within different denominations. These forces, which tend respectively to align politically with conservatives and liberals, push the federal government to pass laws reflecting their views on divisive issues such as abortion, gay rights, social justice, and the role of government. Religious intolerance, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism are also on the rise, making religion a highly polarizing issue in American politics.

In the 1830s, Tocqueville saw race and slavery as having corrupting effects on American democracy. By the late 1850s, he came to believe that the corruption of democratic institutions and mores caused by these factors was a great threat to the future of the republic. Although slavery is gone today, racism remains a powerful and divisive force in American politics and a major cause of polarization. The murder of George Floyd was viewed by millions of Americans. While it caused especial pain to African Americans, it also motivated large-scale, multiracial protest demonstrations throughout the country calling for fairer treatment for minorities.

Although the upsurge in racism and anti-foreigner sentiment would not have surprised Tocqueville, he would be concerned by trends similar to those that undermined democracy in America in the 1850s. Then, America witnessed a ruthless competition for power and attacks on political opponents and their supporters, couched in hyperbolic and uncivil rhetoric. These factors fostered an intolerant and lawless spirit that manifested in violence in some parts of the country.

Returning to America today, Tocqueville would be dismayed at the ignorance, lies, and lack of dialogue that prevent serious political debate. Social media has fueled hyperpartisanship and ideological intransigence. Anyone watching cable news or following President Trump’s immoderate tweets notices the rise of a debased political discourse that verges on extremism and conveys little information. The line between real facts and alternative facts has become blurry. The decline of local newspapers and the growth of concentrated media power, concerned with ratings and profits over accurate reporting, are an unfortunate reality. Tocqueville would also deplore the abuse of executive power to subvert the rule of law and eliminate checks and balances. Both are sacred principles at the core of the U.S. Constitution designed to protect individual rights and freedoms and prevent excessive concentration of power in any single branch of government.

Moreover, Tocqueville also would be concerned by the deep divisions in the country today. Red states, yearning for a bygone past, seem to have little in common with Blue states, rapidly reshaping themselves to the perceived realities of the twenty-first century.

The international scene doesn’t offer reason for optimism either. Much like in the 1850s, America’s image as a model of equality and freedom for other countries aspiring to democracy has lately been tarnished. This should concern all the friends of liberty in America and around the world. Democracy is under attack by increasingly despotic regimes in Russia, China, India, Turkey, Brazil, Venezuela, and Iran. The enemies of democracy take comfort in America’s troubles and Trump’s irresponsible encouragement of radical extremists at home and dictatorships abroad.

America is facing a big choice today: whether to continue being a beacon of freedom and democracy or align with despots around the world. While the country has in recent years given little satisfaction to the friends of freedom, common sense may yet prevail. America has demonstrated its resilience in overcoming political and economic decline in the past. Can the country do it again?

It would not be the first time. In 1852, Tocqueville believed that American democracy had “nothing more to fear than from itself, from the abuse of democracy, the spirit of adventure and conquest, from the sense and exaggerated pride in its strength, and from the impetuosity of youth.” He recommended that America tried to overcome its divisions through moderation and a return to its founding principles. His advice was not followed then. and the price paid was high. If today’s Americans are wise enough to heed Tocqueville’s suggestions, their country might once again become a model of democracy for all the world.

Aurelian Craiutu and Sheldon Gellar

Aurelian Craiutu is a professor of political science at Indiana University, Bloomington. Sheldon Gellar lives in Tel Aviv and is a former associate of the Ostrom Workshop at Indiana University. Both are coeditors of Conversations with Tocqueville: The Global Democratic Revolution in the Twenty-First Century (2009).