Tocqueville’s Diagnosis

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RINGOES, NJ As brilliant minds, armed with apparently endless supplies of money, thrash about Washington desperately attempting to fix what they have broken, it might be useful to step back for a minute. Our situation is, we are told, unprecedented. Our good sense should tell us not to be surprised. One can only run a bluff so long. Interestingly, the difficulties we are facing were anticipated almost two-hundred years ago by, of all people, a young French aristocrat.

In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville spent nine months traveling throughout the United States. Andrew Jackson was president; democratic populism was flourishing; and Tocqueville was intrigued. As a result of his sojourn, Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America, a penetrating analysis of Jacksonian America but, more broadly, of democracy per se.

Tocqueville found himself standing on the cusp of a new world. Aristocratic structures were crumbling in Europe and had never gained purchase in America. The age of democracy was fast consuming the last vestiges of the ancient regime. The United States of America represented the leading edge of this new world. Concerned about the democratic convulsions in his own country, Tocqueville came to America to study democracy.

What he found gave him plenty of reasons for hope. In America, equality of conditions helped ensure that fewer people lived lives of misery and strife. The vast number of people could lead lives of dignity, happiness, and freedom. Yet, there was a dark side to the social and political shifts Tocqueville identified. While equality of conditions did serve to improve the lives of vast numbers, it also shaped the way citizens saw themselves and the world around them. As we find ourselves increasingly mired in this economic crisis, we might do well to consider Tocqueville, for his analysis of the American character is eerily contemporary and might, if we take heed, provide us with the guidance we so desperately need.

Tocqueville argues that in ages of democracy, people will, above all else, be drawn to commerce. He predicts that this commercial age will be characterized by many complicated influences, and that “it is impossible to foresee in advance the obstacles that can arise.” Yet, arise they will and because of the complexity of the relations and the sheer numbers of people involved, “at the least shock that [economic] affairs experience…all particular fortunes stumble at the same time and the state totters.” Such a crisis, he claims, is the “endemic malady” of any democratic nation. “One can render it less dangerous, but not cure it, because it is due not to an accident, but to the very temperament of these peoples.”

But what is it about democratic people that make them especially susceptible to economic turmoil, which, in turn, can reach so deep as to threaten the state itself? To answer this we must first grasp why it is that commerce is the primary avenue for creative energies in a democratic age. According to Tocqueville, “democracy favors the taste for material enjoyments.” How? In ages of democracy, all are relatively equal; the strict lines of demarcation between social classes have been removed. Social mobility is possible in a way that was simply unimaginable in aristocratic societies where social roles were largely fixed at birth. Mobility, or the possibility thereof, enlivens the imagination with the possibility of bettering oneself. Such an aspiration is not bad, but if the measure of betterment is reduced merely to material benefit (today we call it standard of living), then problems emerge.

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