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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Elizalde

Democracy in America by Alexis De Tocqueville

Volume 1, Part 1, Chapter 5: Tocqueville describes two kinds of centralization. "Governmental centralization" concerns the "formation of general laws and relations with foreign nations" whereas "administrative centralization" concerns the "business undertaken by the townships." Tocqueville argues that administrative centralization weakens a nation by: diminishing any sense of civic pride, by concentrating resources while also militating against the increase of these resources, and by bringing temporary victory in battle yet ultimately diminishing the nation's power. Furthermore, administrative centralization assumes "the government is better able to administer localities than they can themselves" which Tocqueville only believes to be the case when "central government is enlightened and local authorities are not, when it is energetic and they are slow, and when it is accustomed to command and they to obey" - all not characteristics of the enlightened and watchful American. Do you agree with Tocqueville's assessment of the dangers of administrative centralization? Are any of these dangers realized in the United States today?

Volume 1, Part 1, Chapter 8: In his description of the federal courts, Tocqueville writes: "The major objective of justice is to substitute the concept of law for that of violence and to position intermediate authorities between the government and the use of physical force." In this way the courts are a "moral force" that makes the use of "physical force" less frequent and less necessary. The nation's highest court, the Supreme Court, possesses the greatest moral force such that seven federal judges ultimately hold the "peace, prosperity and existence of the Union" in its very hands. Tocqueville claims that without the Supreme Court "the constitution would be a dead letter." Is our judicial branch a "moral force"? Do you agree with Tocqueville's assessment that the constitution would be dead without the Supreme Court?

Volume 1, Part 2, Chapter 5: Tocqueville writes: "When elections occur at long intervals, the state runs the risk of being overthrown each time. ...When elections follow in rapid succession, their frequency keeps society in feverish excitement and public affairs in a continuous state of change. Thus, on one side, the state risks the onset of unease or, on the other, revolution; the former system damages the quality of government, the latter threatens its existence." Does the current frequency of our elections protect us from revolution by perpetuating a healthy amount of instability? At what point could some amount of this kind of instability make us vulnerable to revolution?

Volume 1, Part 2, Chapter 5: Tocqueville writes: "Moreover, it is much less frightening to witness the immorality of the great than to witness that immorality which leads to greatness. In democracies, ordinary citizens see a man emerging from their ranks... is inconvenient to attribute his rise to his talents or to his virtues... Therefore, they ascribe, often rightly, the principal reason for his success to some of his vices." First, you decide what is most frightening, is it the immorality of the great or the immorality that leads to greatness? Why are citizens of a democracy naturally suspicious of the moral behavior of a successful politician?

Volume 1, Part 1, Chapter 6: Tocqueville claims that equalizing social conditions and setting up a democratic government is the best means to: divert man's concern toward physical necessities, settle for reason instead of genius, develop peaceful habits instead of heroic virtues, prefer vice over crime, choose prosperity over brilliance, strengthen individuals rather than the nation, and avoid suffering. Do you agree? How difficult might it be for an aristocracy to achieve these ends?

Volume 1, Part 2, Chapter 9: "Religious zeal constantly gains vitality from the fires of patriotism," writes Tocqueville. Furthermore, he describes the "missionaries of Christian civilization" as politically minded and motivated to the same degree, if not more than, they were heavenly minded. If religious zeal and political ambitions were successfully intertwined in the project of westward expansion, why must the work of the Church eventually be separated from that of the state?

Volume 1, Part 2, Chapter 9: Tocqueville's commentary on faith as the permanent state of mankind is profound. Here it is: "Never will the short span of sixty years close down a man's imagination; the imperfect joys of this world will never satisfy his heart. Man alone of all created beings shows a natural disgust for existence and an immense longing to exist; he despises life and fears annihilation. These different feelings constantly drive his soul toward the contemplation of another world and religion it is which directs him there. Religion is thus one particular form of hope as natural to the human heart as hope itself. Men cannot detach themselves from religious beliefs except by some wrong-headed thinking and by a sort of moral violence inflicted upon their true nature; they are drawn back by an irresistible inclination. Unbelief is an accident; faith is the only permanent state of mankind." So is Tocqueville correct, is faith the only permanent state of mankind?

Volume 1, Part 2, Chapter 10: This chapter concerning the plight of the Native American Indian and Negro is worth reading in its entirety. It is difficult to read and even more difficult to know how to respond to. Tocqueville opens his chapter with this commentary: "Among these very different men, the first to attract attention, the best educated, the most powerful, the happiest, is the white man, the European, the epitome of man; in a position inferior to him appear the Negro and the Indian. These two unfortunate races have nothing in common, neither birth, nor facial features, nor language, nor customs; their fortunes alone are similar. Both occupy an equally inferior position in this country they inhabit; both experience the effects of tyranny; and, if their sufferings are different, they are able to blame the same people." There is no denying that this is a part of our past that shapes the present. How does this sad history impact you personally today? What are you going to do about it?Volume 2, Part 1, Chapter 1: Tocqueville describes America as the one country "where the precepts of Descartes are least studied and most widely applied." In America the lack of clear class divisions and celebration of equality leaves man not looking to the insight of his elders but instead constantly returning to his own rationality - "each man thus retreats into himself from where he claims to judge the world." Men begin to believe that there exists an explanation for everything and so they "willingly deny what they cannot understand." As a result, Tocqueville explains, man is left with "little faith in the extraordinary and an almost invincible distastes for the supernatural." Why might democracy naturally breed a Cartesian distaste for the supernatural?

Volume 2, Part 1, Chapter 17: Tocqueville describes the equality and mediocrity of citizens of a democracy to be insufficient material for the poet wishing to depict beauty. As a result, the poets of a democracy focus their attention on the beauty of inanimate objects (descriptive poetry) and eventually upon themselves. He claims that "democracy diverts the imagination from all that is external to man and fixes it upon man himself." How does a democracy divert man's attention from the beauty that exists outside himself (including the ordinary citizens he lives amongst)?

Volume 2, Part 3, Chapter 12: In a chapter titled, How the Americans View the Equality of Men and Women, Tocqueville writes: "There are Europeans who confuse the various characteristics of the sexes and would make of men and women beings not only equal but alike. To both, they attribute the same functions equally, impose on them the same duties and grant them the same rights. They would involve them both in everything - work, pleasure, business. It is easy to see that, in this ambition to make the one sex equal to the other, both are demeaned and that, from this crude mixing of nature's works, will emerge weak men and immodest women." Might Tocqueville make this very same observation of Americans today (There are Americans who confuse the...)?

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