Thursday, December 30, 2010

Comments on de Tocqueville's Democracy in America

Before I begin, I must address my facebook friends who see these random notes appear on their homepages: I've made it so my blog posts automatically transfer to facebook notes. Very few of you know about my blog, and none of you read it, so I'm forced to make my posts into facebook notes if I want anyone to read them.

Now, onto the real post...

In my initial studies for the We the People competition, both my textbook and outside articles repeatedly referenced Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, published in 1835. I dutifully acquired the book, read the preface and introduction, and skipped to the chapter relevant to our competition. To my surprise, de Tocqueville drew me in, and I turned back to read from the beginning. A few chapters into this great work, I can understand why so many scholars reference it.

De Tocqueville states that the ideas and conduct of men and nations are best understood when studied from their earliest days. This idea motivates him to begin, after the introduction, by setting the scene with America's geography. He starts with the whole of North America and moves into the details of New England's trees, until I can see the leaves move with the breeze, their shadows rippling across the life-giving decay on the forest floor. With the ease of a novelist, de Tocqueville tours his readers around the States and introduces us to the Natives. In due time, he transitions us into the lives of the colonists, explaining the basic motives and politics of different groups of Anglo-Americans. I am well into the second chapter (or perhaps beginning the third), where de Tocqueville explains much of the principles and governance of the pilgrims and the Puritan societies they formed in New England. The progression of Democracy in America through each explanation feels natural.

My original goal, to prepare for the We the People competition, forced me to skip to the chapter on political associations before I even read the chapters described above. In this chapter, de Tocqueville treats me to his delightful insight regarding my country. I need to learn about voluntary associations in America, and de Tocqueville fulfills that need, broadening my understanding of these associations and the heritage behind them.

"In no country in the world," de Tocqueville claims, "has the principle of association been more successfully used, or more unsparingly applied to a multitude of different objects, than in America. Besides the associations which are established by law," such as townships, "a vast number of others are formed and maintained by the agency of private individuals." De Tocqueville, a foreigner twice to me due to the age and nation he belonged to, describes these associations with a fascination which alerts me that their composition is not universal and not to be taken for granted. I have grown up in a world of voluntary associations, from the larger and politically active groups like Oregon Right to Life or the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) to the community minded groups such as Key club and our local FAN (Family Access Network). In contrast, de Tocqueville considers such associations novel, more replete than those in Europe*.

And what drives the American people to form associations to confront questions and problems around them? De Tocqueville might argue that it is our heritage. "The citizen of the United States," he writes, "is taught from his earliest infancy to rely upon his own exertion in order to resist the evils and the difficulties of life; he looks upon social authority with an eye of mistrust and anxiety, and he only claims its assistance when he is quite unable to shift without it." It is this spirit, Tocqueville believes, which leads citizens to solve problems in their community themselves. De Tocqueville notes that, worldwide, "Societies are formed to resist enemies which are exclusively of a moral nature, and to diminish the vice of intemperance: in the United States associations are established to promote public order, commerce, industry, morality, and religion." We are, according to de Tocqueville, driven to join our exertions in association with an American sense of independence and ingenuity. Reading this, I wonder if, 175 years later, de Tocqueville would observe the same traits of independence from government. I believe his observations would be more mixed. I think that many citizens in the modern United States expect the government to solve more problems than they expected in de Tocqueville's day, and view "Uncle Sam" with less mistrust. At the same time, many maintain the same spirit of independence described in de Tocqueville's work. At the very least, Americans as a whole recognize that our nation is one founded by the people. Should we be dissatisfied with anything in our country, we take for granted the use of freedom of association and freedom of speech.

There I go, rambling again. I shall stop now, and let the reader (if any one does read my blog) experience Democracy in America on their own and thus begin their own reflection on America's constitution, past and present.

*He spends most of the chapter on American political associations, and his comparison of them to their European equivilants are quite interesting. I shall not address this aspect of his work here, as it is a topic best fitted to another post.

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