Thoughts on Democracy in America

I just finished reading Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and had kind of mixed feelings about it.

I thought the first volume was really interesting and insightful. It was quite interesting (especially as a non-American) to learn about how the American political system was initially set up and what intelligent contemporaries thought of it. There was a delightful mix of “wow, he really called this” and “wow, that has really changed since his day” that made it feel very relevant. I gleaned quite a bit of insight into the genesis of a number of United States political institutions and indeed aspects of American national character to the present day.

The second volume, unfortunately, rather disappointed me.

It focuses on how democracy affects the national character in all manner of ways, from the way Americans talk, to the way they write poetry, to what kind of plays they go see. It disappointed me because it seemed far less rigorous & based in observation than the first volume and seemed to mostly be “reckons” extrapolated from two examples – American society is what all democratic societies look like, French ancien rĂ©gime society is what all aristocratic societies look like. In particular, it seems to conflate capitalism with democracy, as he ascribes to the “democratic character of society” a lot of what I think would be better termed “market pressures”.

There were a also some underlying themes that inspired a bit of a “yikes” reaction; in particular, the bits about how it isn’t possible to have black & white people living together and there would inevitably have to be separate countries if the slaves ever gained their freedom & the section about how Christianity is the only religion that can work & Islam is destined to fade away shortly. There is also a bit where he mentions how there are some lunatics who “claim to make of man and woman creatures who are, not equal only, but actually similar” (p. 601)…really reminds you that, for all his talk of everyone is equal in America, he only considers white men to be people.

In any case, it was a really interesting book that I am very glad I finally read (studying engineering instead of liberal arts has left me with quite a bit of reading I need to do). Democracy (and the lack thereof) in America is a pretty big concern right now and this book (in conjunction with the extremely excellent two-volume series The Invention of the White Race by Theodore Allen) is helping me figure out what this strange and terrifying system is about.