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Democracy in America; and Two essays on America

by Alexis de Tocqueville

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1,517118,963 (4.06)10
In 1831 Tocqueville set out from post-revolutionary France on a journey across America that would take him 9 months and cover 7,000 miles. The result was DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA- a subtle and prescient analysis of the life and institutions of 19th-century America. Tocqueville's study of the strengths and weaknesses of an evolving democratic society has been quoted by every American president since Eisenhower. It remains a key point of reference for any discussion of the American nation or the democratic system.… (more)
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Hadn't read since college humanities. Filled with plenty of right-on-the-money predictions and a good balance of how far we've come / how nothing has changed moments. Even where the author is a product of his times and the material hasn't aged well he is always instructive to see his reasoning. The freedom of the press segment really pegs current media spot on. ( )
  albertgoldfain | Mar 15, 2021 |
It is difficult to think of a work that influenced both the understanding of the United States and this one, it is still the most authoritative and reflective set of observations on American institutions and the American character ever written. The fact that its author is French and aristocratic, and is balanced and penetrating, often caused a sad surprise. However, Tocqueville's distance from his subject is precisely what lends his observations to this continuous value.

A few decades ago, for example, we read Tocqueville for its prediction that Russia and the United States would one day dispute preeminence. Now, we must read it for its classic analyzes of the link between political parties and free associations and for its reflections on subjects such as religion and public life and properly understood self-interest.

That is the wonderful feature of this book: it is still relevant and everyone can find something in it that is admittedly correct. Leftists claim it as a prescient endorsement of community values ​​and applaud their suspicions about unbridled capitalism; conservatives revere it as full of insights into individual freedom and the flaws of human nature and government. Political theorists love the generalizations; historians, antagonistic to theorists, love it's panoramic image of the United States in the early 19th century. Scholars love its range and reliability ( )
  Marcos_Augusto | Feb 23, 2021 |
Like many people, I think that Donald Trump might not give up power if he loses the presidential election. And if he tries a coup, I'm afraid that he could succeed. I don’t think that’s the likely outcome, but it’s not something I’d discount. Deeply I want to believe in the robustness of American democracy, whose persistence (with its own specific glories, quirks, failures and hypocrisies) is something I've always taken more or less for granted. But tyranny has its own momentum, which, with some bad luck, can become unstoppable.

So I've turned to Tocqueville's Democracy in America for insight. After all, he's the guy who really believed in the wisdom of the American people (or at least of that part guided by New England mores).

I read the book many years ago, but this time I wanted to read it analytically in the light of the present moment. Specifically I wanted to look at what fundamentals might have changed in recent times – or slowly and incrementally – that could account for the USA’s lurch to authoritarianism.

So here are some scattergun thoughts about the book's possible lessons for today’s crisis. I put them forward less as theses than as starting points for discussion, should anyone wish to join in:

a) Most relevant so far has been Chapter 9 in the first volume: Causes Which Tend to Maintain a Democratic Republic.

What in those circumstances has changed that could give rise to Trump and possibly (shudder) to the end of democracy in America?

Having stated that "general prosperity supports the stability of all governments, but especially democratic governments which depend on the attitudes of the greatest number and primarily upon the attitudes of those most exposed to privations," Tocqueville goes on to describe how the natural bounty of America irresistibly furnishes that prosperity; the uncultivated wilderness that offers successive generations the opportunity for new wealth and fosters a repeating cycle of enterprise and dynamism.

Comparing this to the European nature, he writes (trans. Gerald Bevan):

“We Europeans are accustomed to look upon a restless spirit, an inordinate desire for wealth and an extreme passion for independence as grave social dangers. Yet precisely all these things guarantee a long and peaceful future for the republics of America Without those disquieting passions, the population would be concentrated around certain places and would soon experience, as we do, needs which are difficult to satisfy. What a fortunate country the New World is, where man's vices are almost as valuable to society as his virtues! This exerts a great influence upon the way human behaviour is judged in the two hemispheres. What we call the love of gain is often laudable hard work for the Americans who see a certain faintheartedness in what we consider to be moderation of one's desires.”

And summarising, he says:

“Prosperity influences Americans even more freely than foreigners. The American has always seen orderliness and public prosperity linked together and marching in step; he cannot imagine their existing apart.”

So here's my question/thesis/half-baked thought: If the USA, having been thoroughly populated from sea to shining sea, and having come to the end of a protracted period of post-war military and cultural expansion beyond its borders, and having come to the end of bubbles of artificial wealth creation promoted in different ways by Reagan and Clinton and the Bushes, and having (finally) experienced the decoupling of prosperity from orderliness, having run out roads as it were, could it be that the country's vices are now (finally) harmful to society? And that moderation of desires (Jimmy Carter style frugality?) is needed, but is too anathema to the Make America Great Again brigade, who are so used to seeing excess as a virtue?

Or is that typically European prejudice/faintheartedness on my part?

Or have there been other protracted periods in American history which have seen prosperity divorced from orderliness? (The Great Depression springs to mind, but the period is arguably too short; although I suppose the exceptional 4-term election of FDR might speak to a taste for strong leaders (admittedly of a vastly different stripe) in times of economic distress and national crisis.) ( )
  antao | Sep 25, 2020 |
Interesting view of America's government from the viewpoint of a
Frenchman. Nice to know what the Constitution really intended vs. what it has become.
( )
  LindaLeeJacobs | Feb 15, 2020 |
A slow but essential read for anyone that wants to understand the U.S. The book lays out why the U.S. is unique and has always been unique. ( )
  JBGUSA | Mar 31, 2013 |
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If the number of times an individual is cited by politicians, journalists, and scholars is a measure of their influence, Alexis de Tocqueville—not Jefferson, Madison, or Lincoln—is America’s public philosopher.
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Democracy in America AND Two Essays on America - please don't combine with "Democracy in America" proper.
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In 1831 Tocqueville set out from post-revolutionary France on a journey across America that would take him 9 months and cover 7,000 miles. The result was DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA- a subtle and prescient analysis of the life and institutions of 19th-century America. Tocqueville's study of the strengths and weaknesses of an evolving democratic society has been quoted by every American president since Eisenhower. It remains a key point of reference for any discussion of the American nation or the democratic system.

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