I’ve been rereading Democracy in America by Alexis de Toqueville, published in 1825. It’s an eye opener—you would think something that ancient would be outdated. It isn’t. His mind fascinates me—he saw so many things about America and Americans that I would never think of. I feel like I’ve been dipped in “smarts” every time I read.
The Democracy part of the title has always confused me. I think we use the word differently today than they did in the early 1800s. Today we view democracy, one of the three main forms of government, as dangerous--politicians can “buy” the public. (The other two are a monarchy—rule by one, and an oligarchy—rule by a few--always the wealthy and important. None of the three give the best deal to ordinary people.)
As de Toqueville used the term democracy, it meant majority self-rule. The two definitions aren’t the same.
Majority self-rule means we govern ourselves according to what the majority wants. This can be done in different ways, one of which is to elect representatives to act for us, which is the American way. The elected level between us and government gives us safety and prevents mischief. If the representatives remain honest and true to their task, we really get sound government out of this arrangement.
A pure democracy also meets the self-rule by majority criteria. Under a pure democracy, however, everyone must speak. That never works. Imagine the disaster if every single citizen had to vote on every law, be at every city council meeting, traffic court, and department meeting. That wouldn’t last for long.
Ancient Greece tried pure democracy and it survived for only 60 years or so--their Golden Age under Pericles the Great. Those who had to work for a living quit showing up for the vote. After awhile only the wealthy, who had others to do their work, attended. They drafted laws to get what they wanted and then bought off the people to make it happen. Democracy tumbled, as a pure democracy always does.
The Founders worked all three major types of government into our system: a president for the monarchy, a Senate for the oligarchy, and the House of Representatives for all the people. It worked well. Still, everything was based on the majority. Without that, a minority rules—a few, who get what they want, and we would not be equal.
We’ve messed it up pretty badly. Part of the reason is that we have redefined equality. We say that everyone deserves the same everything. It’s impossible.
The only fair equality is that we can keep what we earn or what is given to us. We are equal before the law, in the courts, and in God-given rights. Government can’t make everything equal. Equality means that you get according to what you do and are given.
A last word about Alexis de Toqueville: he was young, French, and a nobleman’s son who came to America in 1823 with a friend and left 9 months later. He was smart and paid attention. After he got home he spent years writing about what he learned in America, putting the information into two books.
It’s amazing how clearly de Toqueville caught our national personality. It can be confusing, however, until you understand about democracy and the equality part.
If you want a great summer read, try the abridged version—try the original only if you have time on your hands! I can never read more than a few pages at a time because I have to stop and put the pieces together with what I already know. Democracy in America is amazing! Try it!