Some more timely food for thought from Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic Democracy in America. As I meditated on the passages below, I couldn’t help but think about next week’s Republican gathering in Cleveland and its likely outcome.
To remind you, Tocqueville was a sympathetic critic of American democracy, and the two-volume work that he penned after his visit to the United States in 1831-1832 is widely hailed as “the most perceptive and influential book ever written about American politics and society.” Among other things, he called attention to the dangers of excessive individualism and materialism in a democratic culture, identified the ever-present potential of the “tyranny of the majority,” and underscored the crucial importance of religious belief to the success of America’s democratic system.
The quotes below come from a section in volume I on the topic of “The People’s Choices and the Instinctive Preferences of American Democracy” (vol. I, part II, chapter 5). Writing primarily for a French audience, Tocqueville began by noting that many Europeans assumed that one of the advantages of democracy is that free elections based on universal suffrage reliably selects individuals “worthy of public trust” into important public offices. “For my part,” Tocqueville confessed, “I must say that what I saw in America gave me no reason to believe that this is the case.”
In the rest of this brief section the Frenchman theorized as to why this was true. On the one hand, he reasoned, making wise decisions between alternative candidates required “enlightenment,” i.e., informed voters. “Enlightenment” was not simply a euphemism for intelligence or education. Tocqueville thought it depended primarily on the amount of time that voters were either able or willing to devote to educating themselves on the issues of a campaign and the strength and weaknesses of the rival candidates. Regarding the latter, he noted, “What a lengthy period of study and variety of ideas are necessary to form an exact idea of the character of a single man! The greatest geniuses fail at this, yet the multitude is supposed to succeed!”
Maybe even more important than this, according to Tocqueville, was a vice that democratic society seems to nurture: envy. So strong was the passion for equality in America’s democratic society, Tocqueville believed, that democratic Americans detested all appearances of superiority among other Americans, up to an including those they elected to office. “No form of superiority is so legitimate that the sight of it is not wearisome to their eyes,” Tocqueville observed. “They do not fear great talents but have little taste for them.”
And the consequences of this mindset for American government? “There is no escaping the fact that in the United States today the most outstanding men are seldom called to public office.” This was partly due to the votes that the electorate cast on election day, but it also reflected a pattern by which the most qualified individuals refused to become candidates. And why was this, Tocqueville asked?
While the natural instincts of democracy lead the people to banish distinguished men from power, an instinct no less powerful leads distinguished men to shun careers in politics, in which it is so very difficult to remain entirely true to oneself or to advance without self-abasement.
The bottom line for Tocqueville: “I am satisfied that anyone who looks upon universal suffrage as a guarantee of good choices is operating under a total illusion. Universal suffrage has other advantages, but not that one.”