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.

Tocqueville posed for this portrait around 1850, nearly two decades after his American odyssey.

Tocqueville posed for this portrait around 1850, nearly two decades after his American odyssey.

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.”

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville's classic, published in 1838.

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville’s classic, published in 1838.


  1. Jack Be Nimble

    And yet we have as a nation seem to have been blessed with just the right leaders at just the right time. How to explain? Perhaps there is something to the idea that God’s blessing has been at work here – ya think? So do we rely on this for our future? Of course not! How does our nation restore a sense of the importance of virtue in choosing our leaders? We start in our schools and your recent blog on Christian education indicates to me that we need to restore Christian values to public education. We need to be educating our young to recognize their spiritual natures and to seek to integrate their intellects and emotions with spiritual realities. This insistence that material existence is all that matters is destructive of democracy.

  2. Ten years later, Charles Dickens, after his tour of the United States, wrote in American Notes of his visit to Washington D.C. and its legislative houses:

    Did I see among them, the intelligence and refinement: the true, honest, patriotic heart of America? Here and there, were drops of its blood and life, but they scarcely coloured the stream of desperate adventurers which sets that way for profit and for pay. It is the game of these men, and of their profligate organs, to make the strife of politics so fierce and brutal, and so destructive of all self-respect in worthy men, that sensitive and delicate-minded persons shall be kept aloof, and they, and such as they, be left to battle out their selfish views unchecked. And thus this lowest of all scrambling fights goes on, and they who in other countries would, from their intelligence and station, most aspire to make the laws, do here recoil the farthest from that degradation.

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