Democracy in America

The US is not a straight A student when it comes to democracy. The world has a discerning eye and a deep sense of pessimism about American-style democracy, especially when it comes to US hypocrisy in exporting democratic values and acts of bullying and hegemony around the globe. The gunshots, farce and squabbling on Capitol Hill have revealed that beneath the gorgeous exterior of US democracy, there lies corruption and dysfunction.

In the 16 years since Donald Trump was elected, US democracy has deteriorated at an alarming pace. A recent survey found that only 16% of Americans think their democracy is working well or extremely well. This is a sharp decline from 38% who said this in 2004. The squabbling and the infighting are not only distracting from quality governance, but they also erode people’s faith in democracy. This is because they encourage citizens to view the state as a “black box,” an unaccountable power that is always out of control. In addition, the power of the media has distorted the function of the supposedly democratic system of checks and balances that was designed to prevent the growth of despotism in America.

This is a profound crisis of democracy. The public is disillusioned with politics and pessimistic about the country’s future. Amid this climate of cynicism, the world is entering its sixteenth year of democratic recession, with authoritarian leaders rising to power as voters abandon their democracies in favor of security and economic stability.

One of the most influential books of modern times, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, is still regarded as a landmark breakthrough in our understanding of democracy as an extraordinary political form that stirs up people’s sense of contingency and makes them aware of how much of their current way of life might change if other conditions were to prevail. Tocqueville was fascinated by the new American society of civil associations, and he saw in it the germ of what he called the new mode of self-government that he had long dreamed of.

Tocqueville’s book is remarkable for its openness to paradox and its ability to juggle opposites. It is a work of profound intuitions, but it is also a work of immense scholarship, carefully gathered by a man with an adventurous spirit and the capacity to see the beauty in the midst of chaos.

The first and most important insight Tocqueville gleaned from his study of the young American republic was the centrality of a culture of civil associations. These institutions, which Tocqueville referred to as a “societe civile,” are an integral part of the democratic system and have radical social implications. The art of associating enables men to soften their customs and become more civilized, and it is through the practice of this art that democracy has been able to achieve its success. This is a powerful argument for democracy, and it is a case that has never been more relevant than today. – David Heldt, Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill