A classic in political theory, Democracy in America, (originally published as De la démocratie en Amérique), is a French author Alexis de Tocqueville’s exploration of the new American republic and its peculiar political institutions. The book remains a fascinating and often provocative work of thought, one that has had an enormous influence on the development of democratic politics.
The book’s major theme is the rise of a democratic form of government that Tocqueville believed had already begun in Europe but was only beginning to develop in the United States. He saw the young American republic as a land that seemed to be undergoing a process of radical change, an approach to politics he likened to ‘a philosophy of practicality’. This new American democracy had spread a lived sense of contingency into people’s lives that was making them more susceptible to change.
Tocqueville was particularly impressed by the American concept of civil society, a term he had coined to describe the various non-governmental associations and groups that constituted a community’s informal social structure. He thought this civil society was a vital ingredient in the fabric of democratic life.
In this regard, he was a precursor of today’s civil rights movement and his ideas on the role that religion could play in democratic society were ahead of his time. Tocqueville’s receptiveness to civil society was also evident in his strong support for a constitutional amendment that would guarantee religious freedom.
However, Tocqueville remained skeptical about the future of democracy in America. He pointed out that the political system in the US was becoming increasingly partisan and divided, with the two largest parties drifting further apart politically. He also criticized the American electoral system, which allows each state to set its own rules for electing a president, and he was critical of the winner-takes-all mentality that drives election campaigns.
Tocqueville believed that a democracy could only survive if people embraced a fundamental belief in the equality of citizens. This idea of equality, he wrote, was not the same as Aristotle’s notion of numerical equality; it was a belief in equal worth in all things. He saw this equality as a key element of democracy’s allure, and he warned against its loss.
As we look back on Tocqueville’s insights, it is hard not to feel disillusioned with the way the US democratic system has gone awry. According to a recent Gallup poll, only 19% of Americans are very confident that the country’s democracy is working well. Even more striking is the fact that most of the country’s allies see the US as a shattered, washed-up has-been.