Democracy in America

democracy in america

In the wake of a global pandemic that shook world markets and brought the nation to the brink of recession, Americans have grown increasingly worried about democracy. Most see it as a weak and vulnerable system that needs major reforms to work well. Some say they have lost faith in democracy altogether, while others worry about the ability of American citizens with diverse political views to work together productively. Still more say the country is no longer a model of democracy, and nearly half think the US should abandon its role as a leader in international affairs.

A new poll by the Pew Research Center shows a wide gap between what Americans consider to be important goals for democracy and their perceptions of how well it works. On 23 specific measures involving the political system, elections and democracy abroad, majorities say the United States is either doing very poorly or not at all well in terms of upholding these goals. The biggest problems involve how well the United States is doing at ensuring fairness in elections, preventing corruption and protecting the civil liberties of all people.

More than a century ago, French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville traveled to America in 1831 to study its prisons, but the trip would yield a wealth of broader observations that he would codify in Democracy in America (1835). One of the most influential books of the 19th century, this classic text remains an invaluable explanation of America to Europeans and a critical warning about the potential dangers of individualism and equality.

De Tocqueville arrived in a nation that was changing rapidly and profoundly. Jacksonian democracy was reshaping the American political landscape with its philosophy of “manifest destiny” and physically expanding the country from sea to shining sea. Suffrage had been granted to most white men, and industrialization was transforming America from an agrarian to a capitalist society. These changes improved living standards for the average American but also aggravated regional tensions between North and South.

Tocqueville’s profound insights about the nature of democracy—that it depends on an individual’s ability to associate with others and that, as those associations become more frequent, he will be able to influence government decisions—are as pertinent today as when he wrote them. The American political system remains as powerful and as fragile as it was in Tocqueville’s day, with serious problems ranging from strategic manipulation of election results (like vote fraud) to efforts by executive branches to reduce the independence of the civil service and the judiciary.

HeinOnline has partnered with Alan Keely, retired Associate Director for Collection Services at Wake Forest Law School, to present this fully-searchable, interactive edition of Democracy in America that provides students and researchers with unparalleled access to the historical content that inspired Tocqueville’s thinking. With full-text links to primary sources, and an annotation by Keely that illuminates Tocqueville’s references and sources, this digital edition takes the reader back to 1831 to experience America as it was in Tocqueville’s time.