Democracy in America

democracy in america

The four volumes of the 19th century classic Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville have become a touchstone for political thinkers, historians and a vast array of writers – including Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Hermann Melville’s Moby Dick and Franz Kafka’s The Trial. It is a work that, for its daring conjectures and elegant prose, formidable length and narrative complexity, has always been subject to wide interpretations. Some read it as a lavish hymn to American power and rising global pre-eminence, while others view it as a cautionary tale of the dangers of hubris and the inexorable destruction that awaits those who do not respect the limits of human powers.

While Tocqueville praised the democratic innovations of American society that he saw, such as the political party system, representative government and one man/one vote, he also noted that these innovations have not eliminated the inequality that was at the root of European feudal autocracies. He believed that this inequality would persist, but he did not believe that it would necessarily grow in size and scope. He thought that, as democracy spread, it would cause people to be driven to seek ways to equalise the property, status and power of other people. The desire for equality would make them feel that current inequalities were purely contingent and thus potentially alterable by human action itself.

Tocqueville also recognised that, while democracy spreads passion for the equalisation of power, property and wealth, it also makes people less concerned about protecting fundamental human rights. He was particularly worried that this development could lead to the erosion of freedom, a deterioration of morals and a loss of respect for law.

In the present day, many observers – including scholars of American politics – are dismayed to see that some of Tocqueville’s worries have been proved to be true. American democracy has been hijacked by the interests of capital and financial power, with money politics permeating every aspect of election, legislation and administration. The US has a habit of interfering in other countries’ internal affairs and seeking regime change to install pro-US governments, with disastrous consequences for the people of those countries.

It has been widely argued that the US’s so-called ‘democracy’ is a sham. A recent report by the Brookings Institution warned that US democracy is at a “tipping point” and that it is declining faster than previously thought. This decline is fuelled by a number of factors, including the growing number of voter restrictions and electoral fraud and the public’s lack of faith in the government. The fractious nature of American politics has also contributed to this disintegration. Political polarization is on the rise and both Republicans and Democrats are increasingly following their voters down the path of ideological extremism, with mutual inhibition and antagonism becoming commonplace. As a result, they are moving towards what one scholar has called factionalized anocracy – the halfway stage between autocracy and democracy. In addition, political violence has become more frequent and more widely accepted, with the brutal attack on the Capitol in Washington a case in point.