Is Democracy Lost Its Shine?

In an era where the COVID-19 pandemic is roiling, political polarization is growing, and economic inequality has reached a record level, it might be tempting to wonder whether democracy has lost its luster. According to a 2021 survey conducted by Pew Research Center, many of the US’s closest international allies view America as a “shattered, washed-up has-been.” Indeed, the American dream is looking more like a nightmare than a reality for many Americans and the world at large.

The American democracy that Tocqueville observed in 1831 was undergoing a profound transformation. Jacksonian ideology of “manifest destiny” was physically expanding the country from sea to shining sea, suffrage was being expanded to include most white men, and industrialization was transforming the nation from an agrarian to a capitalist society. In his book, Democracy in America (Democracy in the United States), Tocqueville sought to understand the nature of democracy in this new, fast-growing, democratic society.

Tocqueville was struck by the fundamentally different relationship between citizens and their government that existed in America compared to Europe, where a monarch or aristocrat could rule over the people with impunity. In America, the citizen’s rights and duties were regarded as superior to the government’s, and the concept of a democracy based on people over power was revolutionary in his eyes.

Today, the American system of democracy is still evolving, but the core principles have been distorted by the realities of capitalism and modernity. The US has sunk into a culture of money politics, elite rule and a political polarization that is corroding the foundations of our social fabric.

As the nation becomes increasingly polarized, there is no longer common ground between the two major parties. A veto point mentality has become the norm, and political antagonism between the most liberal Democrat and most conservative Republican continues to grow, leaving little room for compromise or productive dialogue.

Media monopolies have also limited people’s access to diversified information, distracting them from the real issues at hand and muting their voices in the decision-making process. Moreover, American foreign policy has tended to model itself after its own system of democracy and export this flawed transplant abroad, plunging countries into turmoil and wars in the name of democracy.

To understand the true nature of democracy in america and to expose its deficiencies and abuses, it is important to return to the original source of this revolutionary idea. HeinOnline offers an interactive edition of Tocqueville’s work that includes scholarly annotations by Alan Keely, retired Associate Director for Collection Services at Wake Forest University Law Library. This digital version of Democracy in America provides unprecedented access to history and the works that informed Tocqueville’s understanding of his subject. It is our hope that this edition will inspire new scholarship and thought about the future of democracy in the US, and around the globe.