Democracy in America: It Succeeds Because Politics Is Just One of Many Outlets for Its Passions and Ambitions

By Samuelson, Robert J. | Newsweek, November 13, 2000 | Go to article overview

Democracy in America: It Succeeds Because Politics Is Just One of Many Outlets for Its Passions and Ambitions


Samuelson, Robert J., Newsweek


Byline: Robert J. Samuelson

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) wouldn't have been surprised by the campaign's bitterness, with one candidate (Gore) cast as a liar and the other (Bush) as an imbecile. Tocqueville would have had an interesting explanation because, even though he was French, he understood the United States as well as anyone, before or since. His "Democracy in America" remains the "best book ever written on democracy and the best book ever written on America," say political scientists Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop in their major new translation. * Its appearance is fortuitous: an opportunity--just as the campaign ends--to assess why American democracy succeeds, despite its many shortcomings.

Tocqueville arrived in the United States in 1830 in his mid-20s. He stayed nine months and traveled widely to Boston, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Memphis, New Orleans, Washington and the then frontier areas of Michigan and Wisconsin. He talked to President Andrew Jackson, ex-president John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster and many others. Tocqueville aimed to see what might await France, which, despite its revolution, remained bitterly divided over democracy's value. "I wanted to... know at least what we ought to hope or fear from [democracy]," he writes.

What he discovered was that America's democracy was not just government and politics. It was a set of beliefs, values and practices about what people should expect from life. Consider his opening lines:

"Among the new objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, none struck my eye more vividly than the equality of conditions. I discovered without difficulty the enormous influence that this primary fact exerts on the course of society; it gives a certain direction to public spirit, a certain turn to the laws... it creates opinions... and modifies everything..."

In "Democracy in America"--published in two volumes, in 1835 and 1840--Tocqueville showed how this new American sensibility permeated society, from politics to poetry. What he meant by "equality of conditions" was closer to our "equality of opportunity" than to "equality of results." It was, he writes, "the right to indulge in the same pleasures, to enter the same professions... to live in the same manner and pursue wealth by the same means..."

Here was America's novelty--the assumption that no one was automatically superior to anyone else. This separated America from the Old World, with its aristocratic heritage. Property was mainly inherited, not acquired. Social and economic standing flowed heavily from birth, not talent or labor. People knew their place. "Tocqueville always understands democracy in contrast to aristocracy," write Mansfield and Winthrop. The two were "opposed ways of life."

The American sensibility altered family relations. Even then, women's roles--compared with those in Europe--expanded. Art tended toward "the quickest or the cheapest," because no longer were there only a few wealthy patrons as buyers. Above all, Americans were ambitious and acquisitive. …

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