Saturday, September 14, 2013

First impressions on reading Democracy in America

I've always wanted to read Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, and now I'm taking advantage of my new-found French speaking ability to read the book in French. I haven't gotten very far, but I already have some pretty striking impressions. Here they are.

  • Despite claims to the contrary, it seems pretty legitimate after all to say America is in some sense a Christian nation. Sure, you can point to the theology of the Founding Fathers and say, "Hey, it's all just deism," but Tocqueville is more concerned with the angloamericans who founded places like New England. You can't look at the early settlements without seeing an explicit reference to Christian beliefs in both their goals and even their laws. If "the founders" are people like Washington and Jefferson, then okay, maybe we're just a deist nation. But if "the founders" are the Anglo-Saxons who first came to America, then we are definitely a Christian nation.
  • Tocqueville's general comments on religion strike me as true today just as they were during the Enlightenment: religion was originally the friend of freedom and equality, then it became an ironic enemy, but in many ways it is still a friend and should be more so. The narrative he tells is something like this: Christian beliefs gave people access to a higher power than political power and a belief in inherent human dignity that transcends culture. This was the first step toward defeating tyranny. The next step is democracy, which Tocqueville seems to be best displayed in America, particularly New England.
  • Freedom is not the ability to whatever you want, but rather the ability to do what is right. Tocqueville thus speaks highly of the strong (and religiously motivated) emphasis on education, which he says fosters freedom in the new republic.
  • Townships are the nexus of democracy. Americans in the eyes of Tocqueville are successful in democracy because they build it from the ground up. In fact, Tocqueville marvels precisely at how active the local government is in the life of the people, in contrast to his own French government.
  • Tocqueville gives one of the best descriptions of the modern libertarian ideal you can find. America is founded on allowing individuals to be sovereign in all things which pertain only to them, and likewise for all levels of the federal structure (towns, cities, states, and finally the federal government). Thus there is as little intervention from the top as possible.
  • At the same time, Tocqueville praises townships for having governments which provide an ever-expanding array of services. It may or may not be difficult to reconcile this with modern libertarianism. (Does the growth of federal government actually get in the way of healthy, active local government?)
  • Equality is practically synonymous with freedom. Tocqueville insists that there is probably no group of people on earth that has ever achieved more equality of circumstances than the Anglo-Americans. Yet he also claims that they would be the last people on earth to claim that equality of wealth is a goal worth pursuing. Equality of results is, for him, an outgrowth of freedom, but it's also more than that. In some sense, it is freedom, by definition. Freedom means that no one has any special authority given from above, which is the same as equality.
  • From the very beginning there was a large difference between the North and the South. A lot of people talk about "America's" guilt in tolerating slavery, but as time goes on we seem to get less and less clear on how striking the regional differences actually were. New England, for example, never had slavery. You have to wonder if we weren't asking for a Civil War just by uniting north and south under one Constitution. (None of this is to say racism didn't exist in the North.)
  • Tocqueville is highly critical of slavery, not just because of its consequences for slaves (which is the obvious criticism), but also because of its consequences for society in general. It creates a society which is less free and less progressive for everyone, not just for the enslaved. I believe he says that it makes the society less industrious, which is almost certainly correct.
Some of these impressions might be off base, who knows. What I'm mostly left with is a desire to see more of the vibrant local civic life that Tocqueville seems to love so well in young America. But how do you pull that off in an increasingly transient and mobile society? How do you unite people together by common values? And is there still room in the modern world for communities formed by common religious beliefs?

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