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Democracy is in peril! So said Tocqueville in 1835 and 1840 when Democracy is America was published, and so would he likely say now. Democracy is always just one demagogue away from stripping us of our liberties, though certain structural and cultural features can make that more or less likely.
Tocqueville liked our spirit of volunteerism, our civic activeness, our energy and inventiveness and competitiveness, and the pervasiveness of religion (at the time) in American culture. But he didn't like our groupthink, our tendencies toward materialism and caring only about our own small circle (what he called "individualism"), our lack of philosophical curiosity, and was in favor of a strong separation between church and state. He thought that people in a democracy value equality over freedom, and that in the absence of a strong spiritual countervailing force, we'd spend more energy pursuing material comfort and so would be more likely to allow a tyrant who promises this to us to take control. He also feared the rise of a new aristocracy out of the business world, with bosses becoming the new de facto lords. Then again, he also feared a race war and thought for sure that if the South tried to secede, the federal government would be too weak to prevent this, so there's that.
This discussion was recorded live at Brown University 10/27/16 with Mark, Seth, Wes, and Dylan engaging the political moment and with an audience during the Q&A portion at the end.
Buy the book or read it online. Our reading selections were, in order of importance to us:
1) Volume II Part II, chapters 1–15; Part IV, chapters 6–8.
2) Volume I Author's Introduction
3) Volume I Part II Chapters 7–8
4) Volume II Part I Chapters 1–3, 5
5) Volume I Part I chapters 5–7
6) Volume I Part II chapter 9, 10
Watch the discussion (thanks to Brown University and the Swearer Center) here or on YouTube.
End song (for the audio version): "Shot of Democracy" by Cutting Crew from Grinning Souls (2005). Listen to Mark's interview with singer/songwriter Nick Eede on Nakedly Examined Music ep. 10.
Tocqueville picture by Olle Halvars.
Making America Great Again says
@around 1hr20m in:
I find it kind of silly you claim the objection to Donald Trump taking the stance that he might deny the election results is because people feel we need to have some sort of collective mores and abstract ideals in common, when not a week after having won an election fairly by the same procedures than have endured, those same people were challenging Trump for not having won the irrelevant popular vote, calling on electors to mass defect on a level never seen in American history, begging Hillary to legally challenge the result, and so on.
If anything, I think this election has shown more than any before that coastal Democrats are NOT interested in sharing a polity or common mores and expectations with people like me, and seek to use my electoral decision to label me with the harshest sorts of label of racist, sexist, misogynist, and other thinks that indicate I should not have an equal opinion in civil society.
Mark Linsenmayer says
My point was to explain the press reaction when he made that announcement, and that same norm I think explains why Clinton herself, like Gore, has not contested the election.
This general point by Tocqueville raises an interesting problem: He says we need this set of common mores to underlie and support the legal framework in order for democracy to work, yet we clearly don’t have this in the way he had in mind: We don’t have a common religion. This to him was important even though even in his time there was no common denomination within Christianity and lots of cultural differences between the North and South.
So was he just wrong, and Rawls right, in that we DON’T need common mores and in fact the function of the liberal state is to be neutral with regard to mores to support pluralism… or was Tocqueville right about the need for common mores, but wrong in insisting that religion be among them? If he was right about mores, are we currently in a crisis with a lack of these common mores as your comment seems to indicate, or are the mores in question more general, e.g. pay your debts, play fair (or at least give lip service to playing fair), etc.?
Gore did contest the election. He went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court over 60,000 “punch card” ballots in Florida. In court on December 12, Gore lost and then conceded the next day. I think Clinton herself needs to be questioned about her respect for common mores. She ignored protocol the night of the election itself, when she went to bed instead of giving a traditional concession speech. Imagine if Trump had done that. The Democrats and corporate media would have been calling for his head.
Seriously, what difference does it make? She gave a concession speech the next day… did she have to make it at precisely the time you wanted her to? Did those few hours really make a difference? Get over yourself.
Thomas Rickarby says
The point isn’t that it was a big deal, the point is that the media would have made it a big deal if trump had done it, which we know, because they made a big deal about him going for a steak insteading of meeting with them at a particular time and place.
David Hughes says
I think that if religion is used as the basis of common mores, and we accept that all religions have roughly similar ethics, the question of whether society is neutral becomes moot.
Through most of the discussion – which I thoroughly enjoyed, thank you all very much – I was trying to piece together the link between what de Tocqueville wrote almost 200 years ago and what the country feels like today. His distinction between the aristocrats in Europe and the newly minted democratic people in the US seems to hold true if we replace those groups with the bi-coastal liberals and the rest of the country, respectively. So, as you would expect, the liberals think like Europeans and the middle/southern parts of the country are much more like the society he describes. Does that make sense?
Mark Linsenmayer says
There is no analogue among large groups of today’s U.S. citizens for the aristocrats of his day. If we need a parallel, it’s “big business”, in that a single millionaire (like Trump) can actually make things happen in a way that ordinary citizens can’t do without help. But, then, per our Burke episode, a lot of the advantages of the aristocracy in terms of stability and conservative investment (i.e. A hereditary line of succession and estate to worry about like we see on Downton Abbey) aren’t there.
David Hughes says
Ok. I see that in terms of being able to act as an economic and commcercial independent, But de Tocqueville also said that the aristocrats could be a check against the power of the monarchy, so in a sense, a democratic force (when they acted together to protect their interests), or at least an early example of a civil association. I think that we have just watched “Big Business” dispense with the middleman (the politician) and call an end to such interference. Perhaps that is a conservative investment. 🙂
One’s politics (and sports) have, until pretty recently it seems to me, been handed down by the older generation, partly through clubs and associations (everything from bowling leagues and church to the Princeton Club). As the social influence of these groups has declined, and new open sources of information have come available, there has been more freedom to make one’s own choices about social and political issues. A good thing which has sent most major western parties into the soul-searching wilderness at least once over the last fifteen or twenty years.
But it also offered a commercial opportunity to turn citizens into consumers of opinion and perspectives. And so “Big Business” created the vacuum in politics into which it has finally stepped, making the US the most recent victim of a classic bait-and-switch.
Mark looked so sad 🙁
Mark Linsenmayer says
You know this was recorded before the election, right? I don’t recall being sad…
Is there a particular reason you decided to read the Harvey Mansfield translation? I’m trying to figure out what translation to buy. I think I’m between the Mansfield version and the newer Goldhammer translation. Does anyone have any thoughts on which they like better?
Linked is an article by Goldhammer explaining why he believes his version is better: http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~agoldham/articles/Mansfield.htm
I’m somewhat hesitant to go with Goldhammer because it seems it might be less literal.