Appropo of the soon to arrive U.S. midterm elections, I thought I would let you know about a book I am very slowly working on that I call Reverse de Tocqueville; I look at the effort as a sort of life work so have no great compunction to publish during my lifetime but if that happens — so be it. Basically, I have been looking at European socio-political-economic entities to see how the U.S. might improve upon its current dysfunctional, maladaptive and sometimes downright scary institutions. The sheer violence and dissatisfaction enveloping many U.S. citizens and inhabitants is quite distressing and disconcerting to me.
The first step has been to read, somewhat painstakingly, the masterpiece, Democracy in America, written by Alexis de Tocqueville the french lawyer, aristocrat, diplomat, philosopher, expert on the American socio-political systems, specifically the prison system back in the year 1835, a little more than 50 years after the founding of the United States of America. I just finished Chapter twelve: Political Associations in The United States.
I thought it might be helpful to quote some of that chapter to give you a taste of how prescient de Tocqueville was in critiquing our current political situation today and he is a welcome voice in the din and drone of our popular print, video and social media outlets.
“The more we consider the independence of the press in its principal consequences, the more are we convinced that it is the chief and, so to speak, the constitutive element of freedom in the modern world. A nation which is determined to remain free is therefore right in demanding the unrestrained exercise of this independence. But the unrestrained liberty of political association cannot be entirely assimilated to the liberty of the press. The one is at the same time less necessary and more dangerous than the other. A nation may confine it within certain limits without forfeiting any part of its self-control; and it may sometimes be obliged to do so in order to maintain its own authority.
In America the liberty of association for political purposes is unbounded. An example will show in the clearest light to what an extent this privilege is tolerated.
The question of the tariff, or of free trade, produced a great manifestation of party feeling in America; the tariff was not only a subject of debate as a matter of opinion, but it exercised a favorable or a prejudicial influence upon several very powerful interests of the States. The North attributed a great portion of its prosperity, and the South all its sufferings, to this system; insomuch that for a long time the tariff was the sole source of the political animosities which agitated the Union.
In 1831, when the dispute was raging with the utmost virulence, a private citizen of Massachusetts proposed to all the enemies of the tariff, by means of the public prints, to send delegates to Philadelphia in order to consult together upon the means which were most fitted to promote freedom of trade. On October 1, 1831, this assembly, which according to the American custom had taken the name of a Convention, met at Philadelphia … At the end of ten days’ deliberation the Convention broke up, after having published an address to the American people, in which it declared:
- That Congress had not the right of making a tariff, and that the existing tariff was unconstitutional;
- That the prohibition of free trade was prejudicial to the interests of all nations, and to that of the American people in particular.
It must be acknowledged that the unrestrained liberty of political association has not hitherto produced, in the United States, those fatal consequences which might perhaps be expected from it elsewhere. The right of association was imported from England, and it has always existed in America; so that the exercise of this privilege is now amalgamated with the manners and customs of the people…”
Continuing later in chapter twelve, “But perhaps the most powerful of the causes which tend to mitigate the excesses of political association in the United States is Universal Suffrage. In countries in which universal suffrage exists the majority is never doubtful, because neither party can pretend to represent that portion of the community which has not voted. The associations which are formed are aware, as as the nation at large, that they do not represent the majority; this is, indeed, a condition inseparable from their existence; for if they did represent the preponderating power, they would change the law instead of soliciting its reform. The consequence of this is that the moral influence of the Government which they attack is very much increased, and their own power is very much enfeebled.
In Europe there are few associations which do not affect to represent the majority, or which do not believe that they represent it. This conviction or this pretension tends to augment their force amazingly, and contributes no less to legalize their measures. Violence may seem to be excusable in defence of the cause of oppressed right. Thus it is, in the vast labyrinth of human laws, that extreme liberty sometimes corrects the abuses of license, and that extreme democracy obviates the dangers of democratic government. In Europe, associations consider themselves, in some degree, as the legislative and executive councils of the people, which is unable to speak for itself. In America, where they only represent a minority of the nation, they argue and they petition.
The means which the associations of Europe employ are in accordance with the end which they propose to obtain. As the principal aim of these bodies is to act, and not to debate, to fight rather than to persuade, they are naturally led to adopt a form of organization differs from the ordinary customs of civil bodies, and which assumes the habits and the maxims of military life. They centralize the direction of their resources as much as possible, and they intrust the power of the whole party to a very small number of leaders.
The members of these associations respond to a watchword, like soldiers on duty; they profess the doctrine of passive obedience; say rather, that in uniting together they at once abjure the exercise of their own judgment and free will; and the tyrannical control which these societies exercise is often far more insupportable than the authority possessed over society by the Government which they attack. Their moral force is much diminished by these excesses, and they lose the powerful interest which is excited by a struggle between oppressors and the oppressed. The man who in given cases consents to obey his fellows with servility, and who submits his activity and even opinions to their control, can have no claim to rank as a free citizen.
The American have so established certain forms of government which are applied to their associations, but these are invariably borrowed from the forms of the civil administration. The independence of each individual is formally recognized; the tendency of the members of the association points, as it does in the body of the community, towards the same end, but they are not obliged to follow the same track. No one abjures the exercise of his reason and his free will; but every one exerts that reason and that will for the benefit of a common undertaking.
Earlier in the book, specifically the end of Chapter Ten, de Tocqueville discusses the remains of the Aristocratic Party in the U.S.:
“But beneath this artificial enthusiasm, and these obsequious attentions to the preponderating power, it is easy to perceive that the wealthy members of the community entertain a hearty distaste to the democratic institutions of their country. The populace is at once the object of their scorn and of their fears. If the maladministration of the democracy ever brings about a revolutionary crisis, and if monarchical institutions ever become practicable in the United States, the truth of what I advance will become obvious.
The two chief weapons which parties use in order to ensure success are the public press and the formation of associations.”
Fast forward to November 2018. VOTE!
Also, to quote a real President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “the only thing you have to fear is fear itself.”