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Democracy Based and Burdened by Christianity: Response to "Democracy in America"

The Unknown's picture

One of Tocqueville’s aims in Democracy in America is to explore and examine how democracy could be incorporated into other countries apart from the United States, where it supposedly originated. I could not help but thinking several times while reading this book that when we yell, “Show me what democracy looks like” and then people respond “This is what democracy looks like” I hope we are not referring to Tocqueville’s ideas about democracy, specifically his notion that instilling the practices of Christianity into the government will make all citizens equal under the law, which has openly condemned and limited people’s rights, has led to genocide, millions of deaths, and was ultimately created by white men.

Tocqueville believes in the power of the people, yet he fears “uniformity of thought.” (xxi). He does not want people to feel pressured to fit into a societal mold. He also believes that rebellion, primarily necessary when his form of democracy, which has supposedly only been able to fully thrive in the United States, should be guided by the elite. Yet, when I think of my definition of “democracy,” I do not think of an area that is preserved and controlled by wealthy white men, who often only have their interests in mine. Though he devotes his last chapter to discussing “two other races” that also reside in “America,” he never fully questions the legitimacy of the elite in power. He believes that they are better-educated and have more experience when it comes to running a country, even if they murdered and drove thousands of people off their land.

Tocqueville also legitimizes those in power by claiming that the people who were inferior accepted the hierarchical system that kept them often enslaved or without many resources, which by many accounts has been disproven. Oppressed people have almost always resisted their domination, often in ways that historians have not realized or been concerned with.

Tocqueville juxtaposes liberty and democracy. He focuses on differences, whether that be race, class, religion, or nationality. Tocqueville sees the jury as an essential part of democracy. Tocqueville advocates for a need for a wide range of voices in government.

Though Tocqueville praises democracy in “America,” he also thought that the treatment of non-whites was not democratic and their living conditions were unjust. Tocqueville came to the United States with many prejudices and prejudgments. He was not concerned with the mistreatments of the “Indians” when he first arrived and assumed that the majority of them were alcoholics, but as he encountered more “Indians,” his assumptions were “confirmed.” Tocqueville was a universalist, which aided him in challenging the injustice inflicted on non-white people. Unfortunately, his universalist views also led him to believe that everyone had the same needs and interests, especially in “America,” when many understand that with such a diverse range of people (more varied today than when Tocqueville saw the United States) it seems inconceivable that everyone in one “country” could have had the same concerns.

Tocqueville was adamantly against slavery and he viewed it as a harmful system for everyone involved. Tocqueville continues to discuss ownership in other forms, particularly concerning land, as the source of power. This seems to be a contradiction; he defends the Indians and questions the pilgrims’ rights to drive the Indians into the wilderness and off the “territory” where they resided, yet at the same time, he does not hold the same respect or is at all concerned with what the “Indians” could offer in-terms of knowledge or skills because they did not “own” the land they resided on.

According to Tocqueville as society advanced in “America” with the onset of materialism and industrialization, wealth was more equally divided. I find this extremely difficult to understand and believe. To this day, the United States is one of the most unequal countries in the world, and I know that there were many people who were struggling to survive (feed their families, get a fair and useful education, find secure jobs, live in a “safe” neighborhood…) with the wages they were given when Tocqueville visited “America.” 


jschlosser's picture

There's a sense of ambivalence in your response to Tocqueville's Democracy in America that I think mirrors his own ambivalence about America. A couple of points of response for continuing conversation:

1) Tocqueville's project. I read Tocqueville's project as descriptive rather than prescriptive. You seem to assume that Tocqueville is telling his readers (including us) what we should do; I would say that he trying to capture the reality of America for his French readers, who are mostly educated bourgeois and former aristocrats. On my reading, Tocqueville is trying to describe how democracy works -- and it "works" for Tocqueville for a number of reasons: most people are prospering; the various communities bound together as the "United States" are not in continuous armed struggle (and beheading their leaders, as Tocqueville's countrymen had recently done); and there's a surprising and extraordinary amount of participation by ordinary people in this governance.

You seem to object that not enough people were prospering and that there was a lot of violence, especially against Native Americans, slaves, and even free blacks. This was certainly true. But I think it's worth putting yourself in 1830s America. What was happening then was remarkable -- practically impossible for someone like Tocqueville, which is why he responds with such wonder. Napoleon had just been defeated -- and with him his empire over all of Western Europe! This was not an era when the kind of equality you're envisioning could even be envisioned, let alone put into practice. 

Here I'd ask you how you can make use of the institutions of American democracy to realize the more equal society you envision. If we take Tocqueville's description of 1830s America as a starting point, what needs to change? We read DuBois in part because he answers this question in some very specific ways: education, material equality, and a welcoming of the "souls of black folk." But DuBois's emphasis on federal programs also undercuts democracy, in particular the important role played by local townships in helping people learn how to be free.

2) Tocqueville and Christianity. I'd suggest looking again at the chapter "Principal Causes Tending to Maintain a Democratic Republic in the US" where Tocqueville describes the important role of religion as separate from politics. He views religious life as a balancing and ordering force that provides stability in contrast to the constant fluctuations of democratic politics. Again, it seems important to me that Tocqueville is trying to describe what he sees in America not prescribing anything. And given that France had been riven again and again by religious wars between Protestants and Catholics, Tocqueville is offering them a hopeful solution of coexistence made possible by separation of church and state.

Here Tocqueville's challenge to us as readers seems to be this: What "habits of the heart" (one way Tocqueville describes moeurs) help us deal with the struggles and sacrifices occasioned by democratic life? For Tocqueville, Christianity gives people the hope and love necessary to deal with working through difficult problems together. If we have a more secular society today (which itself is an arguable assumption), then what has taken the place of these moeurs? What political culture might support the vision of democracy that you wish to bring into being? And how might that culture be developed?

3) Tocqueville and inequality. One of the exiting insights that has come to me from this fall's rereading and discussion of Tocqueville is both how much Tocqueville recognizes inequalities pervasive in the United States and how he also insists on the radical degree of inequality presents. There's a profound tension here. I think you put this well in your post: Tocqueville despises the inequalities produced by prejudice and racism, yet he also struggles to imagine it could be otherwise. The very fact that he doesn't envision some greater harmony of races seems to me to support a reading of Tocqueville as a descriptive (not prescriptive) thinker: he doesn't prescribe changing things because he's intent on capturing what makes the American democracy work as well as it does. So again, he sees a whole lot of equality in the new democracy even while acknowledging how much inequality still persists.

Given that American democracy suffers from ever increasing inequality and the rich have outsized political influence more and more, Tocqueville seems awfully prescient about the dangers awaiting the relatively equal society he described. Can Tocqueville help you to envision responses to these problems? What would you propose to address American inequality?