Spirituality for Today – July 2010 – Volume 14, Issue 12

Heeding de Tocqueville

By Rev. Raymond Petrucci

A painting of Alexis de TocquevilleAlexis de Tocqueville

In 1831, the French statesman Alexis de Tocqueville stepped foot upon the shores of the United States. He had come to evaluate the American prison system and America itself. For the better part of a year, he traveled throughout the country taking an assessment of the "grand experiment" called American democracy. His impressions took form in a book, Democracy in America published in 1835. Although a friend of colonialism, de Tocqueville was not blind to its potential concomitant evils. He cautions that democratic systems are vulnerable to the emergence of what he calls a "soft despotism" and a "tyranny of the majority." The nature of a soft despotism is the effect of a state becoming overburdened by a multitude of small, complicated laws that deludes the citizenry into believing that they are a self-governed people, but, de facto, they have minimal influence. The tyranny of the majority is a concept that may pre-date Plato. The danger of majority rule is that the concerns of the minority become irrelevant and that the minority is left subservient to the wishes of the majority.

Another worrisome feature of the American scene for de Tocqueville was the status of the Native American in society and the presence of that "peculiar institution" known as slavery.

The first who attracts the eye, the first in enlightenment, in power and in happiness, is the white man, the European, man par excellence; below him appear the Negro and the Indian. These two unfortunate races have neither birth, nor face, nor language, nor mores in common; only their misfortunes look alike. Both occupy an equally inferior position in the country that they inhabit; both experience the effects of tyranny; and if their miseries are different, they can accuse the same author to them.

– Democracy in America

A saving grace for America in deTocqueville's view was its religious institutions. He visited the United States soon after the Second Great Awakening. The influence of the various religious denominations throughout the land was impressive. Churches were central to community life. This reality occasioned de Tocqueville's telling comment: "America is a great nation because it is a good nation. If it ever ceases to be a good nation, it will cease to be a great nation."

Alexis de Tocqueville traveled in – and wrote about – an infant America. Yet, his words are worth heeding today. A warning has been given to a free people that they are not immune to tyranny and despotism. The presence and influence of the moral strengths and weaknesses inherent in a democracy call for a continuous watchfulness and a persistent self-examination by those who govern and by those who are governed.

The initial decade of the twenty-first century has presented America with a unique set of challenges. Without a doubt, the principles of American democracy and the moral fiber of the American people have faced and will face enormous challenges. In an article by Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, remarked that American democracy has wandered away from Lincoln's description of a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people." Instead, the United States has become a government "of the people, by special-interest groups, and for special-interest groups." The corruption in Washington, the dismal image of politicians, and the vice-grip of lobbyists on the policy making process are problems seeking solutions. In the same article Mahburbani quotes President Obama from his book The Audacity of Hope (2006), "All of which leads to the conclusion that if we want anything to change in Washington, we need to throw the rascals out. And yet year after year we keep the rascals right where they are with the reelection rate for House members hovering around 96 percent." It appears that the resolution of much of the current crises falls into the lap of the American voter. And it appears that the American voter doesn't care.

Returning to the insights of Alexis de Tocqueville harvested from his meanderings around early nineteenth century America, the greatness of America depends on the goodness of America. The Judeo-Christian ethic dominant in American culture must be recaptured and reinvigorated in the institutions and within the soul of America. For too long, lowness and immorality have been celebrated in American culture and we have witnessed the fruit it bears. The time has come to the reclaim our greatness by rediscovering our goodness.