Brett Williams's Reviews > Democracy in America: Specially Edited and Abridged for the Modern Reader

Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville
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it was amazing
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America defined, and over 165 years ago…

This abridged version is an excellent summary of “Democracy in America.” Tocqueville knocked me off my feet when I read this book in 1997 and look forward to the full version in 2015. It’s the best and worst in America, laid bare by a Frenchman who came to The States in 1835 to find for himself whether individuality, freedom and liberty could survive the dangers of equality and democracy. “[The nation] depends on [its people to determine] whether the principle of equality is to lead them to servitude or knowledge, to freedom or barbarism…” writes de Tocqueville. Only an outsider could so accurately assess a people. But de Tocqueville is eminently balanced, overall in favor (in my opinion) of what he saw, and thus dismissed in France upon his return.

He notes an American addiction to the practical rather than theoretical. A pragmatic concern, not for the lofty and perfect, but quick and useful, with relentless ambition, feverish activity, and unending quests for devices and shortcuts. Resulting from a requirement for survival on the frontier, these observations remain the good, bad and ugly of our modern selves. Resourceful technocrats expanding comfort, health, safety or wealth by anyone with ingenuity and persistence; our exchange of youth for old age in the workplace, improving our standard of living at the expense of our quality of life; and America’s shallow nature of thought, sealed up in sound-bites.

Tocqueville finds in the sacred name of majority, a tyranny over the mind of Americans as oppressive and formidable as any other tyranny – arguably more so by virtue of its acceptance. Where monarchs failed to control thought, democracy succeeds. Opinion polls our politicians subscribe to have a power of conformity. “I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America,” he writes. “It is as if the natural bond which unites the opinions of man to his tastes, and his actions to his principles is now broken…”

Of literature and art we see why so much pulp crowds the bookshelf and bamboozles fill our galleries; “Style will frequently be fantastic, incorrect, overburdened and loose,” he writes. “Almost always vehement and bold. Authors will aim at rapidity of execution more than at perfection of detail… The object of authors will be to astonish rather than to please, to stir the passions more than charm the taste.”

A fascinating evolution of perception - of self and state - unfolds as the democratization of education, property ownership and the vote expands. Wiping away the trappings of privilege transforms the serfdom mindset. We see the perception of opinion as both scoffed when originating in individuals other than ourselves, and, conversely, the worship of opinion as a manifestation of majority rule. Americans, once lionizing the intrepid individual, instead took a turn to having the most pride in their sameness. Armed with this understanding, today we see each group define itself by its signals – body language, speech cadence and inflection, vocabulary and dress. Every group has its code words, actions and look. A time consuming process of investigating character is exchanged for quicker, simpler signs.

The climax is reached with de Tocqueville’s troubling “either or”; “We must understand what is wanted of society and its government,” he writes. “Do you wish to give a certain elevation of the human mind and teach it to regard the things of this world with generous feelings, to inspire men with a scorn of mere temporal advantages, to form and nourish strong convictions and keep alive a spirit of honorable devotedness? Is it your object to refine the habits, embellish the manners and cultivate the arts, to promote the love of poetry, beauty and glory? If you believe such to be the principle object of society, avoid the government of democracy, for it would not lead you with certainty to the goal.

“But if you hold it expedient to divert the moral and intellectual activity of man to the production of comfort and promotion of general well being; if a clear understanding be more profitable to a man than genius; if your object be not to stimulate the virtues of heroism, but the habits of peace; if you had rather witness vices and crimes and are content to meet with fewer noble deeds, provided offences be diminished in the same proportion; if, instead of living in the midst of a brilliant society you are contented to have prosperity around you…to ensure the greatest enjoyment and to avoid the most misery…then establish democratic institutions.” Tocqueville, one of those rare and timeless human treasures.

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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
January 20, 2015 – Shelved
September 15, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read (Paperback Edition)
September 15, 2015 – Shelved (Paperback Edition)
September 6, 2021 – Shelved as: favorites

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