Jason Pettus's Reviews > Democracy in America

Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville
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's review
Dec 01, 2009

really liked it
Read in December, 2009

(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com:]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted here illegally.)

The CCLaP 100: In which I read for the first time a hundred so-called classics, then write reports on whether or not they deserve the label

Essay #35: Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville (1835)

The story in a nutshell:
Although these days we take it for granted, for a long time democracy had been far from proven to be a viable, stable system of government; for example, just 15 years after the US established the peaceful democracy we now know and love, France tried doing the same thing, but in their case quickly leading to disaster, chaos, massive bloodshed and an eventual military dictatorship. That's why the French government sent 25-year-old Alexis de Tocqueville to the US and Canada in 1831, to study why this had gone so right there and so wrong in their own country, and especially when it came to the establishment of a fair and efficient justice system, of which France at the time was in dire need of an overhaul. de Tocqueville's eventual two-volume report, then, was essentially the first modern, sophisticated analysis of the democratic process ever written, and as such contained plenty of conclusions that came as big surprises -- that democratic stability in the US, for example, was mostly due to the intense ideological support of the system by the very rich who stood to lose a bit under one, that the reason religion is so important in the US is precisely because it is so separated from government affairs, that the assumption of innocence in criminal trials is not just some flighty liberal experiment but the very bedrock under which nearly all other aspects of a successful democracy are supported. The books were filled with dozens of such stunners, which made a lot of Europeans experience an entire sea change in the way they thought of democracies, a big part of what eventually led such government systems to become so popular over there too.

The argument for it being a classic:
The main argument for this two-book set being a classic seems to be the huge influence it's had on society -- it was not only an instant bestseller in both France and US from nearly the moment it came out, not only legitimized the budding academic field of political science in many people's eyes for the first time, but is the basis behind many of the economic theories driving our country to this day, as well as laying the blueprint for how modern secular justice systems work. And of course, let's not forget how prescient de Tocqueville was as well; he not only predicted the rise of the US and Russia as superpowers, using the constantly infighting nations of Europe as their pawns, not only predicted the coming civil war in the US over the issue of slavery thirty years before it actually happened, but also foretold the danger of American democracy causing the devolution of all aspects of culture to their lowest common denominator, through the combination of mob mentality and a materialistic middle class.

The argument against:
The main criticism of Democracy in America seems to be that it's simply not for everyone; far from the entertaining travelogue its title and origins suggest, these volumes are essentially more like textbooks, dry and obtuse most of the time and containing dozens upon dozens of pages of minutia concerning the wonky ins-and-outs of county-seat government services, the rules and hierarchies of municipal courts, &c. I mean, this is to be expected -- this is the entire reason the French government hired de Tocqueville to visit the US in the first place -- and without a doubt is important information that still continues to influence academes who study these subjects; but don't forget that we're defining "classic" here at the CCLaP 100 in terms of whether or not everyone should one day sit down and eventually read it, not just the professionals and historians who will benefit from it the most.

My verdict:
So let me admit, like so many of the pre-Victorian titles I've been reviewing for this essay series, I had a hard time simply getting through Democracy in America; because what its critics charge is definitely true, that this is much more like a schoolbook than an entertaining general-interest title, and as such contains entire chapters sometimes that come across more like census reports than something to sit down and read for pleasure from beginning to end. While that definitely makes it a must-read for anyone planning on entering a career in politics, economics or law, it also makes it a book more to be studied than enjoyed, and it seems pretty obvious to me that the actual reading of it is something that can be skipped by most people, in favor of reading a simple analysis which explains its most important insights in truncated form. It's a pretty cut-and-dried case as far as I'm concerned, which is kind of a shame for a book that still enjoys such a good reputation even 180 years after its original publication.

Is it a classic? No

(Don't forget that the first 33 essays in the "CCLaP 100" series are now available in book form!)
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