Into the Canon: De Tocqueville

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I came across this brilliant quote while thumbing through Democracy In America:


It is a just observation, that the people commonly intend the public good. This often applies to their very errors. But their good sense would despise the adulator who should pretend that they always reason right about the means of promoting it. They know from experience that they sometimes err; and the wonder is that they so seldom err as they do, beset, as they continually are, by the wiles of parasites and sycophants; by the snares of the ambitious, the avaricious, the desperate; by the artifices of men who possess their confidence more than they deserve it, and of those who seek to possess rather than to deserve it. 

When occasions present themselves in which the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations, it is the duty of persons whom they have appointed to be the guardians of those interests to withstand the temporary delusion, in order to give them time and opportunity for more cool and sedate reflection. Instances might be cited in which a conduct of this kind has saved the people from very fatal consequences of their own mistakes, and has procured lasting monuments of their gratitude to the men who had courage and magnanimity enough to serve them at the peril of their displeasure.

But on going over it a bit more, it became clear that this was in the footnotes and the quote actually belonged to Alexander Hamilton. Nevertheless, the quote serves the point I wanted to make. 

We live in a time when "democracy" has a totemic power. We take it for granted that government by the people is always best and that if you give the people the franchise good things always happen. In many ways I find that tragic because in having to actually defend your beliefs, I think you gain a deeper appreciation for them. Spending a few weeks last summer reading George Fitzhugh honestly and forthrightly argue for slavery really deepened my understanding of freedom.

De Tocqueville loves America and is very pro-democracy. But he is writing in an era that isn't and thus is forced to go through all the twists and turns of justifying America to a (I'm assuming) skeptical audience.

He is forced to do this on the most minute of levels. Here he is, for instance, tackling the question of whether the Constitution erred in allowing the re-election of a president. But to do so he has to fully air the critique, honestly and without weighting the argument:

Intrigue and corruption are the natural defects of elective government; but when the head of the State can be re-elected these evils rise to a great height, and compromise the very existence of the country. When a simple candidate seeks to rise by intrigue, his manoeuvres must necessarily be limited to a narrow sphere; but when the chief magistrate enters the lists, he borrows the strength of the government for his own purposes. 

In the former case the feeble resources of an individual are in action; in the latter, the State itself, with all its immense influence, is busied in the work of corruption and cabal. The private citizen, who employs the most immoral practices to acquire power, can only act in a manner indirectly prejudicial to the public prosperity. But if the representative of the executive descends into the combat, the cares of government dwindle into second-rate importance, and the success of his election is his first concern. 

All laws and all the negotiations he undertakes are to him nothing more than electioneering schemes; places become the reward of services rendered, not to the nation, but to its chief; and the influence of the government, if not injurious to the country, is at least no longer beneficial to the community for which it was created.

I keep reading this wondering where De Tocqueville was when decided to invade Iraq. The book is--at once--a strong defense of democracy and a case against "nation-building." But more than that it is the kind of civics class I wish I'd been treated to as young man. We had to memorize the branches of government, and that was fine. But the theories behind those branches, not merely checks and balances, and the history out of which they came were not touched on. I had no international context. 

It would be nice to have kids understand that a functioning democracy isn't particularly "natural" or easy.

We've kinda got a theme going today...
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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