Disappointing Democracy

Is Democracy all it’s cracked up to be?

(Credit: Ivan Dmitri/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Image)


Alexis de Tocqueville

1. Democracy breeds materialism

In France, making money didn’t appear at the forefront of people’s minds. The poor had almost no chance of acquiring wealth, and the tiny upper stratum of landed Aristocrats didn’t need to make any more money. As a result, for very different reasons, money was not a way to judge a life. However, the Americans that de Tocqueville met on his journey believed constantly that through hard work it was possible to make a fortune — and to do so was entirely admirable and right. Money seemed to be the only achievement Americans respected. For example, de Tocqueville noted that in America, if a book sold poorly, it was assumed to be bad. The only test of goodness for any item, and often for people, was how much money it made. Democracy and capitalism had created a seemingly equitable but also very flat and oppressive way for humans to judge each other.

2. Democracy breeds envy and shame

In a chapter of Democracy in America, titled ‘Why the Americans are often so restless in the midst of their prosperity’, de Tocqueville analyses the relationship between high expectations and dissatisfaction, between political equality and envy. The old, rigid, hierarchical European system that had denied all hope of social mobility to the poor was unjust in a thousand obvious ways, de Tocqueville recognised, but it had offered those on the lower rungs one notable freedom: the freedom not to take the achievements of quite so many people in society as reference points and find themselves severely wanting in status and importance as a result.

3. The tyranny of the majority

Typically, we think of democracy as the opposite of tyranny, but de Tocqueville noticed that democracy could easily create its own specialised type of tyranny, that of the majority. Democratic culture, he thought, often ends up demonising assertions of difference and especially superiority, even though such attitudes might be connected with merit. In a tyranny of the majority, society has an aggressive, levelling instinct. It’s regarded as a civic virtue to take on anyone who seems to be getting above themselves, and to cut them viciously down to size. De Tocqueville was disturbed by the way in which in the US, people of no distinction refused to think that anyone could be better than them, just because they had, say, trained to be a doctor for 7 years, or studied law for 2 decades, or written some very good books. A healthy and admirable reluctance to defer to people too easily encouraged an unhelpful refusal to accept any kind of submission at all (best exhibited in its modern form in anti-maskers and those who protested against lockdown in America). Yet, as de Tocqueville saw it, it simply must be the case that some people in society are wiser, kinder, more intelligent or more mature than others and therefore should be listened to with special attention.

5. Democracy undermines freedom of mind

You would assume that democracy encourages citizens to have an open mind, however, de Tocqueville came to the opposite conclusion, that one could find few places with less independence of mind and true freedom than America. Trusting their system was fair and just, Americans soon gave up on critical thinking, putting their faith in newspapers and so-called ‘common sense’ instead.

So, should we scrap democracy?

Though both Socrates and de Tocqueville were critical of democracy, they would hardly want a dictatorship. Forgetting Socrates’ warning, we prefer to think of democracy as an unambiguous good, rather than something that is only as effective as the education system that surrounds it. As a result, in our history, we have elected many sweetshop owners and very few doctors. But education has certainly increased since Socrates time, and we have ushered in a time of Informed Consent. Though we ignored Socrates warning, de Tocqueville reminds us of the negatives of democracy. De Tocqueville says many negative things about democracy and America, he was not anti-democratic or anti-American, he was just trying to show why living in a democracy could be frustrating or annoying. He was trying to see what the future would look like, and he found some annoying features of democracy, which still exist today. He was teaching us the stoic lesson that certain pains need to be endured and expected. Politics in democracy is gonna be pretty awful in some major ways, it’s not that we’re doing anything wrong, it’s just the price you pay, and that you should be willing to pay, to live in a democracy, when you give ultimate authority to everyone.

I am a young writer interested in providing the intellectual tools to those in the political trenches so that they may fight their battles well-informed.

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