Summary of Chapter IX: How It Can Be Strictly Said That the People Govern in the United States
So far the author has commented on the institutions of the United States, but above the forms of government, there exists a sovereign power “superior to the laws.” He wants now to turn to the “secret springs” of American democracy (p. 173). The people are truly the directing power of the nation. They exercise “perpetual influence on the daily conduct of affairs” (p. 173).
Commentary on Chapter IX: How It Can Be Strictly Said That the People Govern in the United States
Tocqueville has been dissecting the body and limbs of democracy; now he wants to see what is underneath animating them. The soul of the country is the majority governing “in the name of the people” composed of “peaceable citizens” who wish the welfare of the country. They are, however, surrounded by “the incessant agitation of parties” trying to get the people’s support (p. 173). The popular or sovereign will of the nation is thus separate from, but expressed through, the system of political parties.
Summary of Chapter X: Parties in the United States
Political parties are a necessary evil in free governments. Great parties are those that cling to principles, says Tocqueville. Minor parties arise from momentary selfish purposes and do not rest on principles or good faith. America had great parties in the past but not at the current time when political morality has declined. After the Revolution there were two opinions of how to govern—one wanted to limit the power of the people (Federal Party), the other to expand it (Republican Party). The Federalists were the minority but had great men and moral power. The Federalists were afraid of anarchy. Jefferson’s Republican party won in 1801, and liberties have continued to increase since then.
Now the political parties do not rest upon principle but upon “material interests” (p. 177). They argue over tariffs and free trade. To a stranger the controversies of the American public seem trivial. President Jackson rallied the common people around him, for instance, to attack the Bank of the United States. There seems to be no stability or respect for great institutions in a democracy, because the people feel powerful enough to attack anyone.
Commentary on Chapter X: Parties in the United States
Tocqueville betrays his own political background as an aristocrat as he surveys the current political parties, of which there were many. He notes it is not difficult to drum up a party in America on a whim. The two major parties of the time were the Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson, and the Whig Party of Henry Clay.
Originally, the founders had parties based on political philosophy, whether to limit freedom or expand it for the populace (conservative or liberal). Tocqueville says he personally sees that it was fortunate for the country to have the conservative Federalists in power in the beginning, for they guided the new republic in a way to give it stability. The Federal Constitution is a monument to their wisdom.
The author visited America during the Jacksonian era, which must have appeared quite uncivilized to the French aristocrat. Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) was the seventh president, a former army general, named “Old Hickory” for his aggressive nature. He was known for destroying the national bank and relocating Indians to the west. He gave his name to the Jacksonian period of democracy (1830-1850), which succeeded the Jeffersonian era. Jacksonian democracy favored a strong presidency and broadened the public’s participation in government by extending the vote to all men regardless of whether they held property (era of the common man).
Tocqueville says that there is always at the bottom of every party a more democratic leaning or aristocratic leaning in point of view. In the Jacksonian era the aristocrats were silenced, and Tocqueville looks back to the brilliant aristocratic and conservative founders, the Federalists, who fortunately gave the nation the right start. He points out that the two chief weapons of parties are newspapers and public associations (special interest groups), which he treats next.
Summary of Chapter XI: Liberty of the Press in the United States
The liberty of the press affects both the political and social life of Americans and is necessary to ensure the sovereignty of the people. It prevents evils, though it does not always give advantages, especially as the American press uses violent and sensational language. Still it allows people to choose between various opinions. Censorship is opposed to freedom.
In France it is thought that violent opinions in the press result from the instability of the times, but America is politically stable and yet the press is violent. The press has mingled good and evil tendencies, and the Americans seem to tolerate the abuses for the sake of liberty. The press actually has more power, however, in France, because it is more serious and less commercial.
American papers are filled with advertisements and trivial anecdotes, while the French press uses the press to discuss politics. The Americans are not used to serious political discussion in journals and papers. There are many small inconsequential papers in America without much influence.
Commentary on Chapter XI: Liberty of the Press in the United States
The condition of journalism in the United States was still in a primitive phase, according to Tocqueville’s observation. He speaks of the many small journals and newspapers that did not have writers of ability. They were more gossip and advertising rags than serious venues for political discussion. That began to change as the population grew and the cities became larger with respectable newspapers.
Tocqueville finds French journalists use an “eloquent and lofty manner,” but the American journalists sink to an “open and coarse appeal to the passions” (p. 187). Of course, the French had a long intellectual tradition and were used to debate written by their best writers and thinkers. Tocqueville recognized such noble minds in the founding fathers of American democracy, but in the Jacksonian period, he finds writers have “a scanty education and a vulgar turn of mind” (p. 187). He finds this abuse of the powers of thought and license of the press to have an unfortunate result in scaring away serious and respectable writers who would not want to be associated with the kind of sensational yellow journalism of the day.
Still, the press in America has a great influence, he adds. When once Americans take up an idea, however, it is difficult to erase that idea from their minds, because they cling to their opinions. This is because Americans are not now in a revolutionary period, so they do not examine their ideas as carefully as when their lives depended on it. Tocqueville continues to look back to the early republic as more inspiring and noble in its thinking and expression than the current America of the 1830s.
Summary of Chapter XII: Political Associations in the United States
Tocqueville turns now to what would be called today special interest groups and how they try to influence politics. These are private groups, more numerous in America than in other places. This is because Americans are taught from infancy to be self-reliant and not to depend upon social authority. Private societies are formed against alcohol consumption or to promote public safety, morality, commerce, and religion.
The right to associate in groups like this goes along with freedom of the press. These associations are granted the right to meet and to have headquarters. They may also combine to choose political delegates to represent them. The power of association is unlimited and provides a minority check to the majority. This right was imported from England, and Tocqueville thinks it is a right sorely needed in a democracy, while in an aristocracy, the nobles and wealthy are natural associations to check the abuses of power.
Commentary on Chapter XII: Political Associations in the United States
Tocqueville mentions the use of the press and special interest groups as checks on the majority rule. What would he say to the social media creating instant special interest groups and organizing minorities in separate locations without huge amounts of money backing them, with individuals tweeting the public and the press, and the people posting their opinions on Facebook to sway world opinion? One might argue that social media have created a worldwide democracy superseding any individual nation’s government or institutions, with reports and input from anyone with a computer or mobile device.
Tocqueville gives examples of special interest groups, such as temperance (anti-alcohol) leagues or groups for and against the tariff. The tariff was an import tax on goods from Europe to encourage local production and consumption, but many argued that free trade was better for the economy.
These “associations” or special interest groups are almost a nation within a nation, he notes, minorities who propose laws or elect delegates for their own causes. This open lobbying for minority causes provides a check to the tyranny of a majority. In Europe, however, the association is seen as a weapon, not for discussion, but to produce action. European associations usually say they represent the majority that is not being heard, while in America, associations are largely minority positions.
American special interest groups may or may not be trying to take action. They generally have a more peaceful face in that they are hoping to convince others of their position. In America, minority associations and opinions are in the open, he says, and therefore, do not turn into conspiracies against the government. They represent a safety valve.
Summary of Chapter XIII: Government of the Democracy in America
In Europe it is difficult to isolate what may be an effect of democracy or something else, since there are multiple forces at work (aristocracy and democracy). In America, however, we may see democracy at work by itself and draw conclusions about its “real character.” This is important since France, like other European countries, is being “blindly driven onwards” (p. 199) towards democracy without knowing whether there will be a good or bad outcome.
Universal suffrage (everyone given the right to vote), for instance, is an advantage since it gives authority to the elected men who have the public confidence. Yet Europeans often doubt the wisdom of people to govern themselves. Tocqueville wonders why in America he has seen so many talented citizens and yet few of them are in public office. He guesses first of all the people are busy and do not have time to investigate thoroughly before making a choice, and secondly, because of the drive for equality, the people are not fond of distinguished talent, someone above them or more worthy than they are. He concludes, “universal suffrage is by no means a guarantee of the wisdom of the popular choice” (p. 202).
However, there is the opposite fact to consider as well: when danger threatens the state, the people seem to succeed in electing those who can save it. At such a time, great characters emerge and “genius no longer hesitates to come forward” (p. 203).
Elections also represent problems. If they are not held often, they create an artificial revolution each time, with too much upheaval. If they occur frequently, society is kept in “feverish excitement” (p. 205) and there is instability. A taste for variety is a characteristic of democracy. He quotes Alexander Hamilton as saying that excessive law-making is a problem of democracy, and he quotes Thomas Jefferson as complaining of too frequent change.
What Tocqueville admires is that in America the office is respected more than the person filling it. The elected officials are kept humble and honest by being paid by the public. They are also left to their own free action because they are not feared, due to frequent elections and changes. Most administrations are thus wiped out without a trace; newspapers are the only written history. Americans seem little interested in history, and very little lore is passed on from one administration to the next. Democracies can only be founded on a principle of a high degree of culture and intelligence in the society.
Turning now to finances, it will be found that government by a middle class democracy produces the most wealth in a country. However, giving the vote to the poor could be a problem if they are the ones who most benefit from the government, and the wealthy do not. The more the people get a share of property, the less distribution of wealth is a problem.
An aristocracy will always be trying to hang on to wealth and power, whereas a democracy will be invested in the future, the citizens always seeking for something better. A democracy is more expensive than other forms of government, however, because of its frequent changes in direction and the demands of its citizens for improvement. Its officials receive lower salaries than in an aristocracy, because it gives more money to the wants of the people. Democracies are more homely in their tastes and do not lavish money on buildings and art. America does not have to maintain a large military force as France does. There is more temptation to corruption in American democracy because all are striving for power and wealth.
America does not use conscription or impressments to fill its military, so it is hard to say how it would respond in a crisis of war. It appears that a democracy is less able to provide a sustained effort than an aristocracy or monarchy. The Americans do not have great self-control and are somewhat impulsive, but their mistakes are rarely fatal and can be undone.
Commentary on Chapter XIII: Government of the Democracy in America
These are broad generalizations on democracy based on Tocqueville’s observations of 1835. Some are still right on the mark, but many conditions have changed since his time.
He approaches from the fears of the French and the Europeans, suspicious of handing over power to the lower classes who are not as educated as aristocrats and appear to have a vested interest in getting more support for themselves than in ruling a state. The old monarchies and aristocracies provide stability and know-how for administration through long tradition. The kings and nobles are not changed every year or two. There is a sense of history and reflection in their governments and long-term relationships with other governments.
In America, no one is trained, and the office frequently changes hands. There is not much ability in foreign relations. There seems no effort to record what went right or wrong, he says. Of course, this is no longer true, since there is no end of written histories and analyses produced on every minute topic in current U. S. politics. There were no archives when Tocqueville visited, and now, every email is part of an official archive. Everything is documented. It is true, however, that the average American probably has less interest in history than Europeans do.
There are both good and bad points about changing office so often. He notes that any mistake made will not last that long, but on the other hand, it seems difficult to complete long-term projects and relationships. This has been true as we see one administration undoing the work of the last one. But this is also true of monarchies when a king dies and another king takes over. Perhaps change is faster in a democracy. The point is not change itself, but whether a government can be stable with so much change. Tocqueville admits that America seems able to find the right leaders in a crisis (one thinks of Abraham Lincoln), though ordinarily, elected officials do not seem to be the most outstanding and able men.
The haphazard way of American administration did not seem to be too much of a problem for the country at that time, Tocqueville notes, because Americans are isolated on their own continent. They do not have to worry much about foreign relations, wars, or a military. This has changed drastically as America is no longer isolated but a world leader whose every move is watched and criticized. We have both used and discarded a draft system for the military, and the military has become a primary national concern after world wars, the Cold War, and the war against terrorism.
American democracy has become a very expensive form of government, as he says, because of the aspirations of the citizens and the amount of waste. His observation has to do not only with how wealth is produced but also how it is spent in a democracy, according to which class is in control. He implies that the most wealth is produced and the least spent if the middle class is strong and everyone has property.
The political fights over the federal budget in the 2010s are attempts to deal with these issues, addressing the vast amount spent on education, Social Security, Medicare, and the military, and also, who gets taxed to bring in money to the treasury to pay these bills. The same philosophical fight Tocqueville saw at the basis of party politics continues (towards a more aristocratic theory or democratic theory), the two approaches greatly polarized at this time, with the budget as the proving ground.
It is not surprising that as an aristocrat, Tocqueville concludes his discussion in favor of an aristocracy as being a superior form of administration. Almost all the most powerful administrations in world history have been aristocratic, he says, because they are conservative in nature. He admits, “The capital fault of which aristocracies may be accused is that they work for themselves and not for the people” (p. 235). Democracies, on the other hand, “obey impulse rather than prudence” (p. 235). So ends his attempt at a balanced review for his fellow countrymen.