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In Democracy in America, published in 1835, Tocqueville wrote of his travels through America in the early 19th Century when the market revolution, Western expansion, and Jacksonian democracy were radically transforming the fabric of American life. He saw democracy as an equation that balanced liberty and equality, concern for the individual as well as the community.
America, in contrast to the aristocratic ethic, was a society where hard work and money-making was the dominant ethic, where the common man enjoyed a level of dignity which was unprecedented, where commoners never deferred to elites, and where what he described as crass individualism and market capitalism had taken root to an extraordinary degree.
The uniquely American morals and opinions, Tocqueville argued, lay in the origins of American society and derived from the peculiar social conditions that had welcomed colonists in prior centuries. Unlike Europe, venturers to America found a vast expanse of open land. Any and all who arrived could own their own land and cultivate an independent life. Sparse elites and a number of landed aristocrats existed, but, according to Tocqueville, these few stood no chance against the rapidly developing values bred by such vast land ownership. With such an open society, layered with so much opportunity, men of all sorts began working their way up in the world: industriousness became a dominant ethic, and "middling" values began taking root.
This equality of social conditions bred political and civilian values which determined the type of legislation passed in the colonies and later the states. By the late 18th Century, democratic values which championed money-making, hard work, and individualism had eradicated, in the North, most remaining vestiges of old world aristocracy and values. Eliminating them in the South proved more difficult, for slavery had produced a landed aristocracy and web of patronage and dependence similar to the old world, which would last until the antebellum period before the Civil War.
In Europe, he claimed, nobody cared about making money. The lower classes had no hope of gaining more than minimal wealth, while the upper classes found it crass, vulgar, and unbecoming of their sort to care about something as unseemly as money; many were virtually guaranteed wealth and took it for granted. At the same time in America workers would see people fashioned in exquisite attire and merely proclaim that through hard work they too would soon possess the fortune necessary to enjoy such luxuries.
At The Weekly Standard website is an excellent translation of part of his writing being a timeless critique from Toqueville of Barack Obama’s America.
From Democracy in America, volume two, part four, chapter six: What Kind of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear (translated by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop)
I encourage you to read it in its entirety. Here is an excerpt that particularly caught my eye.
It seems that if despotism came to be established in the democratic nations of our day, it would have other characteristics: it would be more extensive and milder, and it would degrade men without tormenting them …
I do not fear that in their chiefs they will find tyrants, but rather schoolmasters…
It would resemble paternal power if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood; it likes citizens to enjoy themselves provided that they think only of enjoying themselves. It willingly works for their happiness; but it wants to be the unique agent and sole arbiter of that; it provides for their security, foresees and secures their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances; can it not take away from them entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living?
The sovereign extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the
most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which government is the shepherd …
–Alexis de Tocqueville
Alexis de Tocqueville imagines a scenario of how despotism could come to the USA. His scenario does not describe an external force coming into the country with guns ablazing to overwhelm our citizenry by military force. What it does describe is despotism coming from within by politicians who promise to facilitate your pleasures, and manage and control your unpleasant principal affairs so you won’t have to think, and in return just let the government be your shepherd. This philosophy needs to be pointed out to everyone who will listen. Just like Rush said yesterday the philosophy is much more important than the policy and process work with respect the network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules that the Obama administration are unleashing upon us. Don’t just whittle around the edges on this stuff. Oppose the entire philosophy of authoritarian despots.