Friday, August 05, 2011

Tocqueville: The Dogma of Popular Sovereignty

My annual Theory Camp began this week. We are reading Tocqueville's Democracy in America.

At the end of the first volume, Tocqueville ties together the great themes of the macro and the micro aspects of democracy in America in this account of the core dogma of the American creed, popular sovereignty.

Providence equipped each individual, whoever he might be, with the degree of reason necessary to guide his conduct in matters of exclusive interest to himself alone. This is the great maxim on which civil and and political society in the United States is based: fathers apply it to their children, masters to their servants, towns to the people the administer, provinces to towns, to Union to the states. Extended to the whole nation, it becomes the dogma of popular sovereignty.

Democracy is deep in the bones, the mores, of Americans, because we believe that individuals have sufficient reason to work for their self interest. Popular sovereignty is the sum of those individual reasons, at whatever level of organization we are working.

Believing that individuals reason sufficiently well to discern their own self interest is a dogma. Believing that society is well served by accepting whatever those individual reasons add up to is an even more daring dogma. These articles of faith cannot be proven. They can also be dangerous, which is why he spends much of the rest of the book talking about the useful restraints on majority tyranny. But no society can exist without dogma. This is ours.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Tocqueville: The Majority Desire the Good of the Country

My annual Theory Camp began this week. We are reading Tocqueville's Democracy in America.

Tocqueville argues that in a democracy, the majority predominates. Moreover,

“That majority consists mainly of peaceful citizens who, whether by taste or interest, sincerely desire what is good for the country. Around them political parties constantly contend for their adherence and support.”

We considered the profound importance of the idea that most citizens sincerely desire what is good for the country. The parties then contend for the support of these good-willed citizens. I believe that party competition tends to hide the fact that the supporters of the other party are just as good-willed as we are.

To be sure, some individuals on the other side are venal and selfish; so are some individuals on our side. Nonetheless, American politics is much more civil when we can remember that our opponents sincerely desire what is good for the country. And even if I can't make American politics better by myself by holding to an even-handed civility about the contending parties, I can make myself happier and more contented if I stick to that view.

Tocqueville: America Was Always a Nation With a National Government

My annual Theory Camp began this week. We are reading Tocqueville's Democracy in America.

We chewed on this line:

“The American government is not a federal government but an incomplete national government.”

I had been used to thinking that the United States really become one united nation as a result of the Civil War, and that the federal government really became the national government as a result of the New Deal and the Second World War.

However, I think Tocqueville is right that the United States, and the US government, really were a nation and a national government from the start - in an incomplete form. Our patriotism, and our extraordinarily complex government, did grow organically from a unity and power that were there in principle from the beginning.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Tocqueville: Democracy Requires "Equality of Conditions"

My annual Theory Camp began this week. We are reading Tocqueville's Democracy in America.

Tocqueville launches his discussion of American democracy from this point:

“I therefore came increasingly to see the equality of conditions as the original fact from which each particular fact seemed to derive. It stood constantly before me as the focal point toward which all my observations converged.”
The students, naturally, asked how Tocqueville could see in America "equality of conditions" when some were rich and some were poor. Tocqueville's answer is that, unlike in aristocratic societies, citizens of a democracy regard themselves as all the same kind of being. The differences, especially of wealth, did not touch the essence of the person.

Now Tocqueville was well aware that slaves were not treat as equal in condition, nor were the Indians. He treats these themes as conflicts inherent in American democracy. But the principle of equality of conditions is the starting point for the new idea of democracy. The fact that this point seems to obvious now is testimony to the overwhelming success of the American experiment.