Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Reflections: Democracy in America

Adam C. Zern shares his thoughts on Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America and Two Essays on America:

"The Penguin classics version of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America weighs in at 935 pages, which includes the appendices, notes, and two essays about America.  Flipping that last page, similar to when I finished Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, was wonderfully fulfilling.  Tocqueville's exploration of 1830 America is a book about contradictions.  It highlights America's successes, its failures, and the exceptional quality of its citizens as well as their depravities.  Tocqueville is extremely laudatory of America's accomplishments, for reasons which the author outlines in detail, but also offers his warnings and concerns for all democratic societies.

Tocqueville organizes his book by separating it into two volumes.  The first volume is extraordinary.  There was hardly a page that didn't engage my attention and enlighten my mind.  The second volume felt less focused and less valuable overall than the first, but it also offers plenty to appreciate.  To a certain degree, Tocqueville writes in large generalizations, which is where many of the contradictions come from (Americans are greedy yet generous).  When he speaks of "Americans" he was referring to a population of millions and it would be difficult then as well as now to suggest that all of the citizens included in the generalization held the same morals, motivations, and outlook.  Yet, his commentaries regarding what made America unique and successful are, I believe, in many respects true.  His honesty can be seen throughout the book, and the reader can clearly discern the convictions of the author.

Perhaps of more value than any other topic addressed by the author, his commentaries on democracy, its value and its dangers, are shockingly prescient.  More than a few times I stopped reading in stunned amazement that the pitfalls Tocqueville was describing in detail had come to pass in our modern age.  There were other dangers he saw afar off in 1830 that are at our doorstep in 2012.  Tocqueville should be given credit for not limiting himself to myopic observations of his day but looking ahead and delineating the snares democratic societies would trap themselves in.

Democracy in America is an excellent book, and it's not for everyone.  Most would find plenty of benefit reading it in segments or sections, as many apparently have already*.  It's another one of my 'accomplishment' books, and I'll surely use it as a reference in the future.  I'll display it proudly on my Thousander Bookshelf.

*Interestingly, I became aware of Democracy of America because of a powerful quote that was supposedly pulled from it.  When I began reading the book, I read with anticipation to finally come across the quote from the actual primary source.  After reading around 800 pages, I began to doubt it actually existed in the book.  To my utter chagrin, I learned the quote was never spoken or written by Tocqueville and somehow became a popularized quote attributed to him without any referential support.  The experience reminded me of how the simplest of mistakes in the recording of history can lead to large misunderstandings."

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