Democracy was achieved by such a long arduous and heroic struggle
that it can feel embarrassing even shameful
to be pretty disappointed by it.
Perhaps the best guy to such feelings and to modern democracy in general
is a 19th century French aristocrat,
Alexis De Tocqueville
democracy was a highly exotic and new political option.
He’d been born in 1805
when Napoleon was the populist dictator of half of Europe.
But he presciently believed
that democracy was going to be the future all over the world
and so he wanted to know
what would that be like?
To find out,
he set out to America with a grant from the French government.
He arrived in New York
together with his friend Gustave de Beaumont in May of 1831.
And then embarked on a nine-month journey around the new nation.
After his journey, he compiled his thoughts into
one of the greatest works of political philosophy,
Democracy in America published in 1835.
In the book De Tocqueville was particularly alive to
the problematic and darker sides of democracy.
Five issues struck him in particular.
this is society that the Tocqueville knew from childhood.
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 the 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 seem to be quite simply the only achievement that Americans respected.
For example, De Tocqueville observed that
in America people believed that
a book that did not sell well just couldn’t be any good
because the only test of goodness for any item
was how much money it happens to make.
Democracy and capitalism had thus created seemingly equitable
but also very flat an oppressive way
for humans to judge each other.
In a chapter of Democracy in America entitled
why the Americans are often so restless
in the midst of their prosperity?
De Tocqueville sketched an enduring analysis of
the relationship between high expectations and dissatisfaction
between political equality and envy.
He wrote, when all the prerogatives of birth and fortune have been abolished,
when every profession is open to everyone,
an ambitious man may think
it is easy to launch himself on a great career,
and feel that he has been called to no common destiny
But this is a delusion which experience quickly corrects.
When inequality is the general rule in society
the greatest inequalities attract no attention
But when everything is more or less level,
the slightest variation is noticed.
That is the reason for the strange melancholy
often haunting inhabitants of democracies in the midst of abundance,
and of that disgust with life sometimes gripping them
even in calm and easy circumstances.
The old rigid hierarchical European system
that had denied all hope of social movement to the poor
was unjust in a thousand all too obvious ways to Tocqueville recognized.
But it had offered those on the lower rungs
one notable freedom.
The freedom not to have to take the achievements of quite so many people in society
as reference points,
and then find themselves severely wanting in status
and importance as a result.
Typically we think of democracy as being the opposite of tyranny.
But de Tocqueville noticed that democracy could easily create
its own specialized type of tyranny that of the majority.
Democratic culture he thought often ends up demonizing
any assertion of difference, and especially cultural superiority
Even though such attitudes might be connected with real merit,
in a tyranny of the majority
a society has an aggressive leveling 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 United States people have no distinction.
Refused to think that anyone could be better than them.
Just because they had say trained to be a doctor for seven years
or study the law for two 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.
And yet as the Tocqueville saw it,
it simply must be the case that some people in society are
wiser, more intelligent, kinder or more mature than others
更有智慧 更聪明 更善良 更成熟
and therefore should be listen to with special attention.
Democracy was De Tocqueville thought fatally biased towards mediocrity
You suppose that democracy would encourage 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 of discussion than in America.
Trusting that their system was fair and just
Americans simply gave up on critical thinking
and put their faith in newspapers, and so called common sense instead
Furthermore, as this was a commercial society
Americans were very conscious of not wanting to step too far out of line with their neighbors
who might also be customers.
It was better to trot out cliches than to try to be original
and never more so than when there was something to sell.
Although De Tocqueville says a lot of really quite grim things about Democracy and America,
De Tocqueville wasn’t anti-democratic or Anti-America.
He was just trying to show why living in a democracy
could in some key ways be really quite annoying and frustrating.
He is teaching us the stoic lesson
that certain pains just need to be expected.
Don’t be too surprised or shocked.
Don’t come along with the wrong expectations.
Politics in a democracy
it’s going to be pretty awful in some major ways.
It’s not that we’re doing anything specifically wrong.
It’s just the price you pay,
and should be willing to pay,
when you give ultimate authority to everyone.