How are the five values crucial to success of the American constitutional republic as presented by Alexis de Tocqueville in "Democracy in America" different and unique from those of other nations of the time?
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Alexis de Tocqueville’s (1805-1859) travels through the United States and his depiction of those travels and observations in Democracy in America (1835) remains a great example of political analysis. De Tocqueville’s insights into the then-new country have proven prescient. His comment that “I do not know if the people of the United States would vote for superior men if they ran for office, but there can be no doubt that such men do not” could just as easily be applied today as when he toured the United States in the early 19th Century.
De Tocqueville’s travels enabled him to study the developing democracy in North America and to view it against a backdrop of substantial political change in his native country of France, still grappling with its own revolution and still unable to forge a united consensus with regard to the form of a future French government. De Tocqueville’s five values that he attributed to America – liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and a laissez-faire philosophy with regard the relationship of government to the people – were unique to the new nation, and very much at variance with the European political systems to which he was more accustomed. His travels across America provided him a great measure of respect for the democratic form of government that was taking shape, but he was experienced and astute enough to see where pitfalls might lie ahead. De Tocqueville understood as well as the Founding Fathers just how fragile would be this new nation.
The degree to which de Tocqueville was concerned – “cynical” might be too harsh a word – about the survival of democracy in America was evidenced in some of his observations:
“The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money”;
“America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great”;
“When the taste for physical gratification among them has grown more rapidly than their education…the time will come when men are carried away and lose all self-restraint…It is not necessary to do violence to such people in order to strip them of the rights they enjoy; they themselves willingly loosen their hold…they neglect their chief business which is to remain their own masters.”
The five values that de Tocqueville observed in America could be found in part in Europe, but not in whole. The rallying cry of revolutionary France – Liberty Equality Fraternity – would take many more years and many changes in government to accurately reflect French politics. The individualism with which de Tocqueville was so enamored in the United States was alien in the far older and more established political and social systems of Europe, where class was more prevalent as a system for categorizing people than individual abilities. And with France still grappling with the ramifications of having destroyed the monarchy, the notion of a laissez faire relationship between government and society was anathema to most elites. Populism as practiced in American politics was completely alien to the upper classes who continued to hold sway across much of Europe. De Tocqueville was an astute-enough observer of America to appreciate the uniqueness of what he was witnessing, and it was that uniqueness that made it stand apart from the political systems in Europe, where monarchies continued to be the dominant feature of government.
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