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The works of Aristotle, de Tocqueville, and Emerson all ty to define an ambiguous term such as “democracy” or to define the role of government in people’s lives. Using the concepts developed in the work of these three authors, how is democracy defined in America?

Aristotle valued social and political institutions that allowed people to publicly deliberate to arrive at a common good. De Tocqueville valued those institutions not only insofar as they allowed deliberation but more importantly because they represented the consciences of individuals. Emerson feared social and political institutions precisely because he sought to preserve and safeguard the individual conscience. These are different and even contradictory views of democracy. However, all of them can be useful in critiquing modern America.

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Aristotle, de Tocqueville, and Emerson all had very different definitions of democracy, and each applies to the "American ideal" in a different way. For Aristotle, political systems could be divided into three categories: rule of the one (monarchy), rule of the few (aristocracy), and rule of the many (constitutional government). Each of these, he argued, was subject to deformation and degradation. Monarchy, for example, could degenerate into tyranny when the monarch substituted their own private interests for the polity as a whole. Aristocracy could devolve into oligarchy when it ceased to be rule of the virtuous or the educated and instead became rule of the merely wealthy. Finally, constitutional government could devolve into "democracy" when it cased to be government by common deliberation and instead devolved into what we can anachronistically call "mob rule." What all three of these deformations have in common is that rule of the one, rule of the few, and rule of the many can become corrupted when the primary object of politics, the common good, is lost. The good or end (telos) of politics is the common good, so any form of government that tends towards this good or end is fundamentally better than government that tends away from it. The difference between monarchy, aristocracy, and constitutional government is not whether one or the other is oriented towards the common good, but how each one characteristically achieves it—the monarch through reason, the aristocrats by being virtuous and educated rulers, and the people as a whole through rational deliberation in the public forum.

Aristotle's theories have much to teach us, even today. America is certainly a constitutional polity. But for Aristotle, that doesn't mean much if citizens are incapable of coming together in a public forum to deliberate about the common good, if trends and fads section the population off into interest groups, and if large concentrations of money and power, as well as the degradation of popular culture, deprive people of a context for participating in public debate. To the extent that this is our shared reality today, Aristotle might call America "democratic" in the worst sense.

For de Tocqueville, democracy is a secular realization of the religious ideals of America's first settlers, the Puritans. It is the political outgrowth of the uniquely protestant emphasis on the private conscience of the individual. Because protestants, particularly Calvinists, understand salvation in terms of justification by faith, and faith as voluntary adherence to a particular creed, most protestant religious groups are voluntary associations. The local congregation or regional federation of congregations is the paramount religious body, and its primary purpose is to reflect the consciences of the individuals who freely associate with it. When the Puritans settled in America, de Tocqueville argued, it was natural that this congregational form of religious government should give birth to a democratic form of political government. Congregations were supplemented by town meetings, and these created a culture of citizens who were used to governing themselves according to their consciences.

Note that de Tocqueville represents both continuity with and a departure from Aristotle. He shares with Aristotle the emphasis on the public forum as an institution that allows citizens of a democracy to deliberate (and would, therefore, share Aristotle's concerns with the Twitterverse and Fox News replacing Union Square as the major way Americans share and debate ideas). But his emphasis on the conscience of the individual is in sharp contrast to Aristotle's emphasis on the common good. For de Tocqueville, democracy as a political ideal depends less on people deliberating together until they arrive at a common good and more on their freedom to arrive at their own opinions and to have a reasonable expectation that political institutions will give them an authentic voice. De Tocqueville, like Aristotle, would be concerned about the absence of authentic public forums, but he would also be concerned about the ways that lack of education, economic exploitation, and derogatory messages about race and gender can prevent people from coming to their own opinions and "finding their voice" within the political system. If they were discussing modern America, de Tocqueville might say to Aristotle "a public forum is great, but it means nothing if the citizens are not able to think and feel for themselves."

This emphasis on freedom and authenticity, as opposed to the common good, is even more extreme in Emerson. Emerson was an individualist, and was opposed, outright, to any social forces that would assimilate the individual to a larger collective. While Aristotle sought the common good, Emerson feared conformity above all else. When he wrote about large-scale institutions, it was mostly to critique the ways that they stifle individual freedom. While de Tocqueville thought that institutions were primarily a means to open up space for government by the individual conscience, Emerson thought that rule by conscience and rule by institutions were fundamentally opposed. He would likely have the greatest concern with the way that large institutions dominate American government and politics today, from the two dominant political parties, to the mass institutions like unions and churches that represent the "interest groups" that guide their policies. For Emerson, the only alternative to representative institutions was representative people or "great men" who could sum up in themselves the authentic being of individuals. Paradoxically, in this way, his philosophy of democracy sometimes sounds more like twentieth century totalitarianism than it does like constitutional government. Nevertheless, Emerson's critiques of large social institutions are highly relevant in an America that more and more seems to be governed by bureaucracies more than by people.

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