Alexis De Tocqueville seemed smitten with the freedom and the lack of hereditary privilege he found in America in the first half of the nineteenth Century. What he saw then was a nation not bound by hereditary estates or titles, but supposedly gave equal opportunities to all. His revolution created Napoleon. The American Revolution produced the Constitution, Washington Jefferson and Madison.
There is, nevertheless, one sentence in his observations that would remain totally unchanged today: “I know of no country where the love of money has taken stronger hold in the affections of men, and where the profounder contempt is expressed for the theory of the permanent equality of property” (DeTocqueville 147). Although he entitles this particular essay “More Equal Than in any Other Country” at the time he wrote this, only white men were given a form of “equality”. Women had no vote, and slavery abounded in the South, where men and women of color were property, not citizens. He also, with typical French disdain, looks upon Americans as basically non-intellectual. He feels that no other nation in the world has as few “learned individuals (148).
If he were am0ong us today, looking for intell4ectuals, he would find most so-called “American intellectuals” as being considered “liberals” and “left-wingers”. We send more teen-agers to colleges and universities than any other nation, and yet all too few of them come out looking for something other than a well-paying job and “benefits”.
He might even quibble with his original title which included the word “Democracy”. Today, fewer people eligible to vote in local, state and nationwide elections vote. It is amazing to realize that a larger percentage of disenfranchised Iraqis voted earlier this year than Americans voted in November, 2004. Kerry, considered by many to be an “intellectual” member of the Eastern “elite”, fared the same way Adlai Stevenson did against Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. We see high-schools competing in some sort of nationwide IQ marathons, with the winners (more often lately from Southern California) featuring Asian teens who, prompted by demanding elders, seem to be more academically prepared than their Caucasian or Hispanic or African-American counterparts. It is fascinating to read de Tocquevilole’s comment that “the gifts of intellect proceed directly from God, and man cannot prevent their unequal distribution” (148). But, the Christian Right and the bigoted metropolitan nabobs are still trying to limit information, offering Hip-Hop lyrics and Ebonics as evidence African-Americans have lower intellects. While De Tocqueville surely would have applauded free public education, something fostered by Thomas Jefferson, he might be dubious about Kansas School Boards’ insistence that Creationism be given equal weight as a “:theory” alongside evolution.
De Tocqueville, being French, obviously was Catholic. How would he look today on the efforts of everyone from Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell to Tom De Lay and Bill Frist to see America as a “Christian” nation. “Christian” meaning conservative Protestant. While parents reveled in songs like “Born in the USA” and “Born to Be Free”, today, talk is of born-again Christians, even among college fraternities and sororities, and more recently “outed” as proselytizers at the Air Force Academy. “The Passion of the Christ” a Mel Gibson producer-and-financed movie, grossed hundreds of millions of dollars, and Christian-themed books are top sellers in America now.
De Tocqueville, in elements other than this excerpt, marveled at our Constitutional fathers separating church of state, as well as the judicial, executive, and legislative branches of our government. What would he think that federal judges now must be tested for their adherence to conservative Christianity and a willingness to ride on the coattails of a popular “anti” belief of millions of Americans. Passion enhances those who are against things- anti-abortion, anti- same-sex marriage, anti-Affirmative Action, anti-big Government, anti-drivers’ licenses for non-citizens, and especially anti- any nation that doesn’t kowtow to the belief America is the one Savior of the rest of the world.
De Tocqueville saw America as a burgeoning haven, not as a militant enforcer of its rules. He saw our populace as civilly committed to helping one another. Today, commitment comes in the form of a Jerry Lewis telethon, or a ex-President plea for disaster relief for Tsunami victims. We watch television, rather than one another: “I believe that the weight of available evidence confirms that Americans today are significantly less engaged with their communities than was true a generation ago. Of course, American civil society is not moribund. Many good people across the land work hard every day to keep their communities vital. Indeed, evidence suggests that America still outranks many other countries in the degree of our community involvement and social trust. But if we examine our lives, not our aspirations, and if we compare ourselves not with other countries but with our parents, the best available evidence suggests that we are less connected with one another” (Putnam 4).
De Tocqueville in today’s America would snicker at the title of this excerpt, and think not of his own usage but that of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, where the pig proclaims that everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others. Is our morality as bankrupt as a fired Trump Apprentice? Name one other nation in the world, free or otherwise, where the minister of a church has the temerity to oust some parishioners because they voted for the challenger and not the incumbent. Democracy? No one without funds or backing can get elected, and once in, is beholden to the fat cats, not the rest of the alley-cat voters. And yet, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, Democracy is far from the best political system in the world, unless you compare it with all the others.
De Tocqueville, Alexis: “More Equal Than Any Other Country” excerpt from Democracy In America
Putnam, Robert: “The Strange Disappearance of Civic America” xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/DETOC/home.html