An enduring view of democracy Passion: Alexis de Tocqueville believed in U.S. democracy, though he also believed "a man does not undertake to direct the fortunes of the state until he has shown himself incompetent to conduct his own."


November 04, 1996|BY A STAFF WRITER

He was relatively young - 26 years old - visiting from France and observing the rules and habits of a then-young country, the United States. Nothing seemed more remarkable in 1831 to that Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, than elections.

Elections, like the wheel, had to be invented. Tocqueville marveled at the machinery - at Americans making elections reliable, true and ordinary. He applauded the imperfect, happy marriage between the theory and practice of democracy.

He wrote about it admiringly in "Democracy in America," his portrait of a country that was still untouched by national ad campaigns, exit polls and instant analyses. All the machinery was still new and seemed primed to run forever.

"The process of election affords a moral certainty," Alexander Hamilton had promised in 1788, "that the office of president will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. It will not be too strong say, that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue."

Tocqueville believed the presidency would be filled by the "very ordinary" rather than the exceptions. But he fully believed Hamilton's promise. He found the optimism wholly rational.

A day before Election Day, his is an encouraging, knowing voice:

No political form has hitherto been discovered that is equally favorable to the prosperity and the development of all the classes into which society is divided. When the rich alone govern, the interest of the poor is always endangered, and when the poor make the laws, that of the rich incurs very serious risks.

The advantage of democracy does not consist, therefore, as has sometimes been asserted, in favoring the prosperity of all, but simply in contributing to the well-being of the greatest number.

The men who are entrusted with the direction of public affairs in the United States are frequently inferior, in both capacity and morality, to those whom an aristocracy would raise to power. But their interest is identified and mingled with that of the majority of their fellow citizens.

They may frequently be faithless and frequently mistaken, but they will never systematically adopt a line of conduct hostile to the majority; and they cannot give a dangerous or exclusive tendency to the government.

When serious dangers threaten the state, the people frequently succeed in selecting the citizens who are the most able to save it. It has been observed that man rarely retains his customary level in very critical circumstances; he rises above or sinks below his usual condition, and the same thing is true of nations.

Extreme perils sometimes quench the energy of a people instead of stimulating it; they excite without directing its passions; and instead of clearing they confuse its powers of perception. But it is more common, with both nations and individuals, to find extraordinary virtues developed from the very imminence of the danger.

Great characters are then brought into relief as the edifices which are usually concealed by the gloom of night are illuminated by the glare of a conflagration. At those dangerous times genius no longer hesitates to come forward; and the people, alarmed by the perils of their situation, for a time forget their envious passions.

Great names may then be drawn from the ballot box.

When elections recur only at long intervals, the state is exposed to violent agitation every time they take place. Parties then exert themselves to the utmost in order to gain a prize which is so rarely within their reach; and as the evil is almost irremediable for the candidates who fail, everything is to be feared from their disappointed ambition.

If, on the other hand, the legal struggle is soon to be repeated, the defeated parties take patience.

When elections occur frequently, their recurrence keeps society in a feverish excitement and gives a continual instability to public affairs. Thus, on the one hand, the state is exposed to the perils of a revolution, on the other to perpetual mutability; the former system threatens the very existence of the government, the latter prevents any steady and consistent policy.

The Americans have preferred the second of these evils to the first; but they were led to this conclusion by instinct more than by reason, for a taste for variety is one of the characteristic passions of democracy.

No public officer in the United States has an official costume, but every one of them receives a salary. A democracy may allow some magisterial pomp and clothe its officers in silks and gold without seriously compromising its principles.

Privileges of this kind are transitory; they belong to the place and not to the man.

But if public officers are unpaid, a class of rich and independent public functionaries will be created who will constitute the basis of an aristocracy; and if the people still retain their right of election, the choice can be made only from a certain class of citizens.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.