'Democracy in America': Protestantism, books and the middle class

Note: I'm blogging my way through Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America." You can find an online text [here.][1] (Thank goodness for the good old days, when texts could actually pass into the public domain.)Equality didn't start in America, ya know- in fact, it's a natural product of civilization. But America is where equality started to find its highest, best expression. And the rest of the world -- or Europe, anyway -- had better watch out, because this might be in store for you. If you're lucky. Otherwise, what looks like a movement toward equality might actually be society busting apart at the seams.That seems to be de Tocqueville's gist at the opening of "DIA." Although he'll later claim that the rise of civilization has inexorably pushed Europe away from feudalism and toward equality over the past 700 years, he seems genuinely amazed at the level of equality he finds in America in the opening words of the book.AMONG the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of condition among the people. I readily discovered the prodigious influence that this primary fact exercises on the whole course of society; it gives a peculiar direction to public opinion and a peculiar tenor to the laws; it imparts new maxims to the governing authorities and peculiar habits to the governed.__I soon perceived that the influence of this fact extends far beyond the political character and the laws of the country, and that it has no less effect on civil society than on the government; it creates opinions, gives birth to new sentiments, founds novel customs, and modifies whatever it does not produce. The more I advanced in the study of American society, the more I perceived that this equality of condition is the fundamental fact from which all others seem to be derived and the central point at which all my observations constantly terminated._Now is as good a time as any to note that the writer, de Tocqueville, is a European. And that he's writing for Europeans. So a good deal of the introduction is not actually about America at all --but about, well, Europe.(It's also worth noting that it appears his definition of equality appears, thus far, to apply to white guys. That's the 1800s for you.)Back in the 1100s, he says, France was dominated by a few wealthy landowners. But things began to change.¢ The clergy rose in political power. While today that gives rise to shouts of "theocracy" in America, in medieval France this was actually something of a democratizing influence. Heretofore, only the sons of the rich and powerful could end up rich and powerful. But anybody -- well, any man at least -- could become a priest. It was a path to power for the lowest of the low.¢ A prosperous middle class arose. De Tocqueville describes:_While the kings were ruining themselves by their great enterprises, and the nobles exhausting their resources by private wars, the lower orders were enriching themselves by commerce. The influence of money began to be perceptible in state affairs. The transactions of business opened a new road to power, and the financier rose to a station of political influence in which he was at once flattered and despised.¢ Knowledge became more freely available. And the Reformation happened._The art of printing opened the same resources to the minds of all classes; the post brought knowledge alike to the door of the cottage and to the gate of the palace; and Protestantism proclaimed that all men are equally able to find the road to heaven._Since all of this happened, de Tocqueville says, it was bound to happen. Democracy, is a natural process. But that's not necessarily all to the good. Remember: He's writing in France after a couple of decades of chaos set in motion by the French Revolution. (Which always makes me think of Cloris Leachman. Yes, I'm low-brow.) Tossing aside a monarchy, like the Americans had done, hadn't worked out well. Instead of a rule of law, the French got rule by rabble, then Napoleon and one of the world's first major cults of personality. De Tocqueville doesn't say any of this directly. Instead:_The result has been that the democratic revolution has taken place in the body of society without that concomitant change in the laws, ideas, customs, and morals which was necessary to render such a revolution beneficial. Thus we have a democracy without anything to lessen its vices and bring out its natural advantages; and although we already perceive the evils it brings, we are ignorant of the benefits it may confer._De Tocqueville then spends some pages describing, in general terms, "the evils it brings." Because France is still working out what its democracy will look like -- and again de Tocqueville assures us this is inevitable -- he comes to America. He wants to know what to expect.And in stating his mission, he offers up the lines that everybody quotes when they quote "DIA":_I confess that in America I saw more than America; I sought there the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions, in order to learn what we have to fear or to hope from its progress._So what did he find? We start getting the answer next week.In the meantime, some discussion questions:¢ We have more knowledge more freely available than ever now, thanks to the Web and its ilk; is that still, on balance, a democratizing force?¢ Is equality still 'a fundamental condition of America?' [1]: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/DETOC/toc_indx.html


MyName 16 years ago

I think the answer to both questions can only be answered in terms of societal mobility. It wasn't freedom of knowledge alone that moved Western Civilization away from hereditary rule, but rather it was the combination of free knowledge and a rising middle class. If we can't have change at the top of society, then, no matter how many other freedoms we may enjoy, we do not have an equal society.

I think having access to knowledge is something that allows people to acquire money and/or political power, so that someone from the poorer classes can move up to the middle class and someone from the middle class can move up to the rich, however, we have an education that is not very equal, and is becoming less equal every year, I think. Also, it seems like the system is really not equipped to deal with this new knowledge revolution.

On top of that, it seems like alot of Americans have become a little decadant and are unwilling to learn new things. So as far as making the knowledge playing field more level, it seems like we have a problem where you can bring a horse to water but you can't make him drink, and we also have a problem where some horses are getting all of the water (or knowledge) and some are getting none.

This is all compounded by the fact that something like 1-5% of the country controls 90% of the wealth, and yet they've been trying for years to convince the other 95% that they should be taxed the same rate as everyone else. The end result has been an investment in the things that the upper 5% need (like a strong military to protect their wealth, and a lot of infrastructure to allow them to move the capital around), and an annual decrease in the funding for the things that the upper 5% doesn't need, like education and healthcare for everybody else in the country.

I'm not a socialist or a communist, but I am worried that, despite all of the potential for equality and a strong democracy, we're moving towards another Gilded Age, or a Victorian age and both of those were followed by some tough times for their respective countries.

clayhill70 16 years ago

Considering the fact that the continuation of slavery was a compromise struck to achieve the ratification of the constitution I don't think the framers ever considered giving blacks, indians, or women equal status. Fortunately they had the foresight to build into the constitution the flexibility necessary to amend their short sightedness.

CafeSiren 16 years ago

"We have more knowledge more freely available than ever now, thanks to the Web and its ilk; is that still, on balance, a democratizing force?"

Let me make what may be a provocative answer: the "democratization of knowledge" via the interwebs isn't necessarily a good thing, or an embiggening enterprise.

Sure, I wish for the collected knowledge of the ages -- from the distant past to the most recent research -- to be open to anyone who wants to learn. And current technology is great for that (witness your link to DiA, out there on the web for anyone who wants to read it). Equal access to knowledge is a good thing; a great thing, even.

But the web also promotes equality in production of knowledge, and I'm not so down with that. In this day and age, anyone can be an Authority. Opinions and half-researched analyses are given equal weight to the work of those who have devoted large parts of their lives to becoming experts in their fields (witness the "debates" over global climate change, or evolution). Anyone who says otherwise risks being branded an elitist.

I do not advocate blind reliance on experts. Experts can be wrong, and they can even lie. But that does not mean that all views on all subjects are equally valid.

But this may not be what you were asking.

Joel 16 years ago

CafeSiren: That's not what I was asking, but I do think that's a very interesting view that does get at the question in a way I hadn't considered

A year ago I wrote a story that mentioned a Middle Eastern emirate. I got a snooty letter from a KU student demanding that I correct the story because -- see here! -- the Wikipedia article on the subject was factually at odds with my article.

That wouldn't have bothered me, except that Wikipedia was wrong, which I could prove using sources from that country's government, as well as multiple news sources. I'm not saying that any of those things couldn't have been wrong, but the weight of the combined sources suggested otherwise.

All that, however, is merely anecdote.

Maybe it's because I'm a journalist and have to think this way, but I believe one of the foundations for democracy is (he says pretentiously) the Truth. Truth disseminated by a free press, sometimes over a very long time, empowers people to take action.

So what you're suggesting, CS, is troubling, because it means that the proliferation of outlets might be making it harder, not easier, for Truth to separate itself from the pack.

On the other hand, though, there's never been any dearth of flim-flam men throughout history; we've survived and Truth has generally outed -- though not always on the time frame we would like.

JohnB 16 years ago

Joel, I've been away this past week, so I'm catching up on blog reading this morning over coffee. It's good to see you, as a professional scribe of the popular, taking on de Tocqueville.
Full disclosure: I've "read around in" DIA, enough to know that de Tocqueville is scarily prescient in some ways about "us." You're in for a treat. I'm with Ms. Siren in her suspicion that the nature of the Web is such that the result it points toward, the idea of an interactive Truth (see Wikipedia) is less than cool. The only solution, as you noted in your comment above--and not a bad one, admittedly--is the old "preponderance of evidence" solution. Yet that solution cuts against the grain of the Web's other promise: instant access to information. It takes, you know, "time" to determine what the preponderance of evidence suggests, yet DSL and cable connections have conditioned all of us now to be impatient with sites that take more than, say, 20 seconds to load. Truth is something of a laggard, too, sometimes. As for your second question, do you mean "fundamental" in the sense of who we say we are and the condition to which we aspire, or in the sense of who we are in fact? One way to think about U.S. history is as our gradual movement in the direction of making ever-truer the the self-evident truth that all men (and, now, women) are created equal. That movement wouldn't be so if the idea of equality were not fundamental to our national essence.

Joel 16 years ago

I'm not anticipating a lot of discussion on these DIA posts -- I know they're a bit wonky -- but I'm thrilled by the quality of it so far.

I've got in-laws coming today and a house to clean, so I want to respond more to all of this. But it might wait till Sunday or Monday.

16 years ago

"So what you're suggesting...means that the proliferation of outlets might be making it harder, not easier, for Truth to separate itself from the pack."

And even then, truth does not always separate itself. Well, that's not exactly correct. Try it this way, only with multiple sources can we have a pack to begin with. Then some individual person must make the effort to separate it and convince others that it is the truth.

I'm going to make the (unfair) jump from journalism to history, but only because I have to do something with that pile of books that I mentioned in your other thread. Feel free to bring it back to journalism, which is far outside my expertise.

When I was watching The Hunt for Red October, Captain Ramius assured me that Cortes burned his ships when he reached the new world. And if that was all we knew, we'd know the Truth. And I also read that in a popular history of the Civil War (it was just an aside) and a business book that used it as an example of motivation. So far so good. Cortes burned his ships.

But the longer I searched, the more confused I got, not because I was getting worse sources, but better. Two historians (Salvador de Madriaga and William Weber Johnson) assure me that the ships were actually allowed to drift into shore. Then I went to Gomara, Cortes' personal secretary, and he told me that Cortes ordered the pilots to sink them by drilling holes in the bottom. I found two eyewitnesses, one who says the ships were "sunk" and the other who says they were "destroyed." So the best sources were little help at all.

I've been assigned a 15-page paper to discover and justify the truth, and as of my second draft it's up to 24.

That all being said, I think there are two things we can conclude. The first is that a proliferation of outlets is the only way to make sure (and even then it's iffy) that the Truth is even in the pack to begin with. And the second is that truth is not democratic but something else all together. We can't decide what happened to Cortes' ships by counting noses, because what "everyone knows" may not be the truth - and I'm just cynical enough to argue that it's probably not the truth.

I agree that the truth is often outed, but I would also argue that, men being what they are, truth is more often decided for each person based on what he would wish it to be. "A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest," and all that, especially once we get past little questions like "who's the Emir of Krrjrrkistan?" and onto big questions like "Are people more equal today than they were in de Tocqueville's day?" The answer is often yes or no depending on how limited the sources upon which we are relying are.

Therefore while I don't think that more knowledge is generally a democratizing force, it is a force that opens opportunities. That may lead to specialization, which may be a democratizing force but only if people take advantage of the opportunities of knowledge.

16 years ago

I realize after re-reading that last paragraph makes no sense, but I was running up against the 3000 character limit. So just pretend it was something really insightful, ok?

OtherJoel 16 years ago

I can only reiterate what has already been said here re: the Internet's impact on knowledge. Regarding Protestantism and its influence on our society, I would recommend Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism as well. As Democracy (as an idea if not necessarily a reality) was a natural outgrowth of the Reformation, capitalism, too, was a natural economic manifestation -- the ideas of self-determination inherent in both, the emphasis on work, etc. I don't necessarily equate democracy and capitalism (they often contradict each other, but that's another issue), but I think it is interesting how the two appear to have sprung from a common source.

thetomdotdot 16 years ago

"We have more knowledge more freely available than ever now, thanks to the Web and its ilk; is that still, on balance, a democratizing force?"

Ufortunately, I can't escape this mental paraphrase of the question: Would an endless supply of paint tend to produce the color blue?

I actually was surpreised at my agreement with cafesirens summary. I've always professed disdain for elitism, but the alternative is demonstrably foolish. (..)

"Is equality still 'a fundamental condition of America?'" The idea of equality is a fundamental condition of America, but actual equality will only be achieved after the extinction of our species.


j_d 16 years ago

Hi Joel,

I have posted my extended thoughts along these lines here.

Joel 16 years ago

Phew. I'm humbled that the conversation started here has spilled out into the Kansas blogosphere-- both at JD's blog, as well as Josh Rosenau's "Thoughts from Kansas" blog: http://scienceblogs.com/tfk/2007/03/equality.php

Between the responses here and outside, there's a lot to get to, but, in order to be fair, I ought to answer the quesitons that I posed.

First: Is equality still 'a fundamental condition of America? I offer a qualified yes. The notion of equality has shifted over the years, as all of us have been at pains to point out. But let's put ourselves back into context: In the 1830s, equality of sorts between white guys -- 'Anybody' can vote, 'anybody' can grow up to be president -- was a recent and even startling development. It's easy to argue that the struggle for other forms of equality that we (and I count myself as part of 'we') has been the defining storyline of our country's domestic history; debates over slavery and black civil rights will carry you through the first 200 years or so. And the hotbutton issues of the last 30 years or so can, from certain quarters, be seen as "equality" issues ... which, in the interest of not starting a hotbotton discussion about tangental matters, I'm going to decline to discuss. If equality isn't a fundamental condition of America, then the struggle for equality surely is.

More in my next comment.

Joel 16 years ago

Why I qualify my 'yes': That struggle for equality includes a struggle over the definition of equality ... thus the goalposts keep moving, and as long as we're a country that bases its self-concept on the proposition that all people were created equal, it will be ever thus.

JD argues that there are two main categories of equality: equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes; he's not a fan of the latter. Like Josh, I'm not certain that I entirely agree with the taxonomy -- but if you read Josh and JD's posts, you'll see why the definition of equality matters.

I guess I define equality in terms of rights-- which is similar to JD's equality of opportunity, and maybe exactly the same, except that (to me) equality of opportunity signifies mainly economic concerns. And there's a lot more conversation there to be had about those rights; I'm not going to attempt it tonight.

On the information and democratization: I give neither a yes nor no. I think democratizing tendencies of expanded access to information will be in constant tension with the nature of the information; if we all have a more complete picture of Anna Nicole Smith's autopsy results, for example, I'm not sure what that accomplishes except distracting us. It's up to each of us to decide where that balance is.

Again: Phew. I'll tackle more of the conversation tomorrow...

16 years ago

"if we all have a more complete picture of Anna Nicole Smith's autopsy results, for example, I'm not sure what that accomplishes except distracting us."

Pursuit of happiness, dude. Anna Nicole is on the news because to a good number of people, that's what they want to hear, what they want to know, what the news is for. They don't care about Iranians whose names they can't pronounce, they don't care about who the SecState is. They don't care a whit about what a lot of others think is important. I don't say this to sound elitist but to illlustrate a truth: given the opportunity people will purposely wander off in all manner of directions that other people find incomprehensible. What you consider a distraction, they consider important. And vice versa.

They're not watching Anna Nicole because they can't afford to watch Katie Couric or the History Channel, but because they choose not to. I suspect that represents freedom rather than democracy.

To open a completely different can of worms (and one I'll certainly regret) more information and more kinds of information will never lead to in informed electorate because people choose not to be informed. And the only way to have an informed electorate in a free society is to limit the electorate to those who choose to be informed. Catch-22.

j_d 16 years ago

FWIW, Joel, I did use the economic terms, but I meant the term "equality of opportunity" in the sense that you chose to understand it, i.e., a society where each person has the same rights (and what I further mean, and which I suspect is the point on which we disagree, that those "rights" for you entail no obligation on my part other than their common defense.)

Joel 16 years ago

I'd need to know more about what you mean before I assent to disagreement. ; )

James Bennett 16 years ago

  1. No, because we have more information available than ever before, but fewer people take advantage of it; to go with G.K. Chesterton:"This was certainly not the idea of those who introduced our freedom. When the old Liberals removed the gags from all the heresies, their idea was that religious and philosophical discoveries might thus be made. Their view was that cosmic truth was so important that every one ought to bear independent testimony. The modern idea is that cosmic truth is so unimportant that it cannot matter what any one says. The former freed inquiry as men loose a noble hound; the latter frees inquiry as men fling back into the sea a fish unfit for eating."2. As much as it ever was, but I think de Tocequville's tour and his built-in notions of what constituted "equality" need to be taken into account when considering that :)

Commenting has been disabled for this item.