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American Democracy Through Foreign Eyes


In the early 19th century, Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville visited America and wrote a book on the democracy, society and practices of the American people. Since then, many books have been written about the United States, but some 170 years later Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" remains one of the most respected.

Alexis de Tocqueville came to the United States in 1831, ostensibly to study the U.S. prison system. But intrigued with the notion of American democracy, he traveled around the country for nine months observing how democracy shaped America's economy, society and character. Most analysts agree that Tocqueville's assessment of the United States remains the most accurate.

Peter Lawler, Professor of Government at Berry College in Georgia, says America is still largely a country of hard-working middle-class people as it was in the 19th century.

"Everyone has to work. So in an aristocracy there are some people above money and a great number of people below money. In America, everyone cares about money. One good thing about this is that we get rich. With everyone working, we can have a country of unparallel prosperity," says Professor Lawler.

Democracy: a Wave for the Future

A nobleman whose family was at odds with the French King, Tocqueville found America's democratic system to be more fair than monarchy. Peter Lawler says that Alexis de Tocqueville correctly predicted that popular self-government was the wave of the future. "The democracy tends towards a meritocracy of brains and hard work and virtue of a certain kind and that's more just than some kind of hereditary aristocracy," he says.

But the 19th century observer also found some disadvantages in the system. He noted that a democratic society has little regard for excellence in art, music and philosophy. Democracy, he warned, could become a dictatorship of the masses where individuals would not be able to develop a point of view contrary to the majority.

Political scientist Peter Lawler says history has proven these reservations to be unwarranted. He says America not only has had many original thinkers, artists and creative individuals of all kinds, but that many others flock to this country to gain appreciation denied them elsewhere.

But some critics say dictatorship of the masses has become prevalent in American political, economic and social life today. French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, author of the new book American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville, is one.

"When you go, for instance, in the [shopping] Mall of America in Minneapolis [Minnesota], this huge building with a sort of fake life inside, with a sort of uniform taste, conformity, herd mentality -- all this sounds like modern tyranny of majority."

Bernard-Henri Levy also criticizes what he sees as an absence of independent critical thought among supporters of the two major American political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. He says most Americans tend to embrace the complete agenda of a party, including its foreign and domestic policies, its stance on abortion, same-sex marriage and other issues, even if they don't agree with the entire platform.

William Kristol, Editor of the political magazine The Weekly Standard and former member of several Republican administrations, says supporting one party does not mean an absence of critical thinking in America.

"When I sit down for dinner with someone in a restaurant, do I have to order all the courses on the menu? And the answer is no, but one does have to order something on the menu and one has to choose a restaurant. And once you've chosen the restaurant, you have to choose among the choices at that restaurant. That's what politics is," he says.

William Kristol and other analysts also point out that at the state and local level, Americans tend to support candidates for their ideas, regardless of their party affiliation.

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that it was the religious aspect of the country that first struck him on his visit to America. In France, the Enlightenment had juxtaposed religion and freedom; in America, the two were inextricably linked. This, Tocqueville argued, is truer to human nature.

Are Religion and Mass Tastes Prevalent in the US?

But philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy contends that religion has become intrusive in American public and private life. "The new American religions of today are religions that tell the faithful that God speaks all the time, that God and the devil are like an unceasing, unstopping whispering, that God is present when you cut your lawn, that God is present in your kitchen, that God is your best buddy," says Levy. " When the sense of transcendence has been forgotten, I think we are in the presence of something new, which is not quite the religion of which Tocqueville spoke and which begins to pose certain problems."

As an example, Levy points to a growing debate in America about introducing intelligent design theory into school curriculum, which suggests that life was created by a higher being. Although opinion polls show that some 90 percent of Americans believe in God, Peter Lawler says the United States is much more secular today than it was in the 19th century. He adds that the willingness to question an established scientific theory only proves that the spirit of free thinking is alive and well in America.

"Intelligent design is stupid as a scientific theory. On the other hand, I would have to say that the attempt of evolutionists to explain everything by evolutionism is almost equally stupid. The intelligent-design guys aren't always wrong when they poke holes in evolutionary explanations of, say, human pride, human vanity and so forth," says Levy.

Although Professor Lawler says Alexis de Tocqueville was not correct in all of his assessments, overall, his Democracy in America remains one the best books ever written on the subject.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.