Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat and social historian, who visited America in the 1830s, made some remarkably astute and percipient observations about US society and the nature of its democracy just over fifty years after Independence from England. His social rank opened doors in New York, Boston and Philadelphia, but he also travelled to the frontier lands of Michigan, and sailed down the Mississippi on a steamboat, and he met many, if not most of the key figures during that time. Three things struck him most forcefully. Firstly there was the cupidity and sheer greed of the general populace, all of whom reveled in the idea that anyone could become very rich – and that wealth equaled fame, prominence and thence power. He was distressed that the line between public and private life was blurred, and that it was accepted that private financial skullduggery should transmute into public corruption. At a high-society gathering, he was warned not to mention the subject of bankruptcy, since half the men there had been bankrupt at least once in their lives – for this was how one achieved financial success in spite of past failures. It was the American Way. Secondly, Tocqueville closely examined the structures of American democracy, admiring some aspects, but having grave reservations about others. Most grave of all his reservations was his belief that the US Constitution had no adequate protection against the advent of a tyrannical rule. All that was required to create such an administration was a majority vote, and, in his view, most voters were too ignorant to know in any real sense for what or whom they were casting ballots. Thirdly, he marveled at the profusion and influence of newspapers, which he termed a “living jury” judging issues of the day and those involved with them. At that time, there were 1,300 entirely unrestricted papers in the US, compared with 300 tightly censored ones in France, whose population was then not much smaller than that of America. Tocqueville focusses on these three issues – money, democracy, and the media – arriving at conclusions that are eerily relevant today.
The equation of wealth with success and thence power, he decided, was dangerous, and led to the disturbing tendency he saw in people to view wealth as a validation for anyone seeking high governmental office. It alarmed him to find there were no impediments to someone without any political experience running for and obtaining positions of immense systemic power. Among the important people he met was President Andrew Jackson, a wealthy entrepreneur with no experience of public service, and thus someone in the Executive Office who most closely resembles Donald Trump. Jackson was elected, Tocqueville observed, precisely because he had a proven track-record of financial wizardry, and absolutely no experience in politics. Obviously without any idea where media would be headed in 200 years, Tocqueville still saw that, lacking any controlling authority, newspapers were able to plant opinions and ideas in the minds of those too busy or tired trying to get rich to think over issues for themselves. He observed that journalists – who, on the whole, he regarded as uneducated and ignorant – dealt far more with emotions than with ideas or facts – and that emotions far more determined how people voted than reason did. While being a bastion of freedom, these newspapers are also, he tells us, a threat to public order – because there is no established class or social group to guide their editors and contributors in portraying correctly a stable course for the evolution of society. They promoted their own interests and prejudices over the general welfare of society. This would result in what Tocqueville called “the tyranny of the majority”, a right of those least qualified for the task to elect people least qualified for the office for which they run. This is known as a kakristocracy – and we are about to see one in action, for Mr. Trump has placed in the highest offices men who are extravagantly ill-qualified for such positions. Since half of the electorate clearly felt that politics should not be in the hands of politicians, we and they will find out how correct this idea is.
Of course, Tocqueville saw the press then as an epitome of independent free speech. Every town had at least one newspaper, and each day it printed whatever came into the editor’s head the night before. Back then it was impossible to envision that one day great monied interests would almost entirely dominate the media and selectively control their content of news and opinions. Yet, nonetheless, Tocqueville perceived the hazards involved in journalists, who are not politicians, boosting the virtues of business Titans, who are also not politicians. The public life is not remotely like the private life. An experience of governance, he says, makes it impossible, or at least reprehensible to make the kind of election promises that unexperienced and less credible candidates tend to broadcast in order to get elected. While he had a restrained admiration for the new and supposedly classless society, he also saw its pitfalls. An overclass is bound to emerge, but its values will probably not be fructifying or even sound – and people of doubtful character, unschooled in tradition, in the value and importance of social structures or institutions, will be able to assume the highest offices solely because an ignorant media sanctions them through manipulating the emotional aspects of their campaign messages. Where reason is abandoned, he says, the suffrage is worthless.
Anyone interested in a quick appraisal of Tocqueville could do worse than find a two-part podcast about him by the exceptional CBC Radio program, Ideas – CBC. ca/ideas. Anyone not interested can switch the remote back to Fox News.
Paul William Roberts