Political Astuteness of a Frenchman

I am currently reading Alexis De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.  At hefty 700+ pages in length, I am only at page 140, so it may take me another year to get through it at my current pace.

De Tocqueville was a youthful 26 when he journeyed to America in 1831 but he was already a political veteran and had fallen out of favor in post-Revolutionary France.  During his study of the American republic over a 9 month period, he searched for clues into how and why the American experiment was so successful, and as importantly, whether this new type of democracy could be sustainable for future generations.  As I read his writings, I am amazed by the depth of his many insights, especially considering his young age.

I think it safe to say that we are in the age of a political organism in America that has grown, matured and is on currently the decline towards collapse.  As Benjamin Franklin stated: “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.  As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”  With incredible precision, De Tocqueville saw many of the potential dangers of a society that enshrines such liberty in the Constitution and within the people.

A couple items to reflect upon:

On the jurisdiction and ability to remove officeholders from their positions, not just for serious offenses but also “high crimes and misdemeanors”:  “When the American republics begin to degenerate, it will be easy to verify the truth of this observation, by remarking whether the number of political impeachments is increased.”  Isn’t it notable, that with all of the corruption and power-mongering in our government, there has been only one instance of an impeachment hearing in our lifetime?  Supreme Court Justices without apology rationalize making laws instead of interpreting them; while lawmakers are more interested in preserving their political careers than being true statesmen.  Is it any surprise that in a 2014 Pew Research poll, 75% of Americans distrust government all or most of the time?

On the role of the State and the Union:  “The sovereignty of the Union is an abstract being, which is connected with but few external objects; the sovereignty of the States is perceptible by the senses, easily understood, and constantly active.  The sovereignty of the Union is factitious, that of the States is natural and self-existent, without effort, like the authority of a parent.  The sovereignty of the nation affects a few of the chief interests of society; it represents an immense but remote country, a vague and ill-defined sentiment.  The authority of the State controls every individual citizen at every hour and in all circumstances; it protects his property, his freedom, and his life; it affects at every moment his well-being or his misery.”  This is at the heart of the concept of self-government as defined by the Founding Fathers and for a Catholic who is familiar with the doctrine of subsidiarity; these statements are equally self-evident truths.  However De Tocqueville further theorized that the Confederation, being inherently weak (as it was in the early years of the nation) would naturally end up growing in strength, through centralization and through the demands of warfare.  He warns “…that man has no other enemy than himself; and that, in order to be happy and to be free, he has only to determine that he will be so.”  Sadly, Americans have determined to set aside the ideal of the natural form of self-government, and have instead submitted themselves the factitious brutality of a central-government.  As a result, we are no longer free, nor are we happy.

In closing, I find this quote from De Tocqueville (but not in this book) especially poignant considering our society’s recent fixation on enforcement of “equality”.

Democracy extends the sphere of individual freedom, socialism restricts it. Democracy attaches all possible value to each man; socialism makes each man a mere agent, a mere number. Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.

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