Alexis De Tocqueville – Democracy in America

Alexis de Tocqueville saw democracy as a dynamic political system. While it required specific cultural requirements for the people, it imposed many of those requirements onto the people. It gradually became self-sustaining whereas the monarchies of the Ancien Régime established conditions unfavorable for a sustainable democratic culture. Tocqueville did not believe democracy was limited to any culture or civilization because the conditions necessary for the perpetuation of democracy were developed from the practice of democracy. Yet his explanation also explains the challenges for the consolidation of democracy. It becomes difficult to prepare a culture for democratic governance without simply creating democracy first. Perhaps this explains the many democratic false steps necessary before consolidation begins to establish a virtuous cycle.

Sheri Berman recently wrote an interesting book on the historical road to democratization in Europe. She believes it is necessary to take the long view towards democratization. The collapse of a democracy is not necessary a failure of democratization. Indeed, democratization may require a series of false starts to develop the culture necessary for democratic consolidation. Whether Berman acknowledges it or not, her thesis captures an echo of Tocqueville.

Indeed, his influence is everywhere. Putnam is the great theorist of Social Capital. But he saw Tocqueville as its originator. Tocqueville did not see a distinction in the civic engagement evident within a town meeting from voluntary organizations meant to help the poor or establish a library. People within a democracy had a sense of responsibility for their community. They took ownership over their public resources and worked together to accomplish communal projects.

Infrastructure often refers to physical manifestations like roads or a power grid. Imagine a world without roads. It becomes difficult to move from place to place. The distribution of goods becomes nearly impossible because there is nowhere to transport them. But there are also countless forms of social infrastructure. The mechanisms necessary for elections becomes part of the political infrastructure. Companies rely on job sites and recruiters to communicate openings. Political parties provide resources for new candidates. But churches and civic organizations also provide a social infrastructure where people develop relationships. Social infrastructure becomes necessary to the formation of new organizations which provide services the community may begin to rely upon.

Its difficult to understand many of the giants of political science such as Putnam, Lipset or Fukuyama without reading and understanding Democracy in America. It is not an empty classic whose importance is defined by its age or influence of a previous historical moment. No. This work continues to reverberate throughout key concepts of political science today such as social capital, democratic consolidation and democratization. Of course, Tocqueville both admires the nascent American democracy while he also provides strong criticisms. It can be read as an historical account because he examines American society from an almost anthropological lens. But there is tremendous influence upon political science. Few books can manage to escape the inclusion of Democracy in America from its Bibliography or Works Cited. Its important to read this work because nearly every author takes for granted their audience is familiar with this classic. Many works of political science fall into obscurity. But this book becomes part of the common language. Its references cut across the various subfields. It remains essential reading for anyone who wants to understand politics.

jmk, carmel, indiana,

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