Democracy in America: Uneasy Coexistence and Reverberating Tremors


By Christopher Warburton.


An illustrious European statesman, Alexis De Tocqueville (1805-1859), once came to America and was both captivated and confounded by what he saw in America. What initially was an interest in American prisons became an interest in the American system of government.

The voyage was made in 1831, which made his experience a nineteenth century phenomenon. Perhaps his analysis of equality, individualism, tyranny of the majority, and the uneasy coexistence of the races in America will be the most unforgettable rendition of his experience with the American political system. While he was evidently impressed, there is no reason to believe that he was not apprehensive about the threats to an intricate system of government that had been forged so uneasily. Yet, democracy is not an improbable construction of the human race. In many respects, its outcome is inevitable. However, its success is contingent on those things that are quickly forgotten or taken for granted.

The principles of equality and learning (education) are not extraneous to a well-functioning system of government. Equality does not mean an aspiration to socialism; it merely means equal exposure to opportunity and treatment in courts of law. Ever so often, these basic principles are forgotten until there are compelling reasons to revisit them in election years; when all of a sudden the very fabric of a democratic system is perceived as disintegrating.

There are obvious reasons why equality and learning are indispensable attributes of a sustainable system of government. First, they must permeate the legislative ambition and judicial interpretation of laws. Second, they ensure that an intelligent and informed electorate will make informed decisions to ensure that the principles of equality and justice are meaningful expositions of public policy. When the sentiments and ambitions of rulers are detached from their people or the common good, the system under which they operate can no longer be characterized as democratic, except of course that the rulers might have been mandated to rule via the ballot boxes. Democracy entails much more. It incorporates mores, sensibilities, the just legislation of laws, and the judicious interpretation of laws in a manner that is not infected by plutocratic loyalties or the abuse of the cherished judicial traditions by idiosyncratic judges in black robes; in short, a responsiveness of government to the needs of its people.

Some of us might not have read Tocqueville in school or college. For those who were not so fortunate to do so, it is worth presenting the thinking of the man himself to understand the essence of my rendition in a tumultuous political season:

“It is important to make the distinction between arbitrary power and tyranny. Tyranny can use even the law as its instrument, and then it is no longer arbitrary; arbitrary power may be used in the interest of the ruled, and then it is not tyrannical. Tyranny ordinarily makes use of arbitrariness, but it can at need do without it.”

“I am not asserting that at the present time in America there are frequent acts of tyranny. I do say that one can find no guarantee against it there and that the reasons for the government’s gentleness must be sought in circumstances and in mores rather than in the laws.”

“When a man or party suffers an injustice in the United States to whom can he turn? To public opinion? That is what forms the majority. To the legislative body? It represents the majority and obeys it blindly. To the executive power? It is appointed by the majority and serves as its passive instrument. To the police? They are nothing but the majority under arms [or so it was]. A jury? The jury is the majority vested with the right to pronounce judgement [or so it should be]; even the judges in certain states are elected by the majority. So, however iniquitous or unreasonable the measure which hurts you, you must submit.”

“ The men scattered over [the American Union] are not, as in Europe, shoots of the same stock. It is obvious that there are three naturally distinct, one might almost say hostile, races. Education, law, origin, and external features too have raised almost insurmountable barriers between (sic) them; chance has brought them together on the same soil, but they have mixed without combining, and each follows a separate destiny.

Among these widely different people, the first that attracts attention, and the first in enlightenment, power, and happiness, is the white man, the European, man par excellence; below him come the Negro and the Indian.

These two unlucky races have neither birth, physique, language nor mores in common; only their misfortunes are alike. Both occupy an equally inferior position in the land where they dwell; both suffer the effects of tyranny, and though their afflictions are different, they have the same people to blame for them.”

Obviously, since 1831, the American system has evolved with some safeguards to affirm cherished democratic principles—or at least the human understanding of such principles—in order to minimize the propensities to inherent internal destruction that emanate from instabilities or contradictions within the system.

On January 1, 1863, as the bloody civil war progressed, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. According to the Proclamation, all persons held as slaves within the rebellious states were instantly freed. The Proclamation was stunning. Abraham Lincoln, who was a Republican, was elected to a first term as President in 1860. He was granted a second term in 1864, during which he was assassinated.

For very good reasons, and in an effort to solicit black votes, some politicians episodically remember the improbable deeds of Abraham Lincoln and openly affirm his extraordinary courage at an extraordinary time. Of course, for obvious reasons, Tocqueville had nothing substantial to say about Hispanics, a category of voters who did not quite make it into the social order that was apparent to him at the time. Between 1831 and 2016 (185 years), American demography has changed. Thanks to immigration and geographic proximity, Hispanics now constitute a formidable and growing component of the electorate.

The courage of Lincoln will always be puzzling; not only because of his repudiation of the hostility and savagery, if not barbarism of his time, but because of his courage to do what was right rather than expedient. How could someone have been so brave and audacious to issue such a monumental and consequential Proclamation of Emancipation? More so, how could any political party or class have squandered so much goodwill in the progression of time? How could generations of politicians not have realized, with a modicum of common sense, that the American society needed further Emancipation Proclamations beyond that of Abraham Lincoln?

The contemporary political challenges and struggles of America have never been contemporaneous; they have been simmering for centuries as Americans promise and try to perfect their union. The problem is that not too many courageous men have showed up over the years. Today, it is very realistic to hear the reverberating but subdued echoes of the intolerable audacity that the Proclamation foisted on a group of dissenting people who naturally have a right to vote and express themselves. It is remarkable that for centuries, career and aspiring politicians are still struggling to fully understand the concept that votes are earned. Unlike romantic attractions, political affinities are possible; but hardly spontaneous.

Along the way, the concept of federal governance gave way to excessive greed, parochialism, and individual aspirations rather than the national common good. Not the least to be mentioned is the unwarranted—if not misguided—attack on financial markets and greedy Wall Street maximizers of self-interest that has garnered great scrutiny. But Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) had once informed us of some inconvenient truths; the ignorance of which is willful bliss.  Human nature is fixed and unchangeable, I dare say predictable under certain regularity conditions. When overwhelmed by incontinence, lack of self-restraint, and dysfunctional regulatory or supervisory mechanism, humans are prone to be predatory, greedy, and cruel. As such, it cannot be hyperbolic to envision why life will be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” in instances of lawlessness and neglect. Money?

How could the highest court of the land be oblivious of the fact that money corrupts, and that excessive money corrupts absolutely? That is, bribery denigrates a political system beyond redemption? Who will protect the sans-cullotes, the plebeians, or the commoners? Should the lives of the poor count for anything in a monied economy? The love of money is boundless. Yet, except for slaves and the unfortunate, opportunities were unlimited in the America that Tocqueville saw. He writes:

“It is not that in the United States, as everywhere, there are no rich; indeed I know no other country where love of money has such a grip on men’s hearts or where stronger scorn is expressed for the theory of permanent equality of property. But wealth circulates there with incredible rapidity [so it was], and experience shows that two successive generations seldom enjoy its favors….

There are few rich men in America; hence almost all Americans have to take up some profession. Now, every profession requires an apprenticeship. Therefore the Americans can devote only the first years of life to general education; at fifteen they start on a career, so their education generally ends at the age when ours begins….

In America most rich men began by being poor; almost all men of leisure were busy in their youth… there is no class in America in which a taste for intellectual pleasures is transmitted with hereditary wealth and leisure and which holds the labors of the mind in esteem.” So, can the use of money be free speech?

What is freedom of speech? There is a reason why people cannot go into a theater and start shouting “fire!” In the history of the human race, there has never been anything like absolute freedom, even in expressive forms that are physical. Freedom has always been limited because its excesses repudiate and infringe on the rights of others. Today, there is no reasonable certainty that judges will develop a judicial tradition of freedom. Judicial tradition seems to depend on prevailing political persuasion; essentially because judicial appointments are becoming contingent on political elections and the probability that judges will be obligated to their sponsors. Under normal circumstances, quid pro quo and kickbacks fall into an opprobrious category of malfeasance; the sort of misbehavior that is litigated in courts of law.

As such, the modern judicial system is becoming too toxic and detached from the common people. It is in danger of losing its elegance, class, and prestige for which it once earned an accolade of respect that was almost beyond reproach. Now, there must be a litmus test for judges to reveal their political beliefs and loyalties. Judicial appointments to the Supreme Court could wait for the next political election and they must constitute animated rallying incitements while the judiciary operates in a suboptimal capacity. Elections have selective consequences and lawmakers can conveniently refuse to give advice or consent.

In a paradoxical system of plutocratic democracy that is reinforced by the judicial decisions, issues of economic security and equality of opportunity must fade into comparative insignificance. Gone are those days when the judiciary was expected to be independent not only by statutory proclamation, but by the decisions of judges who maintained an unquestionable sense of equity. So, should Americans continue to submit to unreasonable measures that hurt them, however iniquitous the situation might be?

Fortunately, all is not doom and gloom. The coexistence of civil liberties and perfunctory judicial arrangements is incrementally uneasy and threatening. To the chagrin and resentment of the political chattering class, judges have made decisions that are antithetical to the aspirations of their sponsors; a courageous departure from parochial political expediencies. About one hundred and eighty-five years after Tocqueville’s visit, the fortunes and vitality of American democracy now rest on judges whose firm convictions and sense of decency constitute the last fortress of hope and a firewall against the implosion of the democratic system of government.

The civil liberties of poor Americans are constantly assaulted with impunity in the US courts of law, where justice is bought and sold by plutocrats and the wealthy who think that they are above the law. Any wonder why some of the poor or people of color are so unimpressed and infuriated by political chicanery? Forget about the moribund criminal justice system. For the past fifty or so years, what have the legislative and executive arms of government done to rein in the assault on civil liberties in the US courts of law? Where is the next Emancipation Proclamation?

In the 1950s (over a century after Tocqueville’s visit), and for obvious reasons, some economists were already critical of political decisions. The economists began to rationalize why it was realistic rather than naïve to presume that politicians will first pursue their selfish interest. The school of thought became known as “Public Choice.” Of course, Karl Marx, and others like him, had reached a similar conclusion in the 1840s. People did not pay too much attention to Public Choice theory until the 1980s.  At the risk of engaging in a fallacy of composition, I should note that the economists were already aware that not all politicians were selfish.

In reality, the bases for selfish political decisions are not peculiar to American politicians; they reflect the innate and unchanging mortal nature that Hobbes once characterized as the predatory instincts that inform the behavior of selfish utility-maximizers. The unprincipled reasons for engaging in politics are usually very ostensible and dependent on the idea that the electorate is uninformed and less attentive to detail. That is, before and after every election cycle the electorate becomes too aloof, lazy, and uniformed to be critical of policies that are detrimental to the common good, but beneficial to a cabal of politicians and their high-value supporters.

The problem is exacerbated when people are uninformed and less capable of being informed. Tocqueville’s description of the nineteenth century educational infrastructure in New England should be instructive:

“But it is the provision for public education which, from the very first throw into the clearest relief the originality of American organization….Provisions follow establishing schools in all townships, and obliging the inhabitants under penalty of heavy fines, to maintain them. In the same way high schools are founded in the more densely populated districts. The municipal officials are bound to see that parents send their children to the schools and can impose fines on those who refuse to do so; if the parents remain recalcitrant, society can take over the charge of the children from the family, depriving the parents of those natural rights which they abused.”

The draconian nineteenth century prescription has a very precise subterranean principle; secondary education was a natural right that must be extended to all people. Today, much more is desired in a competitive global economy that has an appalling proportion of uninformed electorate, which is eager to content itself with the wedge issues of the day—immigration, gun laws, women’s rights, and racial hostilities—without prudent and countervailing thoughts about holistic national and social programs that spur economic growth and upward mobility.

It is also remarkable that the national priority for education has dissipated so badly (see OMB data below, courtesy of National Priorities). The poor investment in human capital augurs anemic levels of economic growth, productivity, and lower levels of general prosperity in the distant future. While military spending acquires a lion’s share of national income, income inequality continues to be obscene (see CBO data below, courtesy Center on Budget and Policy Priorities). Opportunities for upward mobility continue to be elusive as the infrastructure for superior human capital and human (economic) security continue to be inadequate.

Teachers continue to receive appalling wages, just as skilled professionals are subjected to racial discrimination and marginalized or excluded in institutions of higher learning. In the most unlikely of places, institutions of higher learning, holders of terminal degrees earn wages that are marginally above subsistence levels without consideration of inflationary trends. Additionally, law makers and enforcers continue to be willfully ignorant about corruption in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the US courts of law.


So, what is this democracy of which we speak? In contradistinction to the Tocquevillean democracy, the American union is excessively polarized, racial discrimination or hostility continues to erode the very foundation of the body politic after the Emancipation Proclamation, the uneasy coexistence of the races ambivalently shows support for, and revulsion against the dual party system (with predetermined alliances), judges are increasingly assaulting civil liberties with impunity, and the malfunctioning government is too detached from its people. Is there any reason why people have become be so cynical and torn apart? The task of the next President is not enviable undertaking.

“Nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of condition among the [American] people.” Alexis De Tocqueville


What Next?

Recent Articles