There is a gentleness, a lightness, an element of freedom and, in a word, of civilization, that makes this country one of the few countries in the world where, despite everything, you can still breathe freely.

Bernard-Henri Lévy

The purpose of this essay is audacious. But so is the entire project itself: to take the words of great academics and pick something out of it, so as to see how our own world works, today. The imminence of the American presidential election, as well as the abundance of problems striking that great country today, proved decisive in choosing this subject. That said, our purpose here is to compare Tocqueville’s masterpiece Democracy in America (1835-1840) with how America stands today.

Alexis Tocqueville (1805-1859) is remembered as one of the greatest political theorists in Modern History; he is also credited with creating the most well-accomplished analysis of American politics – and, overall, American society. His work was closely followed—and, we might say, updated—by one of the greatest philosophers of our time, Bernard-Henri Lévy (b. 1948). In 2005, Mr. Lévy covered 15,000 miles of highways in America to write his American Vertigo—perhaps better known by its subtitle, In the Footsteps of Tocqueville.

During this crossover of American soil, BHL encountered a class of students reading, precisely, the work of Tocqueville. Asking the students about its meaning, one of them answered: “The idea that tyranny exists when one single party holds all power in its hands.” A second student said: “the necessity, for democracy to function, of keeping church separate from state: is that actually the case everywhere these days?” A third one replied: “Wasn’t religion the very foundation, according to them [Founding Fathers], of a politics that was faithful to morality?” Finally, a fourth student said: “To believe one thing but refuse to impose it on other people… Isn’t that the definition of democracy, in Tocqueville’s sense?”

The fundamental core of Tocqueville’s analysis lies within the problem of morality. As he looked to America, he saw a modern Republic, driven by personal interest—a deeply entrenched individualism, creating the necessary social predisposition for a liberal state (as opposed to a socialist or interventionist one). But he added: what drives Americans is not only one’s personal interest, but a “rightly understood self-interest”—that is, the interest guided by morality, traditions, and religion.

Tocqueville was later criticized for being too abstract, by great thinkers such as James Bryce and Raymond Aron. And yet, perhaps for being that abstract, Tocqueville’s teachings still work today. One might argue that his analysis was completely wrong, and that American democracy does not find its support in a “rightly understood self-interest,” but rather in a pure self-interest, in the way of Adam Smith. If we look closely, however, we will see that, at least for a certain moment in History, the presence of strong traditions, a specific body of ethics and a deep sense of duty were in the centre of American society and politics. That was, in fact, proven by the recently deceased and brilliant mathematician John Nash (1928-2015)—who, partly refuting the thesis of Adam Smith (that by acting in our own interest, we are improving “common good”), said that this “common good” comes from acting not only in our self-interest, but bearing in mind the best interests of other individuals present in a certain equation.

To put it simply, we can join Nash’s equilibrium with Tocqueville’s “rightly understood self-interest” and apply them, together, to American politics. Then comes the question: do they work today?

What is America today? On one hand, we know with certainty that religion has lost its weight in guiding individual minds—in a 2012 survey by the Pew forum, only 36% of Americans stated that they attend services nearly every week or more. This progressive secularization—which is not specific of the United States—has caused some philosophers to say that we have reached “God’s death,” and, as a consequence of that, the loss of a meaning in life. Traditions have lost their importance as well: even though Americans remain highly attached to an ever-lasting set of principles, customs have changed, and consumerism dictates that they change very often, in a yearly, or even monthly, basis.

That being said, we can easily agree on the fact that today’s America isn’t nearly as traditional and morally rigid as it was in Tocqueville’s time; but still there are principles and values that continue to guide social life and, more importantly, political life.

On the other hand, however, politics in America have changed—not the political system, which remains almost the same as in 1776, but the way the system works. We have reached a point in which President Obama has accused the Congress of being “hostage” to the guns’ lobby, a situation that closely reminds us of the scenario in Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards. This has been more or less the situation for the past four years: a Congress split in half, yet united in a crusade against the President, denying every effort of making effective legislation possible, with every negative effect it can bring upon the immediate future of the nation. There is no “right understanding” here; there are lobbies, and there is opportunism, but no rightful equilibrium.

Also, there is something else that contradicts Tocqueville’s analysis in today’s America. 2015 was not only the year of gun issues. It was also the year of Donald Trump’s success. And that takes us to the “tyranny of the majority” described by Tocqueville. The philosopher said that democracy only works while it preserves the rights of the minorities. America has always been home of the minorities—it was born as a colony of many different communities, English, Irish, African-Americans, later Hispanics, Arabs and Asians. To prevent this “tyranny of the majority,” we need, again, a “right understanding”—which we can attribute to that golden rule, “do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31). That is the entire opposite of what we see in a campaign full of hatred and racism, of an Arab expelled from a rally, of a proposal to build a wall and expel all illegal immigrants, of closing the borders to any Arab. Again, there is no “right understanding” here—in fact, there is no America, no stars and stripes in all of this.

There are other issues that should be dealt with in a careful way so as to preserve that “rightly understood self-interest.” Issues such as gay rights, gun rights, racial segregation, economic inequality, and many more. The point is this: if America does not hold to its fundamental values, in which respect for one another holds a higher seat, it will become an average state. Not the home of brilliant minds and fearless leaders. Not the nation of tolerance and multiculturalism. Not the United States of America that serve as a moral guide and a political leader of the world. As Tocqueville once said, “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

About The Author

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Araujo is a Law student from Lisbon, Portugal. Previously he attended an English school and was President of the Student Council in high school, through which he organized a debate with prominent young political figures in his country. He also owns a blog (in Portuguese), writing about almost every subject there is. His influences are: in literature, Tolstoi and portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago; in philosophy, Nietzsche and Sartre; in politics, FDR and Lincoln; amongst many others.

  • Lucretius

    The problem in America fight now though is that it’s citizens can’t agree on what is good. As far as I’m aware, there are few things that any of the multiple “ethical theories” agree on: two of them being the wrongness of slavery and the evil of the Holocaust.

    America might end up collapsing in all this confusion.