Alexis de Toqueville vs The Truman Show

A white picket fence and 2.5 children is the standard model of the American dream. It is an often quoted ideal and the literal dream of many people in the country. However; there is a problem in the definition of this dream in that the very nature of such an ideal makes it impossible to define when or if that dream has been attained. This is a question that plagues many when searching for the picturesque “American Dream”. It also leads many to struggle for unattainable goals and not realize the reality that they are living in while trying to achieve an alternate version of their own circumstances in what they perceive to be a better reality. This desire to escape one’s reality is brought to attention by Alexis de Toqueville in his literary work, Democracy in America. He highlights these tendencies and describes their source as rooted in the opportunities that are afforded to Americans (De Toqueville, Democracy in America). Another critique of the American ideal of escapism comes into play in The Truman Show, a film directed by Dennis Gassner that looks into the life of a man, Truman, who is living what many would assume to be the definition of the American dream, but when he discovers it to be fake does everything in his power to escape. The Truman Show embodies Alexis de Tocqueville’s claim that the American Dream inspires its people to become restless in their own realities.

One of the primary ironies exhibited in the Truman Show is the dichotomy between the ways the respective forms of escapism present themselves in each Truman and his loyal audience. For Truman, the desire to- and method of- escape are quite apparent, he is literally trapped in his created dome of reality, which once discovered to be artificial, he is desperate to leave. For those who follow Truman’s every move through the show, the drama of the escape is lacking, but it is every bit as real. The people who watch The Truman Show experience an escape from their own life into Truman’s. They partake in his day-to-day trials, achievements, and milestones as though these events were present in their own lives. The realities of many of these people are likely very similar to Truman, who (disregarding his massive celebrity status which is unknown to him) lives a rather standard middle class American life; a picturesque vision of a classic and attainable “American Dream”. However, here the truths of De Toqueville’s Democracy in America can be seen rather apparently. De Toqueville spends quite some time discussing the cause behind this seemingly illogical mentality that he states as “the singular agitation displayed by so many happy men in the very midst of their abundance (De Toqueville, 512).”

One of the primary means of escape that is picked up on by both De Toqueville and The Truman Show is materialism. In the film, the people of Truman’s world seek to obtain the idyllic life as created in the show by purchasing the items from the show. There are times when a character in Truman’s life will blatantly advertise a product to the audience of the show, and it is revealed that there is a catalog where everything from the hot chocolate to the houses themselves shown in Truman’s world can be purchased by viewers. These viewers are using the material items in Truman’s world in an attempt to attain what they perceive to be the “American Dream” as they see it on television. Truman, on the other hand, knows nothing of how his world is depicted to be perfect and lives in it’s reality unaware of the apparent glamor. This is in stark contrast to Truman’s millions of viewers, who though aware of their own situations, still strive to find themselves in a replica of Truman’s life.

De Toqueville comments on the effects of people being aware of their station in life, as well as where they fall among those around them. De Toqueville states, “It is a strange thing to see with what sort of feverish ardor Americans will pursue well-being and how they show themselves continually tormented by not having chosen the shortest route that can lead to it (De Toqueville 511).” This statement is true of many individuals. When men find success, it tends not to be greeted with celebration except for a brief time, after which it becomes a question of how the individual could have obtained that particular level of success more quickly or efficiently. Truman does not suffer from this human side effect of prosperity. De Toqueville compares the people of “the Old World” to those living in America with highly applicable parallels to those that can be made between Truman and his audience (511). De Toqueville cites such Old World individuals to have “a serene countenance” and “often let a playful humor appear (512).” This is reminiscent of Truman. He is living what outwardly would appear to be a near perfect example of the classical American dream, except with out the 2.5 kids; however, it is marred by the fact that his reality has in actuality been fabricated by a television producer. The ignorance of that fact by Truman allows him to carry on his life in blissful unknowing until things related to the television show begin to literally and figuratively fall apart around him. When he does discover the truth of his situation, he suddenly feels an intense desire to get out of the artificial creation of perfection that has been crafted for him and define his own self. This attitude of adventure is also observed by De Toqueville in Americans of his century. He notes the ambitions of all the young men who purchase huge tracts of land simply to go explore and tame it (De Toqueville). Truman displays such desires from a very young age, even remarking to an elementary school teacher that he wanted to be an explorer, a statement that the actress gave a very quick and decisive counterargument to (Gassner, The Truman Show). The innate desire to explore ingrained in Truman by his American identity, as distorted as his is, lasts with him into adulthood where he consistently tries to escape his world to Fiji.

A final agreement between De Toqueville and Gassner is explained simply by De Toqueville. He states that the level of ambition seen in Americans for well being in all forms- material, social, spiritual- is “as old as the world: what is new is to see a whole people show it (De Toqueville, 512).” In The Truman Show, this cultural yearning for a single ideal is embodied by the audience of the show by their absorption in the programming, many viewers having followed it for its full 30-year lifetime. The ambition of the people has pivoted to achieving the American dream they watch on a daily basis as opposed to seeking their own perspective and goals in relation to an individual dream. This phenomenon is seen frequently in cultures that tend toward celebrity idolization as a form of materialism. The reality of the American dream for any given individual is outwardly expressed by the material possessions that can be observed by outsiders to that person’s reality. This leads to a situation as seen in The Truman Show in which people use access to the physical attributes or possessions of an idolized individual in trying to further their quest for the American dream. The problem with this mentality is that the individual to whom the culture is aspiring to attain their reality is often not in a comparably better state than the individuals who seek to become like them. This is highly apparent in Truman’s situation, as while millions of people are near literally buying the shirt off his back, he is trying everything he can think of to escape the reality he is in (Gassner). This dichotomy highlights a key principal evident in both De Toqueville and Gassner’s works; if the American dream is not defined individually, then people will constantly be searching for a way to attain what others define that dream to be, leading to an ever present desire to escape their own reality. This escapist mentality is almost a part of the fabric of the dream itself. It encourages the people who look to the American dream for inspiration to continue to reach ever higher in search for the next level of success, despite the fact that the state they are seeking to obtain is full of the same restlessness.

Tocqueville: On the Omnipotence of the Majority and the Sustainability of a Democratic Republic

How is it that, almost 180 years after it was written, Americans today still read Tocqueville as if it were the most essential piece of American political thought? Maybe it’s because it is. When reading chapters 7 through 10 of Volume 1, Part 2 in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, it is important to realize not only the political ideas that Tocqueville is formulating, but also what he is saying about human nature and it’s relationship to political America. For a democratic government to be successful, Tocqueville argues, special focus must be placed upon the idea that something beyond the concept of a civic religiosity must exist, and that a political religion of equality and individualism are not enough to sustain democracy. A certain pietas or piety to something greater than a political creed needs to take shape in a democratic government. This piety in America, Tocqueville concludes, belongs to religion, and as long as Americans remain aware of this idea, they will have a very successful and sustainable democracy. Tocqueville spends Chapters 7 and 8 describing the biggest threat to democracy in America—the omnipotence and tyranny of the majority—and how the political and social uniqueness of America successfully hampers the effects of this tyranny. Tocqueville makes it clear that the issues surrounding Chapter 7 are very delicate indeed, calling the consequences “dire and dangerous” (pg. 237), and even going so far as to say that “there is no freedom of mind in America” (pg. 245). By the time Tocqueville finishes up the chapter by quoting Jefferson on the issue of the tyranny of the legislature, it seems as though America has been given the label of “doomed” by Tocqueville. There is no escape from this tyranny, it seems, and Americans may as well start preparing themselves for a revolution. But Tocqueville does not stop here. Instead he continues his analysis of America by offering a much more optimistic criticism of why and how America will be able to sustain a democratic government. On this issue Tocqueville is very clear: the mores of America are what make it so unique from other democratic countries. Certain qualities of American political and social life such as the aristocratic nature of lawyers and the influence of the jury help to mitigate the influence of the majority; lawyers provide a counterweight to the effects of democracy by demonstrating a conservative and traditional approach remnant of aristocratic methods, and the responsibility of the jury helps to spread this spirit. Tocqueville then goes on to explain the principle causes that help to maintain such a successful democracy. Although Tocqueville makes it clear that due respect must be paid to the brilliance of the political and constitutional system that helps to foster democracy in America, he seems to be far more interested in what he believes is the true reason behind such a successful democracy—a “democratic, republican Christianity” (pg 275). It is his analysis of religion in America that proves to be the most insightful, and—in several ways—the most influential criticism that Tocqueville has to offer for the people of America. By analyzing the human nature involved in the politics of democratic government, Tocqueville strikes at the heart of the issue. Perhaps no quote sums it up better than the paragraph in the first few pages of his section on the power of religion in America. Here, Tocqueville notes that, just as Aristotle believed that man was by nature a political animal, man is also by nature a religious animal. Although the two may indeed be part of the same nature, however, their separation is key to the success and sustainability of a democratic government. Religion is meant to stand alone in its quest for faith, not upon the shoulders of politics or some civic creed. It is only in this way that democratic countries like America can succeed. This issue seems to be at the heart of all of Tocqueville. The necessity of a creed beyond the dedication to political equality, a belief in religion to counterweight the chaotic effects of democracy that tore apart Tocqueville’s France—these are the ideas that Democracy in America is concerned with, and this is the way in which Tocqueville is convinced the United States will prosper. That prosperity, however, is fragile. As Tocqueville points out in Chapter 10, the threats to democracy in America, including the forthcoming slave problem, will never cease to exist. As he notes later in the book, citizens of a democratic republic often times show a remarkable fervor for equality, and if this fervor ever completely overshadows the existing devotion to religion, Tocqueville fears, then the democratic government that he holds as a model for the rest of the world is sure to crumble underneath the pressure of the same fate that doomed his home country.

The American Woman and Democratic Society in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America

In his survey of American society in the early 1800’s, Alexis de Tocqueville spares a few chapters to describe the American woman as he sees her. Obviously, from our more modern view, Tocqueville’s claim that women and men in America enjoy a certain equality clashes with the reality of the conditions at that time, and Tocqueville cannot give enough evidence to convince us to the contrary. More interesting, however, is the parallel between the “little society of husband and wife” and the “great political society” (574) that he describes. With that as a starting point, we can see that the requirement for a particular type of education for democracy to be feasible parallels with Tocqueville’s description of the education of the American woman. Even more notable is that the situation of the American woman parallels the tyranny of the majority – or the mild despotism Tocqueville describes as a fearsome possibility of democracy. That said, Tocqueville is noticeably inconsistent in his views toward such a despotism as it applies to women. Tocqueville’s argument that women enjoy a certain equality with men is hardly convincing, especially given the lack of supporting evidence. In America, he claims, women and men enjoy equal respect but in different spheres, in order to better facilitate the running of society. Women are not praised, but “they are esteemed” (575). Women can “show themselves to be men in mind and heart” (574), and men respect their courage and independence. Americans have “elevated [woman] with all their power to the level of man in the intellectual and moral world” (576). That is to say, women are as smart and as good as men.However, these principles fail to challenge traditional structures of “marital power.” Tocqueville writes that “the natural head of the conjugal association is the man. [Americans] therefore do not deny him the right to direct his mate; and they believe that in the little society of husband and wife, as well as in the great political society, the object of democracy is to regulate and legitimate necessary powers, not to destroy all power” (574). Thus, while women live under the “natural” tutelage of their husbands, accepting an argument for equality of the sexes is difficult. The strongest example Tocqueville gives of women being esteemed and respected in America is the fact that rape is punished with death. In Europe, rapists are often subject to milder penalties or not convicted at all; this, he argues, is indicative of Europeans’ lack of respect for women. However, punishing rape with death does not necessarily equate to respecting a woman’s honor and independence; it could very well be respect for her as the property of her husband or father. To assume that women are “virtuous and delicate,” to respect their chastity, and to have confidence in their strength is in its own way a type of prison. This kind of esteem or respect can be a daily reminder of what a woman would forfeit should she misstep: “public opinion is inexorable toward her faults” (569). Comparing the fate of the American woman in her “little society” with Tocqueville’s description of the “political society” of American democracy brings to light an interesting parallel: the necessity of a democratic education in order for democratic habits to be sustainable. For a democracy to succeed politically, its citizens must be educated in the democratic way. In Tocqueville’s description of American society and the American woman, the democratic education is no less necessary. In Volume One, Tocqueville makes the startling and relevant observation that “The states where citizens have enjoyed their rights longest are those where they know best how to make use of them. One cannot say it too often: There is nothing more prolific in marvels than the art of being free; but there is nothing harder than the apprenticeship of freedom” (229). Freedom is sweeter when one has had it longer, precisely because one knows how to use it and does not run away with it wildly. In the custom of marriage, Tocqueville makes a similar argument. In defending the free choice of marriage partners to aristocratic European readers accustomed to arranged marriages, Tocqueville notes that when European men and women marry for love, “One cannot be surprised that they make a bad use of their free will the first time they use it, nor that they fall into such cruel errors when they want to follow the customs of democracy in marrying, without having received a democratic education.” (570). Thus, American women who have had a democratic upbringing know how to appropriately exercise their free will and will choose their mates properly. Tocqueville’s observation that the longer people have been democratic, the more successful their democracy is, begs the question of how democracy (politically or socially) could ever be possible in Europe, with its long tradition of monarchy. Tocqueville does not offer a satisfactory answer, admitting instead that, while America is an interesting example and case study, he himself is “very far from believing that we ought to follow the example that American democracy has given and to imitate the means it has used to attain that goal by its efforts” (302). Democracy must be grown slowly.Even more troubling than this vague road-map to democracy is the sharp inconsistency in Tocqueville’s views toward women and toward political society. In the political society, Tocqueville fears the possibility of tyranny, but in the “little society” of husband and wife, he accepts it without censure. Tocqueville’s greatest fear for a democratic state is the mild despotism that he describes near the end of his work. Despotism is particularly dangerous in democracy since there “what is arbitrary does not appear fearful” (197). Because magistrates and political figures are supposedly elected by and responsible to ordinary people, their power is not frightening as it would be in a monarchical state. Thus, in America “magistrates can post the names of drunkards in taverns and prevent inhabitants from furnishing them with wine under penalty of fine” (197), a serious intrusion into individual private lives that Tocqueville implies would be unthinkable in France. Furthermore, he describes how in reconciling “the need to be led and the wish to remain free,” people would choose and create a unique all-powerful tutelary power, then “console themselves for being in tutelage by thinking that they themselves have chosen their schoolmasters” (664). However, this tutelage is no less powerful for being supposedly chosen by the people, and Tocqueville fears its oppression would be all the more tolerated for it.The situation of the American woman is strikingly analogous, although Tocqueville praises rather than censures her situation. Once women marry, their freedom is inescapably confined. From the woman is exacted “a self-abnegation and a continual sacrifice of her pleasures to her business that is rare to demand of her in Europe” (565). Moreover, nobody is sympathetic of her sacrifices. The woman has chosen her husband of her own free will, and “In a country where a woman always exercises her choice freely, and where education has put her in a state to choose well, public opinion is inexorable toward her faults” (569). Earlier, Tocqueville writes: “She tolerates her new condition courageously because she has chosen it” (566).Leaving aside for the moment the idealism of the notion that every woman might have complete free will to choose her husband, one must note that her free choice of husband is exactly like the free choice of the democratic peoples to choose their despot. Because husbands are chosen with eyes open and despots are elected by the majority, wives and citizens must submit without murmur to their rule, their only comfort lying in “thinking they themselves have chosen their schoolmasters.” While Tocqueville fears democratic despotism, he shows no such reservations about the system of marriage. Perhaps this parallel escaped Tocqueville; perhaps his failure to see the parallel is an extension of the old-world view that it is natural for women to submit to their husbands. The “most virtuous women” are the ones who make “a sort of glory for themselves out of the voluntary abandonment of their wills” (575). There is truly no choice in Tocqueville’s America. Either one is virtuously married and happily without free will, or one must remain “silent” (575), either unhappy or un-virtuous.Nonetheless, Tocqueville’s arguments for equality between ruler and ruled in the little society may shed some light on the nature of despotism in the great political society. The so-called equality between the sexes in courage, will, intellect, and morals may be a consolation for a woman and the basis for glorifying her own sacrifice. She may be subjected to her husband’s rule and to strict societal expectations, but at least she undergoes this with a manly courage that puts her on a par with her husband. In some way she may even be able to claim a moral high ground in that it might be more difficult to sacrifice oneself to another’s will than to follow one’s own will. To extend that analysis to the “great political society,” one could argue that the equality in a democracy between the governors and the governed is only a consolation or a balm for those who are governed. They may have less power, but at least they are equal in their rights and in a myriad of other social characteristics. Thus, the notion of equality can perhaps be seen as a dangerous tool to reconcile people to the idea of being ruled.Tocqueville’s description of the American woman is most interesting when it intersects with his description of American politics and society at large. Where there exist parallels between “the little society of husband wife” and the “great political society,” significant insights can be gained. Most notably, Tocqueville’s fear of majoritarian tyranny and despotism does not carry over into family life, despite the close parallels in structure. The notion that a certain equality might exist between men and women in the face of such tyranny suggests the notion of equality in greater political society might be preserved for similar reasons – namely, as consolation. Finally, the necessity of a democratic education for free will to be properly exercised in both the choosing of a mate and the choosing of magistrates poses an as yet unsolved problem, insofar as the establishment of democracy or freedom of choice for women is concerned, for women in societies where other traditions have long held sway.de Tocqueville, Alexis. Mansfield, Harvey and Delba Winthrop(tr). Democracy in America. University Of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2002.

A Close Reading of James Madison’s The Federalist No. 51 and its Relevancy Within the Sphere of Modern Political Thought

The roots of republican government and democratic ideals are firmly planted in James Madison’s “The Federalist No. 51, The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments.” Written on February 6, 1788, this essay is one of three documents that make up a group of political pieces known as The Federalist Papers. These documents were written by the three main proponents of the U.S. Constitution and the Federal Convention; Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison (Mulford 999). The collection of essays was first published in the Independent Journal, a political magazine based in New York, in addition to several other magazines. Ironically, the governor of New York, George Clinton, was an Anti-Federalist, an antagonist of governmental liberties, republican ideals, and the subsequent ratification of the U.S. Constitution (Mulford 999). “The Federalist No. 51” was written a year after Hamilton concluded that the state of New York would not ratify the Constitution. Subsequently, The Federalist Papers were published and widely disseminated in New York, in addition to several other states, in order to persuade and convince the Anti-Federalists to support the foundations of democratic republicanism and federalism. Historical Background: In a sweeping attempt to rejuvenate the national government and replace its nebulous Articles of Confederation with a more stable legal and governing document, the Federalists assembled in what came to be known as the Federal Convention. This covert meeting was held from the spring through the fall of 1787, and was the genesis of the United States Constitution (Mulford 998). Before its nationwide ratification, the Anti-Federalists, who claimed that the document did not represent the lower and middle classes in society, staunchly opposed the Federalist’s version of the Constitution. They were later appeased by the proposal and subsequent implementation of the Bill of Rights in 1789 and 1790 when the First Congress of the United States presented the first twelve amendments to the state legislatures for ratification (NARA). The federal Constitution was finally ratified by all thirteen states in 1790 (Mulford 999). The Constitution is a living document that has the embedded capacity to be amended by the legislative branch of government by means of a three-fourths approval vote by the state legislatures. It has been amended twenty-seven times, with the final amendment disallowing U.S. Senators to set or increase their own salaries (U.S. Constitution). The Constitution remains to be one of the most unique governing documents in the world because of its assemblage of personal freedoms and checks and balances between the executive, legislative, and judiciary institutions of our government. Document Summary: An advocate of individual liberties and democratic structures and processes in government, James Madison purports his ideas of a governmental system buttressed with a division of powers and independent institutions in “The Federalist No. 51.” Madison asserts that the legislative branch is the most powerful branch of government and in the most need of checks and balances from the other branches, in order to ensure that no one branch becomes tyrannical. Furthermore, Madison claims the importance of guarding our country from not only the tyrannical rule of an executive leader, but also from the injustices that may ensue from groups of private citizens. Finally, Madison supports the idea that justice should be the overall purpose of representative government and a strong force among citizens in a civil society. Analysis: “The Federalist No. 51” is relevant to the canon of modern political thought because it encapsulates the founding principles of federalism, protection against tyranny, the inevitability of class conflict, and the principled solution of checks and balances. Madison, unlike Hamilton and other political activists of his time, supported the preservation of state governments, a pluralistic theory whose essence necessitates the existence of state government for the solidification of liberty and national cohesiveness among the states. Madison utilizes strong and persuasive rhetoric throughout his argument. He specifically states who is audience is in the salutation of his argument, “To the People of the State of New York” (Madison 1). Madison’s purpose in “The Federalist No. 51” is twofold: First, to persuade the Anti-Federalist citizens and government of New York, a key state in the ratification of the Constitution, to support the Federalist’s ideals; second, to inform the Federalist citizens of New York about the full message of the Federalist Party. Therefore, Madison can be credited with many of the founding principles that are necessary for our current Republic to exist. One of the first channels that Madison uses to define our modern understanding of political thought is an emphasis on federalism. He claims that the only way freedom and liberty can be maintained is through the institution of federalism, “in order to lay a due foundation for that separate and distinct exercise of the different powers of government/is admitted on all hands to be essential to the preservation of liberty, it is evident that each department should have a will of its own” (Madison 1). Madison supports the idea of separated governmental entities by acknowledging the existence of their individual wills. Without this acknowledgement, the institutions of government would not be powerful enough to function independently. Madison points out the danger of any one institution harboring too much power “It is important in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part” (3). Madison further asserts that since the people of America transferred their sovereignty to the government, then in turn, “a double security arises to the rights of the people” (3). This claim is relevant to the foundation of modern political thought because it places a value on the citizens of the states and ensures them protection from a sovereign in exchange for their sovereignty. Madison embraces one of the primary arguments of the Anti-Federalist movement, recognition of the lower and middle classes in society. Madison recognizes the existence of class distinction and the tyranny the majority often has over the minority. He further recognizes this distinction within the same department of government. Madison proposes a legal solution to this apparent problem, “giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others” (Madison 2). His ‘eye for an eye’ solution and discussion of human nature may stem from Thomas Hobbes’s philosophical insights into the state of nature and civil society. In addition, Madison employs Biblical allusion throughout this discourse on political inequality, “if men were angels, no government would be necessary” (2). Here, Madison recognizes man’s state of imperfection and need for government control. Furthermore, Madison claims that a power “independent of the people” would be a mandatory existence because of the inherent factionalism among the classes of citizens in America. Madison shows his unbiased nature by proposing that the Federalist concepts are a necessary existence because of human nature and class factionalism, a force that exists outside of Madison’s own persuasive rhetoric. Personal Reflection: I am a strong advocate of federalism and like Madison; I support an inherent system of checks and balances in order to prevent tyranny from either the majority or minority groups in a given society. I speculate, however, if Madison could have predicted the permanent ability of one branch to declare acts of another branch unconstitutional, i.e. Marbury v. Madison (1803) 5 U.S. 137. Madison firmly claims that the legislative branch of the federal system is the most powerful branch of government (Madison 1). A legislative veto overrides the effects of an executive veto, however, the judicial branch and should never be ignored. United States Supreme Court appointments are the longest lasting legacy of any U.S. President who has the opportunity to appoint a new justice to the bench. The Supreme Court does not make new law; however, it has and will continue to declare acts of the legislature unconstitutional. However, the legislative branch remains to be the most powerful branch because of its recourse over the executive branch. Madison was correct in recommending a system of checks and balances as a solution to tyranny and political hegemony. His solution is important to the overall canon of political thought because it holds political leaders and their individual institutions accountable to the populace. This separates the democratic system from monarchies or autocracies that cannot ensure the same fundamental freedoms and protections to its citizenry. Conclusion: By closely examining the origins behind and meanings within Madison’s work, readers can fully appreciate the overall impact it has on the canon of modern political theory. “The Federalist No. 51” can be credited with the foundations of republican government and the institutions of federalism, protection against tyranny, and fundamental solution of checks and balances. Madison’s paper can be seen as the foundation of the U.S. Constitution and the premise of individual rights and freedoms. Madison’s work differs from the other essays in The Federalist Papers because Madison, unlike Hamilton and Jay, recognized the importance of the existence and relationship between state governments and the national government. This is important today because of issues in state and individual sovereignty, as well as funding and resource preservation. “The Federalist No. 51” is the foundation of our forefathers’ creation of a great republic, with embedded protections against an oppressor, and the capacity to protect and maintain individual freedoms. Works CitedMadison, James. “The Federalist No. 51: The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments.” The Constitution Society. Texas, 1995. (Madison). Internet Available: http://www.http://ecu.blackboard.com/bin/common/course.pl?course_id=_20911_1&frame=top.Mulford, Carla, Angela Vietto, and Amy E. Winans, eds. Early American Writings. New York: Oxford UP, 2002. (Mulford). “The Constitution of the United States,” Amend. XXVI, sect.1&3. (U.S. Constitution).

Tocqueville’s America: No Place for an Atheist

“Disbelief is an accident; faith alone is the permanent state of humanity,” writes Alexis de Tocqueville in his book Democracy in America (284). According to Tocqueville, there are a few main threats that oppose democracy: the need for equality, the desire for individualism, and the love of materialism. When these threats bleed into the real lives of Americans, the chance of despotism increases. In Volume II of Democracy in America, originally published in 1840, Tocqueville makes the claim that the biggest single entity that can combat these threats is religion. The freedom of the press and the right of association help, but Tocqueville writes that faith is the most beneficial of these, both politically and societally. He believes that religion provides a sort of rulebook that teaches people how to exercise their freedom appropriately. The religious leaders teach their followers to focus less on individuality and materialism, and put more thought towards the common good. However, in an ever-changing country where atheism is on the rise and traditional family values are in decline, are Tocqueville’s beliefs on the importance of religion in America revealing themselves to be less and less true?

Tocqueville strongly advocates for the idea that religion as a whole is stronger when it is not directly involved in politics. The text reads, “When a religion seeks to found its empire only on the desire for immortality that torments the hearts of all men equally, it can aim at universality; but when it comes to be united with a government, it must adopt maxims that are applicable only to certain peoples” (284). Religion staying out of politics is a strategy to cover as much common ground as possible. Tocqueville also states that by avoiding positions where one will inevitably be put up for reelection, it allows religious leaders to evade the demands of the public. What Tocqueville does not envision is a government that is partly comprised of a Religious Right, leaders who weaponize religion as a scare tactic. Religion is no longer as separated from state as Tocqueville may have liked. Since the religious revival in the 1950s, the word ‘God’ has been sung in our pledge of allegiance and printed on our money. In a world where campaigning political candidates oppose issues like abortion and gay marriage in the name of Christianity, can it still be genuinely said that religion is not regulated by the government? Many citizens probably would not even endorse that claim.

Another outdated premise in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is the notion that Catholicism reigns supreme above all other religions. Tocqueville establishes his Catholic support by saying, “Catholics show great fidelity in the practices of their worship and are full of ardor and zeal for their beliefs; nevertheless they form the most republican and democratic class there is in the United States” (275). The first reason Tocqueville supports Catholicism is because the priest is morally above everyone else. Whereas in society and government, Americans strive for equality by assuring each other that all men are created equal, in the church, there is an understanding that the priest holds the high ground and everyone else is equal below him. While Tocqueville prefers Catholicism, he admits that “all the sects in the United States are within the great Christian unity, and the morality of Christianity is everywhere the same” (278). While in 2018, Catholicism is still a leading religion in America in terms of numbers, Nondenominational Christianity, Judaism, Muslim, and Atheism are becoming more popular. It is worth asking how Tocqueville’s model changes as popular religious practices change.

Not only do people interpret and practice religion more liberally than a century or two ago, but traditional family values have also transformed. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville asserts that women are more important to shaping mores that men are. Tocqueville even writes that religion itself is stronger in the minds of women, because religion is cultivated in the hearts of a family at home, where women generally spent more time. Even when men have a hard day of facing the outside world of politics and work, they should be able to come home to a loving, devout family. The text reads, “Of the world’s countries, America is surely the one where the bond of marriage is most respected…” (279). According to Tocqueville, these strong family bonds are what have kept faith so prominent in America. When the nuclear family is eroding and women are rapidly joining the work force, it is undeniable that Tocqueville’s original sentiment is no longer true. Men and women now have an equal responsibility to promote faith at home, and failure or unwillingness to do so can and has weakened that religious bond.

It is important to note that Tocqueville was leaving what, in his mind, was the failed French Revolution when he came to America to study our government and society. Part of the reason Tocqueville was so insistent that religion was the answer to a strong democracy was because he believed that the French revolutionaries discarding religion was what caused their mission to fail. His religious views were reactionary to the discourse in France, and therefore are more relevant to the time they were written than in twenty-first century America. Alexis de Tocqueville believed that the harmony between religion and politics would outlast any other enlightenment, but the truth of this sentiment will only be revealed with time.