Friday, February 26, 2010

Cannonball Read #51: Democracy in America (Vol. 1) by Alexis de Toqueville

I often wonder if Alexis de Tocqueville ever gets tired of being right ALL THE TIME. I watch politics today and see his predictions coming to life over and over again. What worries me is that these animations are the predictions he was most concerned about. I hate when people say that politics aren't "their thing," because our lives are political, and no one can escape that reality, particularly here in America. You can not give a shit about the details of the latest bill on the House floor all you want, but you do need to pay attention to the larger concerns of our polity. Sorry, but you do. Politics control all of our lives, even if we are not conscious of their power; it's like the proverb about water being the last thing a fish discovers because he is surrounded by it his entire life.

There are a thousand wonderful statements strung together in Democracy, but the predominant one is so simple it's right out of a comic book: with great power comes great responsibility. Tocqueville is clearly in awe of the American political system, but he sees the dangers interlocked with its benefits. Our fierce insistence on equality allows the most freedom of any system - even amongst other democracies - but it also removes a locus of power that is provided in other systems by an aristocracy. Not inherently bad, but it requires that we pay more attention to the preservation of our freedoms and our democracy, and avoid the tyranny of the majority. Tocqueville reminds us of these problems and seems to hope that we can avoid the pitfalls that litter our political landscape. He concerns himself with this not because he hopes for our failure but because he sees the potential we have to capitalize on. He felt so strongly about this that he called for an entirely "new political science." That's a pretty serious statement.

I will admit that I am biased when it comes to this work, because it's exactly what I hope to do some day - to write books that make politics interesting and accessible to everyone. I'm not so bold as to say my writing is of Tocqueville's caliber, but I can certainly aspire to his great example. This is unquestionably one of the best political works of America's history, and probably one of the best in the world's history. To see anyone's politics so clearly is a remarkable feat, and to analyze them to this depth is sheer brilliance. Required reading for everyone.

480 pages

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