Of course I’ve read bits of Democracy in America from the several editions on my AmCon shelf. It was one of our original “dense facts.” Usually the sections we read highlighted American ethos: individualism, voluntary associations, etc. We used to read it with Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” paired with an assignment that investigated contemporary groups like the VFW, scouts, and the like. It was lovely, relatively optimistic about American society, and frankly a bit of a yawn.

This semester we read a different section in which DeTocqueville compares democracy in the USA with European aristocractic government. It was not a yawn. Indeed is was terrifying because he shines a light on the weaknesses of the American system. More so because the features he offers a mitigation are not always effective. He notes that Americans are wont to elect corrupt or incompetent official, but that the damage is limited by the short duration of their terms. However we now see that influence and damage can extend beyond the end of a term.

He is also astute about the lure of government by a strong leader who is uninhibited by the need to be accountable to the electorate. “[D]epotism often promises to make amends for a thousand previous ills; it supports the right, it protects the oppressed, and it maintains public order. The nation is lulled by the temporary prosperity that it produces, until it is roused to a sense of its misery. Liberty, on the contrary, is generally established with difficulty in the midst of storms; it is perfected by civil discord; and its benefits cannot be appreciated until it is already old.”