democracy in Tea Party America

Berkeley economist Brad DeLong looks back with nostalgia at the young America Alexis de Tocqueville saw in 1835, when he published the first volume of his now-classic Democracy in America.

To the “sick” France of 1835, Tocqueville counterposed healthy America, where attachment to the idea that people should pursue their self-interest was no less strong, but was different. The difference, he thought, was that Americans understood that they could not flourish unless their neighbors prospered as well. ….

Tocqueville noted that “Americans are fond of explaining…[how] regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist each other, and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the general welfare.” The French, by contrast, faced a future in which “it is difficult to foresee to what pitch of stupid excesses their egotism may lead them,” and “into what disgrace and wretchedness they would plunge themselves, lest they should have to sacrifice something of their own well-being to the prosperity of their fellow-creatures.”

For Tocqueville, France’s sickness in 1835 stemmed from its Bourbon patrimony of a top-down, command-and-control government, whereas America’s health consisted in its bottom-up, grassroots-democratic government. ….

Republicans [have] gathered in Tampa … to say that the America that Tocqueville saw no longer exists: Americans no longer believe that the wealth of the rich rests on the prosperity of the rest.

J. Bradford DeLong, “Democracy in Tea Party America“, Project Syndicate, 30 August 2012.

Addendum (from Wikipedia). We should not forget that not all was well in de Tocqueville’s America of 1835, There were slaves in southern states, women were not full citizens, and non-whites could not become citizens.

When Tocqueville toured the United States from 1831 to 1832, the Naturalization Act of 1790, signed into law by George Washington, prohibited persons of color from becoming citizens. Only persons who were “white” of “good moral character” could become citizens, while freed blacks, Asians, and Native Americans were denied citizenship. The citizens mentioned in Tocqueville’s book Democracy in America were all of the white race.

 

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