“I am as bad as the worst, but thank god, I am as good as the best.” — Walt Whitman
“If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” — Frederick Douglass
Many of us who have read Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (published in two volumes, the first in 1835 and the second in 1840), are forever grateful to his acute observations about, and enthusiasm for America. “Among the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of conditions.” So Tocqueville begins his introduction, which throughout the book, where he consistently shares with us his wholehearted opinion of democracy in its variety of topics that embody different forms and shapes, he never once provides a summary of any sort. Each of us can detect Tocqueville’s excitement indeed as he takes us through his journey to bring a new political science to a new world of democracy, namely America but as an idea not just a geography so to speak. Coming from Europe, he was struck by the absence of class and the dominance of liberal ideas. That is to say from the European concept of standard liberalism that was put forward by 17th century philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, Baruch Spinoza, John Locke, for example, beginning with the “state of nature,” which is imagined as basic equality from which government is constituted. This basis of equality is inherently opposed to the notion of rule, for rule itself by nature has always been subject to partisanship.
Tocqueville, by recognizing this liberal necessity being apolitical as means to create an impartial society, presented this defensible liberalism as a new political liberalism that can be adopted in America. As much as he admired American individualism, Tocqueville also felt that a society of individuals that lacks the intermediate social structure to mediate relations with the state can lead to the “tyranny of the majority.” He, in fact, recognized America as a land of the most advanced embodied potentials and endless opportunities, in which he could adapt himself to liberalism’s hostility towards rule by practicing his political liberalism through the familiar maxim, the enlightened “self-interest well understood.” Every American, by virtue of being an American, has a similar aspiration to voluntarily join together in associations to further the interest of the group or community, and thereby to serve his, her, or their own interests. Having never had an aristocracy or domestic nobility, from the outset America has taken egalitarianism to its natural limit. In other words, there is no permanent aristocracy. Everyone is given equal opportunity to exercise his, her, or their “self-interest well understood.”
While Tocqueville was providing plenty of immediate insights, providential facts, based on the history of the church and monarchy, to new facts that are to be generated, created anew, among other knowledge that he calls forth to our attention, he stressed the idea of democracy as a perpetual basis of generated facts that insist on moving forward, not backward. Tocqueville experienced the reactionaries among his countrymen who wanted to go back to the time before the French Revolution (1789–1799) to repeal and reverse everything the revolution had fought for. On the one hand, he acknowledged the failure of the French Revolution, which was inspired by the American Revolution (1775–1783). On the other hand, he firmly stated that democracy is here to stay as long as we accept this fact of necessity, which rests upon our own choice to either make democracy useful and compatible with liberty or profitable to despotism. Our choice in this regard is hence inseparable from our necessity, necessity being a condition we must accept, be it the nature of nature, or the nature of human history, past and present, from which we have the freedom to act, however difficult, in order to communicate the choice for political liberty, namely what ultimately lies in a tiny strand of hair that separates good government by reflection and choice and self government.
The result of our 2020 election is a good instance to remind ourselves how fragile this democracy is. This is not unique, similar to past elections that have been cemented in our historical memory, for example the 1800 election that marked the first peaceful transition of power after a tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr; the election of Abraham Lincoln of 1860 which tore the nation apart; when Theodore Roosevelt took a bullet to his chest for having created a third party in the 1912 election; Harry Truman winning the 1948 presidential election while holding a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune reading “Dewey Beats Truman”; the first televised debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon during the 1960 race; Ronald Reagan winning every single state except one, making his 1984 campaign to be one of the biggest landslide in history; how could we forget the Supreme Court’s decision of the 2000 election between Al Gore and George W. Bush after a close call in Florida; of course, Barack Obama becoming our first Black president in American history in 2008; and our last election between Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton (the first woman to win the nomination of a major party in American history) in 2016 that became our most intense opposition on the issues of class and race in recent history.
This 2020 election is consequentially indicative of the at least two decades of neglect that has led to this real threat to the United States as no longer the empire it once was. Apart from confronting both Russia under Vladimir Putin, whose ambition is restore the former glory of Russia as the Soviet Union after WWII, and China under Xi Jinping whose desire to exploit capitalism’s free market economy while maintaining its communist party identity, the resentment of suburban middle-class and rural working-class poor is undoubtedly real, due to the complete abandonment by elected officials who’d been accepting money from the business sector for campaigns in exchange for political leverage, and vice versa: those from business sector who aspire to become politicians. We should not ever forget the other two imminent crises, which were identified as Trump’s campaign platform: one is immigration and the other global warming. While the former is the sole reason for the success that this land is based on—those who escaped the tyranny of the governments in their respective countries to seek new opportunities to rebuild their lives—the latter has already been evidenced by decades of pollution and other forms of abuse that caused sea rising, forest fires, and other environmental disasters. Democracy in America is an ongoing experiment that requires from all of us Americans the constant cultivation, relentless mindfulness as in Tocqueville’s term “self-interest well understood.” Are we ready to undertake and embrace our self-correcting democracy?
In solidarity, with love and courage,
Phong H. Bui
P.S. We’d like to thank our luminous Guest Critic Ralph Lemon and his brilliant ensemble, including Diane Lima, Kevin Beasley, Adrienne Edwards, Fred Moten, Pope.L, Thomas Lax and Will Rawls, and our fabulous Guest Designer Albert Hicks IV, who designed Ralph’s Critics Page. We’d also like to send our congratulations to both Ralph and Fred for each being awarded a MacArthur “Genius Grant.” Lastly, we want to share with you all our newly-launched, immersive WE THE IMMIGRANTS project (which can be found on our website), our ongoing celebration of the Rail’s 20th year anniversary, and our continuing of the New Social Environment Lunchtime Conversation series into 2021. All together, a brilliant spark for our new beginning.