How to view the 246-year-old experiment that is democracy in America

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL January 18, 2022

Photo by Max Sulik on Unsplash

How to view democracy in America?

** A 246-year-old experiment that’s failing?

** A 246-year-old experiment that worked until it didn’t?

** A 246-year-old illustration of Plato’s view that the eventual three-part cycle of change is democracy, leading to an oligarchy, which ends in tyranny?

One might have thought Harvey Mansfield, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Government at Harvard University, would have an answer.

After all, not only is Professor Mansfield exceedingly erudite — in 2022, he marks 60 years of teaching at Harvard – he is also one of the world’s leading authorities on Alexis de Tocqueville. What Tocqueville didn’t say about democracy in America in his two-volume ‘Democracy in America’ doesn’t bear saying.

But in a recent conversation with Yascha Mounk of Persuasion, Professor Mansfield wasn’t willing to predict how American democracy might turn out, here on in. Have a listen, if you can, to the discussion —  click here  — but if not, some of the highlights are below.

Professor Mansfield agrees that “Tocqueville ought to be the Bible of American democracy” because not only is it about the theory of democracy “but it’s also a view of it as it’s practiced”. Accordingly, it’s worth reading Tocqueville’s analysis of America’s uniqueness in terms of politics. As the Professor notes, Tocqueville “says that America is a country with very little freedom of the mind”. Materialism, Tocqueville thinks, is the main intellectual risk to democracy because it doesn’t allow for the long periods of time and the patience it takes to build great and lasting political edifices.

Right now, says the Professor, American democracy faces twin threats — there is Donald Trump and his “vulgar” refusal to follow the norms, conventions and processes of American politics. And there are the democratic intellectuals, who indulge in “grandiose theories of material motions, movements, large-scale causes”. They are not equivalent.

Mr Trump is profoundly dangerous, if only as an illustration of democracy’s slide towards authoritarianism unless moderated by the constitution and conventions. “Trump is a real trouble and a real threat,” says the Professor. “He seems to be as much against conservatism as in favor of it. As I said, he’s against conventions. He’s against morality, and propriety-I’ll use that word.”

But democratic intellectuals’ attempts to build grand structures that delink “individual accomplishments” from politics are also bad for democratic politics, says the Professor. He mentions the “wonderful paradox” of today in which “democratic intellectuals want more democracy than the American people-who are not intellectuals-want”. This, argues the Professor, weakens the links between “the government, or the intellectuals, and the people” and leaves room for nothing but “what Tocqueville called individualism, which is falling back on your own devices, and your intimate friends and your family, in the belief that there’s nothing you can do to affect society or politics as a whole.”

If that sounds like the usual kind of both-sidism, it isn’t. I think the Professor, a self-confessed conservative and a philosophical liberal, is identifying key points that democrats (both those with a small ‘d’ and a capital ‘D’) must needs ponder.