Witt: Revisiting ‘Democracy in America’

Published 11:48 am Tuesday, March 3, 2020

If Alexis de Tocqueville were to visit America today and then to write “Democracy in America,” it would undoubtedly be a vastly different book from that published in 1835.

De Tocqueville believed what made democracy work here was that the congeniality of the citizenry, which had widely diverse interests, made it able to come together to make the system work to the benefit of the majority.

So, here’s a scenario of de Tocqueville living a long life and coming back to America today.

“Things are very different in America today from when I visited here 189 years ago. Then there were only 24 states in the union, compared to the 50 now, one of which is separated from the others by 2,500 miles of ocean.

“In 1831, the politics of this country were pretty vituperative. Andrew Jackson was president and he was known to have vast differences from many of the politicians of the day.

“Despite outrageous accusations against political opponents — a condition that was rampant in the day — there still existed a degree of camaraderie within the fairly young Congress that allowed the business of the country to be conducted somewhat reasonably, even amidst vigorous debate.

“In 1831, there were limited means for candidates to the presidency to get their message out to the citizenry, primarily public appearances and speeches and a reliance on the newspapers of the day, many of which were highly partisan and displayed that partisanship in both their editorial pages and even news items.

“Today, the methods of information dissemination are so varied they nearly beggar imagination. And some of those methods are almost instantaneous. At the same time, a good many of those methods often provide slanted, even obviously erroneous information, sometimes deliberately.

“And while there has only been one instance of actual physical violence in the halls of Congress, when Charles Sumner of the Senate was caned by Rep. Preston Brooks in 1856, Congress today works in a truly unimaginable way. Some would say it works not at all because it appears that the good of the country has taken a back seat to the narrow demands of the individual members of the two major parties.

“Even the two major political parties of today seem often to ignore the needs and demands of the people who elect them to office. While most world democracies exist with multiple political parties which form coalitions to govern, America is somewhat unique in allowing so much dominance by only two.

“And the methods which have been adopted to facilitate the political aspirations of the country in the 189 years since I’ve been gone are indeed incredible.

“They have a system called an ‘electoral college,’ which has nothing to do with colleges and very little to do with an electoral process governed by the citizenry.

“In addition to that, they begin the election process well forward of the year of their presidential election, utilizing all manner of ways to select their nominees, caucuses and primaries, and instead of having all these occur at one time, they spread them out over months and, even when complete, resort to what they call ‘conventions’ to finalize the process. It appears as something dreamed up in an asylum of madmen.

“There is much stress here now, more apparent because of the vastness of the country, its diversity of population and the inability of its governing bodies to accommodate compromise for the good of all.

“This may change. It would appear that it must if this great experiment is to survive longer than those who have attempted it in the past.

“Perhaps I shall return again in another 189 years.

I shall pray that the difficulties I see here now will have been resolved and that democracy is alive and well.”

Chuck Witt is a retired architect and a lifelong resident of Winchester. He can be reached at chuck740@bellsouth.net.