Democracy in America

I see an innumerable multitude of men, alike and equal, constantly circling around in pursuit of the petty and banal pleasures with which they glut their souls. Each one of them, withdrawn into himself, is almost unaware of the fate of the rest. Mankind, for him, consists in his children and his personal friends. . . . He exists in and for himself. . . .

Over this kind of men stands an immense, protective power which is alone responsible for securing their enjoyment and watching over their fate. That power is absolute, thoughtful of detail, orderly, provident, and gentle. . . . It gladly works for their happiness but wants to be sole agent and judge of it. . . . It covers the whole of social life with a network of petty, complicated rules that are both minute and uniform, through which even men of the greatest originality and the most vigorous temperament cannot force their heads above the crowd. It does not break men’s will, but softens, bends, and guides it; it seldom enjoins, but often inhibits, action; it does not destroy anything, but prevents much being born; it is not all tyrannical, but it hinders, restrains, enervates, stifles, and stultifies so much that in the end each nation is no more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as its shepherd.

— Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1840

And nearly a century before television, no less. De Tocqueville is near the top of my “Darren, seriously, isn’t it about time that you read this?” list. I stumbled upon this passage while reading Wendy Brown’s Politics Out of History, a provocative defense of critical theory as a potentially invigorating voice in the discourse of liberal democracy. In the best chapters, she turns for guidance to Nietzsche and Foucault, who could, at best, be described as problematic political figures (what with Nietzsche’s hatred of egalitarianism and all). I plan to finish Brown’s book tonight and post a reading diary entry tomorrow.

I’m just stunned, though, by de Tocqueville’s prescient description of contemporary America. A few days ago, I walked a hundred or so yards down the street to deliver a piece of mail that had been accidentally put in my box. My neighbor, who I’ve never met, looked at me closely through her window before opening the door an inch or two, deeply suspicious — this in a neighborhood that hasn’t experienced even a bout of vandalism in the six years I’ve lived there. When I run at night, I see the glow of my neighbors’ televisions emanating from behind their closed blinds. And then when I finish my run, I go home, close the blinds, and turn on my television. How sad.