There is a great deal of discussion today about the condition of American politics. The obvious ineptitude, the low level of debate, the pandering rhetoric, the excessiveness of campaigns–all of these have resulted not only in a paralysis of function, but almost a kind of moral failure as well.
There are, of course, numerous sources of blame for these maladies: A rapacious journalistic media, the influence of special interest groups, a growing sector reliant on handouts, the quality of candidates who seek public office.
However, the purpose here is to address this situation from an obverse point of view. It is not to assert that these problems do not exist, because they do and are obvious for all to see, but rather that in an unfortunate way they may not be important to the extent we imagine.
The basis for such an assertion is a somewhat different perspective on the workings of our national system. Especially, that it is incorrect to equate the two elective branches with the whole of American government. Indeed, the political dimension is an integral part, but it is only a strictly delimited part and in critical ways the least important part, of the national government.
One way to appreciate such a perspective is to review the approach used by the nineteenth century French nobleman, Alexis De Tocqueville. In 1840 he published a classic work entitled “Democracy in America.” It was a two volume study of American society and government notable for its thoroughness and sophistication.
When reading that work written nearly two hundred years ago the first reaction is to recognize how little American society and its people have changed. But there were very important reasons why a person of such stature and renown would journey to a new and raucous frontier country to study its prisons and its politics.
Governing institutions across Europe were at that time notoriously unstable. They were threatened by a growing public discontent, often with widespread sympathy for radical factions intent on armed revolt. Punitive measures, especially imprisonment, seemed to be the only adequate means to control this rising threat. In fact, within a few years after Tocqueville completed his study the entire continent was swept by the revolutions of 1848. No government in Europe was left unshaken, some were overturned.
What fascinated the Frenchman and other European aristocrats was that in America there was comparatively little radical or revolutionary activity, little need for prisons. The American people for the most part were satisfied to vent their political passions and express their partisan hostilities through an orderly elective process. There was a lesson here for those who governed in Europe.
However, the point was not so much whether the American public actually exerted significant influence over the affairs of their government. Rather, it was the general assumption in the public mind that their participation was a crucial factor in determining those affairs. There was virtually no radical sentiment in the country that sought to overthrow what had been established.
Actually, in Tocqueville’s view the real basis and strength of the federalist structure was the one almost totally removed from popular politics and almost wholly unaccountable to the public. That was what he called the aristocracy of the judicial bench and bar. As long as that strata exerted a guiding influence, the institutions of American life would be secure.
The lesson taken back to Europe was that a public embrace of the political process was critically important. It was important even if the actual basis and stability of the nation was centered elsewhere. The sense of participation was more effective in quelling radical disaffection than any punishment could ever be.
From the perspective of today, however, it is ironic to look back upon the time in which Tocqueville wrote and to realize he made no mention of two profound questions that threatened to tear America apart at that time. Both matters had a great deal to do with the nature and function of government. One was essentially a domestic issue the other had more to do with foreign relations.
The first question concerned doctrines by which judicial members conduct the business of the courts as well as oversee the realm of public affairs generally. There had developed a contest between two factions, what might be called the followers of Joseph Story as opposed to the followers of William Blackstone. This great sectional division within the fellowship of law was an important contributing factor to the eruption of a tragic Civil War beginning in 1861.
The other question regarded credit and currency relations of the United States with banking institutions across the Atlantic. The issue was whether the existing network of state and local banks might continue to extend credit and issue currency based on their own worthiness, or whether those functions should be centralized into a single federal institution. That question was eventually resolved in the form of the Federal Reserve System in the early twentieth century.
It would be interesting to know how Tocqueville would evaluate American democracy if he toured the country today. Truly, he might despair. But he would still be intrigued by the extent to which the American public remained thoroughly occupied within the arena of politics, with little thought of measures taken outside those limits.
Just as in the nineteenth century, he might also have some reason for confidence. He would perhaps now see a composite aristocracy, or a two part aristocracy of legality and finance as stable arbiters of American life. Both of those operated with great independence and beyond any real accountability to the public. He would find it reassuring that at least these institutions are elevated above the mindless rancor of political disputation.
The real marvel of American democracy for Tocqueville would remain the same. It was not that the vote of the people was the foundation of American government. Instead, it was the way in which a channel was provided through which the broader public could exercise a voting franchise. Focusing public energies within strictly prescribed limits strengthened the foundations of authority that actually rested elsewhere.
In reflecting on these ideas, it is important to remember that the whole idea of democracy as a form of government was unanimously abhorred by the Founding Fathers, and the word does not appear in the Constitution; Tocqueville would have agreed. What he might say today is that America now has the rule of law within its borders just as it has a responsible role in the economy of the world.
As long as the two institutions of court and bank are sound, the adolescent theatrics of its political process could be subsumed beneath them. But he might be perplexed at the crowding of the prison system. With nearly two and a half million of its citizens incarcerated Tocqueville might wonder what American democracy would mean to the European aristocracy this time.