A Response to Democracy in America, Volume 2, Chapter XI, “In What Spirits Americans Cultivate the Arts.“
Historian Alexis de Tocqueville set off from France to study American society and in 1840 published this volume of Democracy in America. You might be inclined to deem his work invalid today because you believe his visitor status made him unfit to study the complex system that is American democracy or because, at 177 years old, his work is outdated. But can it not be said that American democracy has an impact on every individual who lives under it for any period of time, contributing to how they think and react to most experiences? And is it not true that through the study of historical literature we can identify patterns that help us to better understand the present?
It comes to me that Tocqueville had an advantage in his studies because he was not under the direct influence of American democracy. Although his familiarity with French nobility may have left him with biases of his own, there is merit to be found in his detachment from the system that so many Americans vehemently defend because its principles are the foundation of their country. These principals are therefore an integral aspect of American identity, and so I am appreciative of Tocqueville’s work for bringing to light and then emphasizing those effects of democracy that we are blind to. I even find it unfortunate that, 177 years after this publication, there is not more conversation surrounding Tocqueville’s claims as cogent as they are.
As a minimalist, I venture to only bring into my life that which adds value. Tocqueville’s work has value. Here, he illustrates a truth of American democracy:
Among a democratic people a number of citizens always exists whose patrimony is divided and decreasing. They have contracted, under more prosperous circumstances, certain wants, which remain after the means of satisfying such wants are gone; and they are anxiously looking out for some surreptitious method of providing for them. On the other hand, there is always in democracies a large number of men whose fortune is on the increase, but whose desires grow much faster than their fortunes, and who gloat upon the gifts of wealth in anticipation, long before they have means to obtain them. Such men are eager to find some short cut to these gratifications, already almost within their reach. From the combination of these two causes the result is that in democracies there is always a multitude of persons whose wants are above their means and who are very willing to take up with imperfect satisfaction rather than abandon the object of their desires altogether.
Since Tocqueville’s time I have no doubt that Americans are all the more exposed to those “more prosperous” circumstances which bring them to desire more material objects and unrealistic goals. We have consumerism to thank for that, flooding us with advertisements that in this age of technology can seep into everything we do. Americans have been conditioned since birth to tie their identity to material success. Other definitions of success that have developed in American society are financial success, success in ones career, success which is determined by beauty and business. It is expected of Americans to accumulate the most money while at the same time being tempted to spend their money on the most expensive items as a way of revealing their wealth. An American is applauded when in the course of one day they complete a multitude of tasks, engage with their hobbies, go to work, and stay healthy in mind and body. Any average individual cannot possibly live up to these expectations, for they are either unobtainable or irrational. At the very least, someone may be outwardly successful by this definition, but still, the result is a life with less meaning because with these ideals one cannot be fully immersed in all they do. This is all rooted in democratic values established in early colonial America. Even when an individual encapsulates all of these things- beautiful, wealthy, active, hardworking, caring, etc. there is always the allure for more. In our democratic system, more is always better, and one is not motivated from within. Living in a democracy should mean that everyone feels free to do what satisfies their soul, though. Tocqueville observed this American mentality to be vastly different than that of an aristocrat. In the age of aristocracy, quality of work was preferable to quantity of work. Quality of life as well. While I am not out to denounce the benefits of a democracy and do not seek to debate that an aristocratic system is preferable, if Tocqueville and I can observe the same detrimental trends influenced by American democracy 177 years apart, why have we not considered a more drastic constructivist outlook? Why have we not become acquainted with the past, our democratic past as well as the past of other cultures, in such a way that we could bring more value and more meaning to our lives?
It is my intention to use my philosophies of minimalism and understanding of the impacts of American democracy on the psyche to bring my future students to question what it is their motivations and desires are rooted in. Will they create a life that is successful and valuable in their own terms, or the terms of their society? What will you do? To what extent will we allow ourselves to be manipulated by customs, simply because we are accustomed to them?
Americans on the whole must shore up their critical thinking skills. We must question the implications of the system that runs our society and gain an awareness of self so that we can improve our ability to decide what is valuable to our lives. Because even if society is manipulating us into positive habits, if we are not finding meaning in them ourselves, how much good can they really do for the growth and development of the individual? Humans are inviolable, thus there is no one system of rule that will work for all of us for all of time. We must take up a constructivist philosophy, that is, to recognize the strengths of an American democratic system but also realize its taxing downfalls. Again, I make no pretenses that we should do the insuperable, to rid our country of capitalism, consumerism, or democracy, but hope to recognize the problems that largely exist in American society and to survive and combat them by becoming more aware and conversational as a people and taking the initiative to redefine success and value amongst the majority. That is precisely the constructivist theory, that rather than completely throwing away an old construct that seems to no longer work, it is more progressive to study it in such depth where, in developing a new idea or construct, the old becomes a tool. This allows a new idea to be built upon the old, and yes, maybe doing without the aspects of it that were negative, but often retaining what did work and simply trying to improve or capitalize on those positive factors. I firmly believe, as you will see in much of this blog, that looking at things with a constructivist view is beneficial to progress of any kind be it political or personal progress.