How a French aristocrat perfectly explained the problems with modern politics
WORDS BY ALEXI BARNSTONE
In the first week of classes this semester, Democracy in America by Alexis De Tocqueville was assigned. A 700-page brick that I would lug around campus for the next nine weeks. My initial thoughts on the book? Back pain and a plethora of irrelevant knowledge that will leave me brooding over insights that no one else can relate to. It was a book the size of three talking about the government, institutional structures and the social state of America in 1830. Who cares? 700-pages on I found myself awestruck at its applicability. Tocqueville offers a perfect explanation for the rise of populism today, through the exploration of the carryon effects of our materialism.
As far back as 1830, in the midst of the industrial revolution, Tocqueville touches on how materialism is a driving factor of American society, a sentiment that has held firm, explaining the increase in materialism by contrasting modern democracy with aristocracy.
In an aristocracy certain members of society hold positions of status that are unattainable to the majority, namely aristocrats. In a democracy there are no set classes. Because democracy comes from a point of equality, wealth takes precedence as a representation of status over all else. Subsequently, people subject themselves to the monetary pursuit above all else. The house you lived in and the size of your bank account become the tangible forms of status. In America, Tocqueville observed a country where its people “glut their souls” with small material things in an attempt to establish themselves against the backdrop of society.
One of Tocqueville’s brilliant insights was that this form of materialism would cultivate individualism. In a state where people are striving to maximize their material value they withdraw themselves from other aspects of life, because they would rather attribute that time to personal gain. They become recluses in their pursuit for wealth, and withdraw from society as a whole. Political withdrawal would spread.
Here bore an explanation for Trump’s presidency, and more broadly, the rise of populism. People had fallen deeply into a vat of materialism. They had sold themselves to a market-oriented society where they could enjoy material pleasures. In their pursuit of material pleasures they had lost focus of the bigger picture and fell deep into a state of political inaction and disinterest. It was only in the wake of an economic crisis, where people’s material comforts became compromised, that they were galvanized to reengage the political system. This is largely what the economic crises all over the world, so characteristic of the late 2000s, achieved. The shifts and changes in the overall economy once again became directly linked to individuals’ prosperity. It pushed people to re-realise the causational link between government and wealth, politics and individual prosperity.
So, what did that leave us with? A populace with a general lack of political education partnered with the revitalization to become politically engaged. This opened the door for populism to flourish. No matter the condition of the people, the people always retain the democratic right to vote, and subsequently the right to shift power structures. It is vindication for Tocqueville, and pain for the rest of us.