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The Echoes of Alexis de Tocqueville in America: Leveraging the Polarities of Democracy

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By William Clements
January 14, 202
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It has been echoed that the wise learn from history, but if this is true then where does this leave us today?

Despite what might be touted consistently on the news or read in major headlines, democracy is indeed a wonderful form of governance. But as with all things, polarities are at play, as eloquently identified in the work of Dr. William Benet (Polarities of Democracy) regarding the negative impacts of unleveraged polarity pairs on the civic body. De Tocqueville famously compiled in his historic work, Democracy in America,that there were five necessary pillars needed for America’s, “Constitutional Republic” to survive. These pillars are noted as liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire. Upon closer observation, De Tocqueville’s analysis could be presented as polarity pairs that cannot be solved with “or” thinking but rather with “and” thinking. It is not far-fetched to suggest that the tragically disheartening recent political events that have been unfolding have resulted from the effects of unleveraged polarity pairs.

As posited by De Tocqueville, America will find itself at a precarious position once public opinion becomes antithetical to the virtues that the country was founded upon. In no way was America founded on completely virtuous principles and America’s history should not be overlooked. Nonetheless, America has made enormous strides in areas of equality, even though there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done. Even so, a brief overview of this history relates to De Tocqueville’s warning of democracy’s vulnerability to public opinion and what De Tocqueville identified as the, “Tyranny of the Majority.” To many, democracy represents a virtue, but this opinion is short-sighted and does not present the dangers that are inevitable in a democracy. It is not suggesting that democracy in America should be replaced, but only that democracy should be viewed in its entirety and not placed in a vacuum absent of outside forces such as sexism, racism and classism.  

The devastating events that occurred in the nation’s capitol left many speechless, but to others, the events were a likely occurrence due to a combination of diverging public opinions of America and the multitude of unleveraged polarities in America. Given this, what are the solutions to these problems or how would we leverage these polarities? I vehemently wish there were a simple answer to these questions, but the truth, as usual, is much more complicated and cannot be covered in a single piece. In hopes of attempting to solve these problems, we must first admit that there is an issue raging in the undercurrents of the American politic. Possibly, a good starting point will be admitting that we do not have a distinct democracy, but a constitutional federal republic. The next step could be the need to address the profit-generating nightly news networks. Though unpopular to say, many viewers of major news networks know little about what is being reported outside the opinions of the pundits and as a result, the majority shape their perceptions based on the reporting of their favorite news anchor. This is not to place blame on the news reporters, but a direct attack on the profit-generating nature of the media that cashes in on these vulnerabilities.

It is worth noting that America is indeed a strong and resilient country with a people forged in the spirit of revolution, freedom and belief. America will survive this moment as she has survived every other moment of strife, pain and hardship. This is not to suggest that the process will be easy, pleasant, or that we will not endure our share of cuts, scrapes and bruises. It is more important now than ever that we learn to leverage the polarities that exist in our democracy. We have seen and read the writing on the wall. It will be to our own detriment if we do not heed the warning signs. As public administrators, we must remember that we are responsible for the functioning of society and that includes ensuring that the social fabric remains intact. It is a tough call, but a call that we must answer.


Author: William Clements, PhD, is a professor in the School of Government at higher education institutions. With a B.S. of Justice Studies, M.S. of Forensic Psychology, PhD of Public Policy and Administration (concentration: Public Management and Leadership), he has served in public service fields for 13+ years. His interests include economics, politics, and public policy. Email: [email protected]

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