Tocqueville and the American experiment

This is a modified version of an essay I submitted for a class on social theory. Alexis de Tocqueville was a french diplomat of the 19th century who was sent from France to document the American prison system. Instead, Tocqueville foresaw how American-style-democracy was going to engulf Europe, and spent his time in the United States documenting how Americans govern themselves democratically. The work he produced is called Democracy in America, and this essay is an argument based on that book. Democracy in America is the only book from that class on social theory (where we read Smith, Marx, Kant, Hegel, etc) that substantively changed my outlook on the world. It did so by convincing me that American exceptionalism was justified, and that the United States is qualitatively different from other countries, in that people with no culture or heritage in common somehow opted to live alongside each other sharing nothing but some abstract moral values written down on a piece of paper. And, somehow, this worked. Here, I explicate this train of thought more fully, likening the United States to a social experiment, writ large. I removed citations, but the language and argument is still a little formal compared to essays I write specifically to put on this website. All quotations are taken directly from the text. Do forgive the pomp; alas -- it was written for a social theory class, and when in Rome...

American exceptionalism is defined as the belief that the United States is qualitatively and inherently different from other nations. Here, drawing from Tocqueville, who coined the phrase in Democracy in America, I argue that this belief is, in some ways, justified, on the grounds of the United States being akin to a social experiment in political philosophy. This is made especially clear when Tocqueville contrasts the democracy once present in France (pre-restoration) with that in the United States. Beyond examining the causes of this exceptionalism, we discuss the ways in which those causes manifest themselves in modern America, whether that be in the form of school shootings or consumerist culture. From there, I briefly discuss whether the successes and failures of the United States, as a social experiment, and what that means for progress we can expect to see in political science in the coming centuries.

In what ways is it reasonable to liken the United States to a social experiment? In experiments, scientists often gather a large and diverse population and subject them to unusual and novel conditions, hoping to examine the outcome. Indeed, the early United States started as nothing but a melange of people from diverse cultural and socio-economic backgrounds that came to a new land seeking a new life. Tocqueville himself describes this when remarking “Imagine, my dear friend, imagine if you can, a society formed of all the nations of the world: English, French, Germans…”. What’s more, the way of life in the colonies was assuredly different for all settlers from that in their homeland, so it’s reasonable to liken it to “unusual and novel conditions.” And the outcome of this “social experiment” is plain for the world to see: the United States is an economic and political heavyweight, with this status caveated with the social problems endemic to many parts of the country.            

How does seeing the establishment of the States as a social experiment advance our understanding of American exceptionalism? It clarifies why the American people, who can be thought of as the subjects of this new form of intermixing, have exceptional beliefs about their nation. One such particularity is in how often cited and seriously taken the US constitution is. As a stark contrast to the prevailing opinion of the populace in many countries overseas (where it is common to see the constitution as an important, yet arcane and dated, artifact of history), everyday citizens will push back against gun control laws, citing their constitutional right to bear arms, or push back against “PC culture” citing their constitutional right for free speech. Though other western nations have many of the same constitutional rights, it’s rare to hear them cited with such ferocity. In this way, as Tocqueville puts it, “the position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional” in that this constitutional spirit is more than the letter of the law, but seeps into the spirit of the populace. When asked in public forums why Americans have such a fondness for citing their constitution, [5] some respond noting that the constitution is what binds together the colonies (states) into a union (united) in the first place. Without it, the states are independent agglomerations of people, with little in common but commercial interest. That is to say, the “United States” has a very literal interpretation for many American citizens, and it’s the constitution that gives their country that identity in the first place.            

Another way in which the social experiment resulted in widespread perceptions of the States as exceptional is in the distinction that ordinary citizens make between government and law. In a public forum [on the news], one person remarked how the constitution was so important because it kept the government in check , preventing it from breaking the law. In many countries, the government is often seen as the producer of law and arbiter of justice , and so the statement “government breaking the law” is itself a contradiction. The very fact that ordinary citizens draw a clear distinction between the government — an institution they see as very much synthetic and contractual, an agreement on behalf of the citizens, a Leviathan of sorts à la Hobbes — and the law, which is the set of rules the citizens agree to abide by, is itself enormously telling about how deeply social contract theory is embedded in the culture of the States, another qualitative difference between governance in the States and in other countries, another part of the thrust behind the exceptionalist narrative.            

And from where does this implicit characterization, on behalf of common citizens, of the government as a contract, arise? Perhaps it was inherited by the founding fathers, whom, some argue, saw the drafting of the constitution as very much applied political philosophy, inspired by that of John Locke, amongst other thinkers. In particular, the recognition of inalienable rights and limited government are heavily drawn from Locke’s First and Second Treatise of Civil Government . A counterargument is that this social-contractual zeitgeist we find in many American citizens is instead a remnant of the diversity present in the States, both today, but also during its foundation. At the time of founding, members of all races and creeds had to get along to make this new society function properly, and in doing so establish norms and beliefs that allowed such a young society to prosper in such a short period of time. Perhaps, as Tocqueville puts it, “These ideas have not created class antagonisms in the United States because most colonial settlers were already relatively equal in status, wealth and education ,” another fact that is unique to the United States (at its founding). Again, having diverse people from rich cultural heritages coming together in a short span of time on new land and setting new norms is both reminiscent of the definition of a social experiment, and also part of the reason the States is qualitatively different in its foundational story (and thus, for many, its mission). That is to say, part of the reason American exceptional, many believe, is justified.            

The same traits, however, that underlie belief in American exceptionalism, can be seen to be at root of various problems in modern America. The same blind faith in the second Amendment as the right to bear arms (originally meant to ensure citizens could defend themselves against a rogue government or intruders) that is so characteristic of citizens acknowledging that the government is a social construct, is the faith that has led to firearms being far easier to obtain in the US than in any other developed nation. As a result, school shootings and mass murders — and more broadly, firearm deaths, which include suicide — are seen at levels that are utterly incomparable to that in the rest of the developed world, where historical documents that are at the founding of various nations are not taken quite so literally and not always seen as landmarks of national identity in the same way.            

Another such manifestation is in mass consumerism. Unlike Tocqueville, who derides Americans for their inane emphasis on material goods, a consumer-centric culture is not in and of itself problematic here; instead, the symptoms of such a culture — like obesity rates far higher than any other developed nation — can put strain on public goods like healthcare, aside from of course robbing years of life (where in terms of expectancy, the US has a lower lifespan than one would expect given its world class GDP per capita). For Tocqueville, this materialist culture derives directly from equality before the law, which, in his eyes, can breed individualism — or worse, egoism. When there is broad equality and social mobility codified into the tenets of a society, a major way one distinguishes themself is through wealth. Tocqueville himself also is suspicious of democracy for this reason: if materialism — which he sees as a moral failing — is a natural consequence of democracy, it tarnishes the reputation of something he otherwise believes to be a functional and successful mode of governance.            

Though the States may in some ways be exceptional, does that exceptionalism imply any superiority? Is this social experiment a beacon of hope for moral or political progress in states in centuries to come? The first step in answering this question is to define moral progress. Tocqueville sees democracy as somewhat inevitable for many states for western Europe. In fact, part of the motivation for Democracy in America in the first place was to study the successes and shortcoming of American democracy in hopes of extracting insights that would be useful in transforming the soon to be democratic states of Europe. And so if we adopt Tocqueville’s perspective and see the States as honing a system of governance that Europe is decades behind in adopting, it’s fair to linearize progress in this specific instance and conclude that in this narrow, strictly political sense, the States have achieved some measure of moral progress over their continental counterparts. This is one argument for the social experiment being a source of hope for moral progress in the future.            

Another example of exceptionalism as superiority is in the treatment of women. In part due to the nature of the US as a social experiment where people had to work out the rules for getting practical things done most effectively in a rapidly growing nation, more equal (though still imperfect at the time) treatment of women was a wise practical decision rather than one made for virtuous reasons. Tocqueville recounts: “The chief cause of the extraordinary prosperity of America is the superiority of American women.” Here, it would not be unfair to argue that an exceptional attitude to women (compared to the status quo) was a symptom of moral progress to come, though this must be caveated with the morally decrepit nature of the treatment of both the African slaves and the Indians, which Tocqueville also found worrisome, though on more practical grounds (that it would foment revolution, as it indeed did).            

The United States has historically also been qualitatively different from other nations on grounds of social mobility. Indeed, “the American dream” is for many a reason the States are so exceptional. Definitionally, we have that “The American dream is the belief that anyone, regardless of where they were born or what class they were born into, can attain their own version of success.” Though most moderns would see the pioneering of this type of social mobility as unambiguous moral progress, Tocqueville might disagree, citing that it is exactly this very equality of opportunity that breeds the materialism we saw before. Smith would agree with Tocqueville, but for a different reason, as he believed that aspirations for vast wealth are misguided, and ultimately leave the middle and lower classes worse off than before.            

Overall, then, we see that if American exceptionalism is the belief in the States being qualitatively different from other countries, we see that this is to some degree justified. However, the very same traits, such as how dear the constitution is to everyday Americans, that cause this exceptionalism also manifest as symptoms such as high suicide rates and gun violence, consumerist culture, and more. Though there are some ways in which this exceptionalism can be interpreted as superiority in terms of political and moral progress (at least in the way that Tocqueville sees it), the most important way in which exceptionalism is true is in the fact that the founding story can be likened to a social experiment unlike that of almost any other nation in human history.