Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Tocqueville's Question of the Day--Presidential Elections: Agitation and Reelection

Question of the Day--Presidential Elections

Today Tocqueville helped me think through presidential elections a bit and come to think about how much we take them for granted. Unlike us, he considers elections to be times of great crisis in a democratic nation. The public gets engaged against one another. Rather than working together, the forces of society are locked in battle. We have come to expect a perfectly peaceful resolution of such internal political wars, but Tocqueville helps remind us how unique the American experience was in the history of politics and helps us think about how unique it still is today. We should give some thought to what it is (culture, tradition, values?) that keeps blood from running in the streets after an election--even a contentious one like 2000!

 In America of the 1830's, Tocqueville saw a country that was incredibly mobilized for battle every four years. And yet, he marveled that the American people became so agitated at elections when the presidents of this whig period of American history were so relatively powerless.  They had few unilateral powers, played a small role in domestic political life, and had very few patronage positions to spread around. 

Fast forward to the modern presidency where the executive branch is comprised of hundreds of thousands of employees, the president is Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful military force ever assembled in human history, and where we have centralized vast unilateral power in the White House. Are the American people more drawn to politics and elections since the stakes are so dramatically higher than they were 170 years ago? If not, does it say anything about our character? Is it, maybe, a part of our political stability that so many of us are not much engaged in political life?

On a related point, Tocqueville makes an interesting observation about the impact of presidents running for re-election. He says that allowing presidents to run for re-election will make them "only a docile instrument in the hands of the majority. He loves what it loves, hates what it hates; he flies ahead of its will, anticipates its complaints, bends before its slightest desires. The law-makers (founders) wanted him to lead the majority, and he follows it" (229). This is particularly a problem during the last year of a president's term, Tocqueville says, and especially in an age where political morality had become lax (which he saw happening in America in the 1830s, btw).

Do you think our prohibition on third terms has satisfied Tocqueville's concern? Have our presidents become less subservient to the public mood?  Do you think there is a danger in presidents following public opinion too closely? Or, was Tocqueville too distrustful of the public mind?

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