Front Page Titles (by Subject) Of the Choices of the People and of the Instincts of American Democracy in Its Choices - Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 2
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Of the Choices of the People and of the Instincts of American Democracy in Its Choices - Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 2 
Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition of De la démocratie en Amérique, ed. Eduardo Nolla, translated from the French by James T. Schleifer. A Bilingual French-English editions, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010). Vol. 2.
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This bilingual edition of Tocqueville’s work contains a new English translation of the French critical edition published in 1990. The copyright to the French version is held by J. Vrin and it is not available online. The copyright to the English translation, the translator’s note, and index is held by Liberty Fund.
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Of the Choices of the People and of the Instincts of American Democracy in Its Choices
In the United States the most outstanding men are rarely called to the leadership of public affairs.—Causes of this phenomenon.—The envy that animates the lower classes in France against the upper classes is not a French sentiment, but democratic.—Why, in America, distinguished men often move away on their own from political careers.
Many people in Europe believe without saying, or say without believing, that one of the great advantages of universal suffrage is to call men worthy of public confidence to the leadership of public affairs.b It is said that a people cannot govern itself, but always sincerely wants the good of the State, and its instinct hardly ever fails to point out those who are animated by the same desire and who are most capable of holding power.c
I must say that, for me, what I saw in America does not authorize me to think that this is so. Upon my arrival in the United States, I was struck with surprise to find out how common merit was among the governed and how uncommon it was among those governing.d Today it is a constant fact in the United States that the most outstanding men are rarely called to public office, and we are forced to recognize that this has occurred as democracy has gone beyond all its former limits. Clearly the race of American statesmen has grown singularly smaller over the past half century.
Several causes of this phenomenon can be indicated.
It is impossible, no matter what you do, to raise the enlightenment of the people above a certain level. Whatever you do to make human learning more accessible, improve the methods of instruction and make knowledge more affordable, you will never be able to have men learn and develop their intelligence without devoting time to the task.
So the greater or lesser facility that the people have for living without working sets the necessary limit to their intellectual progress. This limit is further away in certain countries, closer in certain others; but for there to be no limit, it would be necessary for the people not to have to be occupied with the material cares of life; that is, for them no longer to be the people.e So it is as difficult to imagine a society in which all men are very enlightened, as a State in which all citizens are rich; these are two correlative difficulties. I will admit without difficulty that the mass of citizens very sincerely wants the country’s good. I go even further, and I say that, in general, the lower classes of society seem to me to mingle fewer calculations of personal interest with this desire than do the upper classes; but what they always more or less lack is the art of judging the means while sincerely desiring the end. What long study, what diverse notions are necessary to get an exact idea of the character of a single man! There the greatest geniuses go astray, and the multitude would succeed! The people never find the time and the means to give themselves to this work. They must always judge in haste and attach themselves to the most salient objects. As a result, charlatans of all types know very well the secret of pleasing the people, while their true friends most often fail. [<In most of the states of the Union I saw positions occupied by men who had succeeded in gaining them only by flattering the slightest passions and bowing before the smallest caprices of the people.>]
Moreover, it is not always the capacity to choose men of merit that democracy lacks, but the desire and the taste.
The fact must not be concealed that democratic institutions develop the sentiment of envy in the human heart to a very high degree, not so much because they offer each person the means to become equal to others, but because these means constantly fail those who use them. Democratic institutions awaken and flatter the passion for equality without ever being able to satisfy it entirely. Every day, at the moment when people believe they have grasped complete equality, it escapes from their hands and flees, as Pascal says,f in an eternal flight. People become heated in search of this good, all the more precious since it is close enough to be known, but far enough away not to be savored. The chance to succeed rouses the people; the uncertainty of success irritates them. They get agitated, grow weary, become embittered. Then, everything that is in some way beyond them seems an obstacle to their desires, and there is no superiority, however legitimate, that they do not grow tired of seeing.
Many people imagine among us that the secret instinct that leads the lower classes to keep the upper classes away from the leadership of public affairs as much as they can is found only in France. That is an error: the instinct that I am speaking about is not French, it is democratic. Political circumstances have been able to give it a particular character of bitterness, but they did not give birth to it.
In the United States, the people have no hatred for the upper classes of society; but they feel little goodwill toward them and carefully keep them out of power; they do not fear great talents, but they appreciate them little.g In general, you notice that everything that arises without their support gains their favor with difficulty.
While the natural instincts of democracy lead the people to keep distinguished men away from power, an instinct no less strong leads the latter to remove themselves from a political career in which it is so difficult for them to remain entirely themselves, and to operate without debasing themselves. This thought is very ingenuously expressed by Chancellor Kent. The celebrated author about whom I am speaking, after giving great praise to the part of the Constitution that grants the nomination of judges to the executive power, adds: “The fittest men would probably have too much reservedness of manners, and severity of morals, to secure an election resting on universal suffrage” (Kent’s Commentaries, vol. I, p. 272 [273 (ed.)].) This was published without contradiction in America in the year 1830.
This demonstrated to me that those who regard universal suffrage as a guarantee for good choices are under a complete illusion. Universal suffrage has other advantages, but not that one.
[b. ] “≠What is most important to a nation is not that those who govern are men of talent, but that they have no interests contrary to the mass of their fellow citizens≠” (YTC, CVh, 4, p. 90).
[c. ] Repetition of an argument from Montesquieu, who asserts in chapter II of book II of the Esprit des lois:
The people are admirable for choosing those to whom they must entrust some part of their authority. In order to decide they have only things that they cannot ignore and facts that are tangible. . . . But would they be able to conduct a matter, to know the places, the occasions, the moments, how to profit from them? No, they will not. . . . The people, who have enough capacity to understand the management of others, are not fit to manage by themselves (Œuvres complètes [Paris: Pléiade, 1951], II, pp. 240-41. Cf. note e for p. 93).
[d. ] Why, when civilization spreads, do prominent men decline in number? Why, when learning becomes the privilege of all, do great intellectual talents become more rare? Why, when there are no more lower classes, are there not more upper classes? Why, when understanding of government reaches the masses, are great geniuses missing from the leadership of society? America clearly poses these questions. But who will be able to resolve them? (pocket notebook 3, 6 November 1831, YTC, BIIa, and Voyage, OC, V, 1, p. 188).
[e. ] “As the cares of material life demand less time, the development of the intelligence of the people will be greater. The one concerned with none of these cares will always have an intellectual advantage over those who are obliged to be concerned with them” (YTC, CVh, 4, p. 37).
[f. ]Pensées, number 390 in the Lafuma edition.
[g. ] Here Tocqueville seems to invoke the difference that Guizot and most of the Doctrinaires establish between democracy, the political form that destroys the legitimate inequality of intelligence and virtue existing among men and that leads to the despotism of the greatest number, and representative government that divides power according to reason. “Representative government therefore is not that of the numerical majority pure and simple, it is that of the majority of those who are capable (des capables),” writes François Guizot (Journal des cours publics, Paris: au bureau du journal, 1821-1822, vol. I, lecture 7, p. 98). If Tocqueville radically rejects Guizot’s conclusion that makes the middle class the most capable class, his problem remains nonetheless the same: how to make the best govern? This question, which marks the entire history of political thought, had been explained in this way by Tocqueville to Louis de Kergorlay: “The most rational government is not the one in which all those interested take part, but the one that the most enlightened and most moral classes of society lead” (Letter from Yonkers, 29 June 1831, Correspondance avec Kergorlay, OC, XIII, 1, p. 234). Four years later, just after the publication of the first part of his book, Tocqueville wrote to Mill:
It is much less a matter for the friends of democracy to find the means to make the people govern than to make the people choose those most capable of governing, and to give the people enough authority over the latter for the people to be able to direct the whole of their conduct and not the detail of actions or the means of execution. That is the problem. I am deeply persuaded that on its solution depends the future fate of modern nations (letter of 3 December 1835, Correspondance anglaise, OC, VI, 1, pp. 303-4).
Tocqueville, however, seems only to repeat what Mill had written in his review of the first part of Democracy: “The best government [. . .] must be the government of the wisest” (John Stuart Mill, “De Tocqueville on Democracy in America,” London and Westminster Review, 30, 1835, pp. 110-11). See Luiz Díez del Corral, “Tocqueville and the Political Thought of the Doctrinaires,” Alexis de Tocqueville. Livre du centenaire (Paris: Editions du CNRS, 1960), pp. 57-70.