Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained

The True Meaning of Democracy

Reading Room: Chapter 14 Summary

American Government: The Shaping of American Character

“… for e’en in heaven his looks and thoughts
Were always downward bent, admiring more
The riches of heaven’s pavement, trodden gold …”

Looking at Greek society from afar, we can see how the democratic form government had a direct effect on the culture, character, intellectual and emotional make up of the typical Athenian citizen living in Athens in the fifth century B.C. Such generalizations could apply to any culture at any time. Our values, our identity, our sense of self and level of self confidence are determined, in part, by the government we live under. This becomes a lot harder to grasp as we change our focus to our own culture and our own times.

Yet, the United States offers an interesting study in government and its effects, largely because it started from scratch with a very particular form government, a constitutional oligarchy with a strong emphasis on rhetorical democracy. And in early American history, there was a change in government that parallels the change in Athens from the fifth to the fourth centuries.

Between 1776 when the thirteen colonies became thirteen states, each with its own form of government, and 1788 when the constitution was ratified, there was a period of experimentation in government. Democratic values were on the rise. Citizens were actively involved in shaping their own political destinies. With the Constitution in place there emerged a centralized government with a concentration of power in the hands of a few. Democracy was marginalized. The citizen began to disappear.

The typical American, as observed by De Tocqueville in the 1830’s, is weak and isolated, plagued with feelings of insignificance. He is at once “independent but powerless.” He is near people but not connected to them. There is a lack of courage and critical thinking which contrasts with what had been the case at an earlier time.

Over the past one hundred fifty years, other writers have made similar observations. Only De Tocqueville seems to have understood that the American character he observes is a direct consequence of the government the American lives under.