10 February 2010

Democracy's Dark Side


image created at Wordle

It would be to waste the time of my readers and my own
if I strove to demonstrate how the general mediocrity of fortunes,
the absence of superfluous wealth,*
the universal desire for [material] comfort,
and the constant efforts
by which everyone [in the U.S.] attempts to procure it,
make the taste for the useful
predominate over the love of the beautiful in the heart of man.

... They will habitually prefer the useful to the beautiful,
and they will require that the beautiful should be useful.

... The handicraftsmen of democratic ages
endeavor not only to bring their useful productions
within the reach of the whole community,
but they strive to give to all their commodities attractive qualities
which they do not in reality possess.
In the confusion of all ranks [meaning the relative social equality in the U.S. in comparison to European aristocratical nations during the 19th century]
everyone hopes to appear what he is not,
and makes great exertions to succeed in this object.

This sentiment indeed,
which is but too natural to the heart of man,
does not originate in the democratic principle;
but that principle [of democracy] applies it to material objects.

To mimic virtue is of every age;
but the hypocrisy of luxury belongs more particularly
to the ages of democracy.

~ Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1831

There is nothing new under the sun.

* Context: Recall that de Toqueville is comparing mid-19th century U.S. wealth to that of European aristocracies of the time.

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