Buried deep in his magisterial second volume of “Democracy in America” (1840), Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1959) makes the startling observation that governments carry within themselves the seed of their own destruction.
And that seed, what he ominously calls “the seed of death,” masks itself as the very essence of what we think the regime is about.
The “seed of death” for a monarchy, he instructs, is the unbalanced and unhindered desire to accumulate ever more power in the hands of the monarch. In other words, for a monarchy to die, it simply needs to follow its natural tendency toward centralizing executive power.
Following that analogy, Tocqueville offers, democracy will end up destroying itself by taking its own core value—democracy—and extending its principles to the extreme. The “seed of death” of democracy is, perhaps paradoxically, “more democracy.” As the great Frenchman predicted, we have been on a march toward ever more democracy for the past 200 years—from the popular election of senators to extending the franchise universally to all 18-year-olds to the rise of primaries to the current attacks on the Electoral College.
But what does this all have to do with the current impeachment crisis?
Tocqueville also argued that part of the “seed of death” for a democratic people is the tendency, over time, for the people to want to get their way no matter how it was achieved. What made American democracy work, he observed when he visited the United States in the 1830s, was a complex web of institutions, rules, habits, and the Constitution itself. The American people, he feared, would gradually dismantle and come to distrust those core institutions, documents, and rules when they seemed to be getting in the way of what they wanted at the moment.
Today, we seem on the verge of a Tocquevillian crisis, in which some on both sides of the great divide are willing to undermine our rules, institutions, and values in order to win. That is, we may be in one of those moments when “the seed of death” is cultivated. What would our great French teacher instruct us to do in such an important moment?
Above all, he would urge us to “think institutionally.”
“Thinking institutionally” is at the vital center of what it means to be a republic and what it means to have a written Constitution. It means we think first and foremost about the needs of our institutions and the demands of our “rules of the game.” Our policy wants, our political values, and our favored politicians and parties are considered only after our institutions, laws, and Constitution are supported.
This is a difficult lesson to be heard in our Manichean world of all-out partisan warfare, where both sides have come to see every battle as an existential crisis that must be won at all costs. But unless we come to value our institutions, our rules, and our Constitution more than winning temporary battles, we may end up fulfilling Tocqueville’s predictions for the end of democracy in America.
How can we “think institutionally” during this impeachment crisis?
First, we must keep the needs and demands and rights of the Constitution foremost in mind. Before defending the president’s assertions of power or the House’s actions, consult the Constitution and think about the internal logic of that document. Does the logic of “checks and balances” afford Congress the right to hear testimony from the executive branch? Does the president have a right to refuse documents and testimony? Seek the answers in the Constitution and its logic—not in cheap pursuit of your own partisanship.
Second, don’t fall into the trap being laid for you to dismiss others’ arguments because of their political affiliations or personalities. It doesn’t matter who says it, it matters whether or not it is right. For instance, it doesn’t matter what motivated the “whistleblower,” it only matters what the president said or didn’t say on that phone call with the president of Ukraine. The facts, unfiltered by our politics, must guide us.
Third, we must understand that the outcome of every political battle and the fate of any individual politician doesn’t represent the end of America. Politicians, parties, and policies come and go. Our focus must be on the long-term impact of our current decisions. Prudence is our most important political virtue if we wish to conserve our constitutional order.
Fourth, if you find you cannot “think institutionally” in these hyperpartisan times, at least try this experiment in political imagination before making any final judgments: Simply imagine the arguments coming out of the mouths of the opposite party. Imagine it was Barack Obama being charged instead of Donald Trump. Imagine it was conservative Republicans bringing the charges in the House instead of Nancy Pelosi. Would you think differently about their arguments? Taking such a leap of imagination at least will get you a step closer to thinking outside your political box.
The stakes are high. I, for one, am much less worried about the fate of Donald Trump or Joe Biden or the 2020 race to control Congress than I am about the potential long-term damage to the U.S. constitutional order and the rule of law. We all seem to be backing into our camps and readying to explode all precedents, all rules, all institutions in the name of winning a paltry piece of political land that will be lost again in an election or two. Tocqueville would well understand this moment.
But, if we all keep Tocqueville’s warning in mind and “think institutionally,” we might end up losing a political battle here and there, but we also might end up saving our republic.
Gary L. Gregg is author or editor of numerous books on American politics and is host of the great books podcast Vital Remnants.
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Author: Gary L. Gregg