Tuesday, 5 February 2008

From "Democracy in America"

By Alexis de Tocqueville.

In comparison with the kings of Europe, the President possesses but few means of creating partisans; but the places that are at his disposal are sufficiently numerous to interest, directly or indirectly, several thousand electors in his success. Moreover, political parties in the United States are led to rally round an individual in order to acquire a more tangible shape in the eyes of the crowd, and the name of the candidate for the Presidency is put forward as the symbol and personification of their theories. For these reasons parties are strongly interested in winning the election, not so much with a view to the triumph of their principles under the auspices of the President elect as to show by his election that the supporters of those principles now form the majority. For a long while before the appointed time has come, the election becomes the important and, so to speak, the all-engrossing topic of discussion. Factional ardor is redoubled, and all the artificial passions which the imagination can create in a happy and peaceful land are agitated and brought to light. The President, moreover, is absorbed by the cares of self-defense. He no longer governs for the interest of the state, but for that of his re-election; he does homage to the majority, and instead of checking its passions, as his duty commands, he frequently courts its worst caprices. As the election draws near, the activity of intrigue and the agitation of the populace increase; the citizens are divided into hostile camps, each of which assumes the name of its favorite candidate; the whole nation glows with feverish excitement, the election is the daily theme of the press, the subject of private conversation, the end of every thought and every action, the sole interest of the present. It is true that as soon as the choice is determined, this ardor is dispelled, calm returns, and the river, which had nearly broken its banks, sinks to its usual level; but who can refrain from astonishment that such a storm should have arisen?

RE-ELECTION OF THE PRESIDENT. When the head of the executive is re-eligible, it is the state that is the source of intrigue and corruption--The desire to be re-elected is the chief aim of a President of the United States--Disadvantage of the re-election peculiar to America--The natural evil of democracy is that it gradually subordinates all authority to the slightest desires of the majority--The re-election of the President encourages this evil.

WERE the legislators of the United States right or wrong in allowing the re-election of the President? At first sight is seems contrary to all reason to prevent the head of the executive power from being elected a second time. The influence that the talents and the character of a single individual may exercise upon the fate of a whole people, especially in critical circumstances or arduous times, is well known. A law preventing the re-election of the chief magistrate would deprive the citizens of their best means of ensuring the prosperity and the security of the commonwealth; and by a singular inconsistency, a man would be excluded from the government at the very time when he had proved his ability to govern well.

But if these arguments are strong, perhaps still more powerful reasons may be advanced against them. Intrigue and corruption are the natural vices of elective government; but when the head of the state can be re-elected, these evils rise to a great height and compromise the very existence of the country. When a simple candidate seeks to rise by intrigue, his maneuvers must be limited to a very narrow sphere; but when the chief magistrate enters the lists, he borrows the strength of the government for his own purposes. In the former case the feeble resources of an individual are in action; in the latter the state itself, with its immense influence, is busied in the work of corruption and cabal. The private citizen who employs culpable practices to acquire power can act in a manner only indirectly prejudicial to the public prosperity. But if the representative of the executive descends into the combat, the cares of government dwindle for him into second-rate importance, and the success of his election is his first concern. All public negotiations, as well as all laws, are to him nothing more than electioneering schemes; places become the reward of services rendered, not to the nation, but to its chief; and the influence of the government, if not injurious to the country, is at least no longer beneficial to the community for which it was created.

It is impossible to consider the ordinary course of affairs in the United States without perceiving that the desire to be re-elected is the chief aim of the President; that the whole policy of his administration, and even his most indifferent measures, tend to this object; and that, especially as the crisis approaches, his personal interest takes the place of his interest in the public good. The principle of re-eligibility renders the corrupting influence of elective government still more extensive and pernicious. It tends to degrade the political morality of the people and to substitute management and intrigue for patriotism.

In America it injures still more directly the very sources of national existence. Every government seems to be afflicted by some evil inherent in its nature, and the genius of the legislator consists in having a clear view of this evil. A state may survive the influence of a host of bad laws, and the mischief they cause is frequently exaggerated; but a law that encourages the growth of the canker within must prove fatal in the end, although its bad consequences may not be immediately perceived.

The principle of destruction in absolute monarchies lies in the unlimited and unreasonable extension of the royal power, and a measure tending to remove the constitutional provisions that counterbalance this influence would be radically bad even if its immediate consequences were unattended with evil. By parity of reasoning, in countries governed by a democracy, where the people is perpetually drawing all authority to itself, the laws that increase or accelerate this action directly attack the very principle of the government.

The greatest merit of the American legislators is that they clearly discerned this truth and had the courage to act up to it. They conceived that a certain authority above the body of the people was necessary, which should enjoy a degree of independence in its sphere without being entirely beyond the popular control; an authority which would be forced to comply with the permanent determinations of the majority, but which would be able to resist its caprices and refuse its most dangerous demands. To this end they centered the whole executive power of the nation in a single arm; they granted extensive prerogatives to the President and armed him with the veto to resist the encroachments of the legislature.

But by introducing the principle of re-election they partly destroyed their work; they conferred on the President a great power, but made him little inclined to use it. If ineligible a second time, the President would not be independent of the people, for his responsibility would not cease; but the favor of the people would not be so necessary to him as to induce him to submit in every respect to its desires. If re-eligible (and this is especially true at the present day, when political morality is relaxed and when great men are rare), the President of the United States becomes an easy tool in the hands of the majority. He adopts its likings and its animosities, he anticipates its wishes, he forestalls its complaints, he yields to its idlest cravings, and instead of guiding it, as the legislature intended that he should do, he merely follows its bidding. Thus, in order not to deprive the state of the talents of an individual, those talents have been rendered almost useless, and to retain an expedient for extraordinary perils, the country has been exposed to continual dangers.

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