January 1, 2016


The book every new American citizen -- and every old one, too -- should read : To mark my first year of U.S. citizenship, I read Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America." Turns out, it explains everything. (Carlos Lozada, December 17, 2015, Washington Post)

Sure, I passed the citizenship test, even practicing the list of 100 questions with my kids. (They'll ace elementary school civics now.) But for the advanced coursework, my instinct was to turn to a book. What could I read that would guide me through the chaos that is democracy in America?

Fortunately, there's this little book called "Democracy in America" -- written 175 years ago by, of all people, some know-it-all foreigner.

It's embarrassing to admit that I'd never read Alexis de Tocqueville's classic work until now, but I'm glad I picked this year to do it. Few books have been so often cited and imitated, so I won't presume to offer more insight than this: "Democracy in America" is an ideal book to read as a new citizen. Yes, it's really long and stuffed with annoying, self-referential French digressions. (I can say that sort of thing now, I'm American!) But it also explains perfectly to a brand-new compatriot so much of the essential minutiae of life here, so much of what America is and was, so much of what it risks losing.

"Democracy in America," for example, explains why Americans always want you to join things and sign stuff. As soon as they welcome you to the whole, the parts start claiming you. It could be your race or ethnicity or sexual identity. Or your hobby, your school, your politics, your team. Where do you belong? Which identity is strong enough to get you to commit and be counted? With options multiplying, "American" is just the beginning.

Tocqueville obsesses over this freedom of association. "In America, citizens of the minority associate primarily to ascertain their numerical strength and thereby weaken the moral ascendancy of the majority," he writes. "The second purpose of association is to promote competition among ideas in order to discover which arguments are most likely to make an impression on the majority, for the minority always hopes to attract enough additional support to become the majority and as such to wield power."

I first grasped this when I arrived here after high school and collegiate groups tried to mark their territory. Would I join the Hispanic Americans organization? The international students? Pick! Now I get to vote, but I have to register with a party. In America, you're always taking sides. "There is only one nation on earth where daily use is made of the unlimited freedom to associate for political ends," Tocqueville writes. Americans not only use it daily but obsess over whether that's enough. Bowling alone is frowned upon, FYI.

Posted by at January 1, 2016 9:52 AM