07/06/2012 06:33 pm ET Updated Sep 05, 2012

The Citizen's Book Club: A New Idea for 2012

What do we really know about democracy?

Most of us do our best to stay informed about American politics, to read what we can in moments stolen from busy lives. We debate with friends and colleagues, we give money or volunteer, and at the end of it all, we vote. But for the most part, our political identities are formed on the fly: a slapdash of parental instruction (and rebellion), books that blew our young minds, life's hard experience, and the latest outrages from Washington.

In short, we do our best to be good citizens of our imperfect democracy. But what do we really know about it?

Behind the noise and trivia, above the message war, beyond the media banalities and two-party echo chamber, we feel -- or want to feel -- the presence of greater ideas. Freedom. Tolerance. Accountable government. Equal justice under law.

America was the first nation in history to be founded on ideas. As we prove every July with fanfare and fireworks, these ideas still have the power to excite us, to make us proud. But in the midst of busy lives, rarely do we give them our full attention.

It is in this spirit, and in tribute to these American ideas, that our "Citizen's Book Club" is begun.

The goal: present to you, between now and Election Day, single-sitting passages from the classic texts of American democracy. Substantial enough to spark ideas and prod debate; short enough to read on a coffee break.

Have you wondered why our Supreme Court treats corporations as people? What Adam Smith actually said about the free market's "invisible hand"? What John Adams and James Madison really had in mind when they framed our constitution? Why America is doomed only to have two parties?

In the coming weeks, with the help of history's great minds, we'll explore these questions and more together.

As a quick glance at cable news will remind us, strong opinions don't require a reading list. Democracy, however, does require the very best of its citizens, and if reconnecting with a classic text makes us just the least bit wiser, or fair-minded, or public-spirited, then it is our democracy that will reap the reward.

Read. Reflect. Give your two cents on why this text matters in 2012. Let's get to know our country a bit better, and make it a grand conversation.


We take as our jumping-off point the book many consider the greatest ever written about America. Surprisingly (for some), it was written by a foreigner. Even worse (for some), he was French.

For the young aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, 1830s America offered a strange and wonderful glimpse into humanity's democratic future. Having arrived with the stated mission of studying our prison system, he ended up penning the definitive study of our freedom, or, to be more precise, how America's famous freedom and equality could be understood by getting to know Americans themselves.

For Tocqueville, the "mother science" of democratic citizenship was the art of association. Happily for his study, this art was the one in which 1830s Americans were almost hysterically prolific. "Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all minds," he wrote, "constantly unite together. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other types: religious, moral, solemn, frivolous, very general and very particular, immense and very small... Everywhere, where, at the head of a new enterprise, you see in France the government and in England some great lord, count on seeing in the United States an association." [Democracy in America, II, ii, 5]

Tocqueville noticed, however, that alongside this American talent for combination (complementing it? in conflict with it?) lay a tenacious individualism. The Americans he met wanted to get rich, they worked hard, and they played to win. How could a nation of citizens focused this intensely on their own material success ever prosper as a community? Enter one of Tocqueville's many golden insights, the notion of "interêt bien entendu." Americans, he wrote, don't pretend to love virtue for its beauty, but they embrace it for its usefulness. This "interest rightly understood," as it is generally translated, "does not produce great devotions, but every day suggests small sacrifices; by itself alone, it cannot make a man virtuous, but it forms a multitude of citizens who are orderly, sober, moderate, provident, and in control of themselves; and if it does not lead directly to virtue by means of the will, it approaches it imperceptibly by means of habits." [II, ii, 8]

Does this sound right to us? If so, where have our democratic habits led us in 2012? Would Tocqueville find in us a different America than the one he knew?

This is the question I leave to you. As you read a bit more of the work, though, you may be surprised at some of the "post-modern" American problems the 19th-century Frenchman already had pegged.

Our vague sense of national unease, despite being arguably the richest, longest-lived, and most comfortable we've ever been? See Tocqueville's chapter on "Why the Americans Prove to Be So Uneasy in the Midst of Their Well-Being" [II, ii, 13].

Our sense that America is a nation doomed to decline, a casualty of history's inevitable laws? Watch Tocqueville ribbing the scientific-minded social theorists of his day, for whom an individual "has no power, either over himself or over what is around him," and in whose writings "the author often appears great, but humanity is always small." [II, i, 20]

Democracy in America is a powerful, challenging, hilarious read, and a masterwork every American should have a look at. Here are a few more very short passages we find especially pertinent to 2012. Tell us if you agree:

On why ugly elections are good for democracies

On whether Americans can think for themselves
On why Americans don't read philosophy
On democracy's secret weapon
On America's wonderful, feverish agitation

Tocqueville was clearly enraptured by our country, and gave us the basic insight that, proud as we are of our laws and our constitution, America has always been better understood by looking at its people. Above all he thought that if the American experiment was to endure, its citizens needed continually to identify their self-interest with the interest of the whole community, to push beyond short-term majoritarian thinking and build what he called a "taste for the future." [II, ii, 18]

We have four storm-tossed political months ahead. Will America ignore Tocqueville's advice, or will we, just maybe, catch sight of a further horizon?