In the course of my work, I meet many strangers. Often, we have a few minutes to kill, chatting about life and politics. On one such occasion, I learned that my interlocutor, a woman looking to be in her early 30s, was teaching politics and government in a high school. “So, you read de Tocqueville with your students and discuss the American system,” I presumed. To my surprise, she asked: “Who?” She had not heard about Alexis de Tocqueville and his book “Democracy in America.”
For readers like this young lady and her students, Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat, visited the United States in 1831 to study the American penitentiary system. History remembers him for his book, considered to be the best in explaining the American political system.
De Tocqueville grew up during the Age of Enlightenment. In Europe, it meant that authorities should use science, rational thinking, and tolerance when governing people. Americans brought it to the next level; the American Revolution’s message was that people do not need to be governed. Europeans regarded it as heresy, reporting ongoing noisy chaos. Looking at the same, Alexis de Tocqueville recognized the healthy buzzing of restless people getting rich.
De Tocqueville noted that in Europe, rulers and wealthy elites held the political power and money. The rest of the people were competing among themselves to get access to these limited resources. In America, the governments had limited powers and little money; hence, Americans were growing wealthy by overcoming natural obstacles free from government coercion. For that wealth, the sky was the limit.
When I arrived in Chicago in 1985, I still could recognize aspects of America as seen by de Tocqueville. Since then, they have kept fading. Contemporary Americans want to be ruled by an enlightened government. That change in Americans’ mentality can explain our deepening political impasse. We can understand it better by looking at the political history of Latin America. Argentina may be the best example.
In 1853, Argentina adopted a constitution forming a political system modeled on that of the United States. The economy boomed, and by the end of the 19th century, Argentinian GDP per capita matched that of the United States. However, the U.S. Constitution spelled out a lengthy political tradition that Argentina lacked. Power and money were in the hands of Argentina’s government and elites. Despite formal liberties, the masses did not have the same freedoms to enrich themselves as Americans did. This stifled economic growth; in 1915, Argentinian GDP per capita was only 70% of that in the United States.
Seeking a solution, Argentinians did not follow the North Americans’ example. They gave the government extra powers to distribute the wealth more justly. Since then, the history of Argentina is the intertwinement of populist regimes and military juntas. The GDP per capita kept falling, to about half of that of the United States in the 1940s and to one-third in the 1970s. It was 15% of that in the United States in 2019.
In the United States now, the governments at all levels have a lot of power and money; so do the elites. Americans do not have the same liberties to enrich themselves as their ancestors had when de Tocqueville visited America. For too many, the only way to prosperity is to compete for access to the government’s and the elites’ resources.
Like Argentina about a century ago, we practice a different political system than the one we have in the Constitution.
The America that de Tocqueville observed is gone. We have “Amerina,” the Latina version of the American dream, as pursued in Argentina.
We have not had a successful putsch yet, but about one-third of Americans see it as a valid option. The next attempt might prevail.