I read about Alexis de Tocqueville most memorably in my Democratic Theory module in second year. Memorable in the sense that, besides the interest I had in Athenian democracy, I only remember reading de Tocqueville’s observations about American democracy in tandem with Putnam’s Bowling Alone. I’m sure John Stuart Mills found his way into my reading as well, as would be expected in a study of the history of democracy, but I promise I do not remember this.
Perhaps I should have paid better attention (or, as I maintain, I didn’t have the mind to read academic writing, then or now in fact), because I might have found myself interested in his insight
that revolutions are produced by improved conditions and rising expectations, not by mass immiseration. As Louis C.K. says, right now everything is amazing and nobody is happy. Each citizen carries on her person a computer more powerful than any available to a billionaire two decades ago, and many are using their devices to express their unbridled rage at the society that put them in our pockets. (Gopnik, New Yorker)
I presume that de Tocqueville was referring to the resentment of the American population toward the British insistence of governing from afar that led to a war of independence which the Americans ultimately won (I’m not at all bothered to look up my vague suspicion that the French supported the American cause, but do feel free to link me up to sources confirming the hunch through the comments, thanks!)
It’s interesting to note the recurring notion of dissatisfaction despite everything going great. I don’t even mean to intimate that it’s a particularly American-owned predilection. Clearly the politics of this year and the past have shown everyone seems entitled to claim to the kind of misery that leads to the upheaval we are experiencing. I raise my hands, shrug and say that isn’t a bad thing. After all something has gone wrong.
The world, as it is, is in peak condition. Theoretically it’s always been on the trajectory to get to this point – barring the relapse of the Medieval period, although I suppose some of my friends may say it was totally worth it for History (and things like the Magna Carta, but again, probably would have had it under any other name still). We build sophisticated probes for space exploration, we eradicate and cure previously lethal sicknesses, we live to grow 100 years old regularly these days.
But listening to the latest Freakonomics podcast over the weekend, I truly made the connection that populations are voting in accordance with headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry (HE link). Funnily enough this podcast also referenced Louis C.K.’s bit that the New Yorker article did. People are better off, but attaining improvements is so difficult to achieve, and once gained they become irrelevant as the next status symbol is to be chased. And of course the personal variations have to be accounted for.
A farmer in Somerset may have a smartphone, just like a banker in London, but does he have the same powerful mobile network? Or even the same speed internet for his stationary computer/laptop? Fibre optics or broadband? And knowing that you’re somewhat handicapped by political priorities (for quick wins, so in areas where policy is quick and easy to implement because they are add-ons, not revolutions) increases those headwind perceptions.
You could say misery loves company in the sense that the miserable will band together, and for a while all they will do is complain about their plight. But of course the miserable will eventually progress, and they do not necessarily aim to drag others down but to improve their own lot as much as they can. Others do not figure into this as much, insofar as they simply provide the level the miserable want to peg their improvements at (in non-cultural ways. The Somerset farmer may not care about achieving marriage equality as much, but will want his crop subsidies and fast internet).
They instigate political change where those who have lived those better lives will feel like things are going backward – and things might be, because people are demanding the parity of access to the modern world. But it seems this was necessary in order to spread prosperity and development.
I can’t say I’ve been at all excited about Brexit, or the election of Donald Trump. But firstly, I would be incredibly stupid to want it all to go sideways (I speak more of Brexit than Trump here), as it would disadvantage me incredibly as a foreigner who intends to make her home here. And secondly, we need a paradigm shift. Not just to the parity of accessibility to the wonders of the modern age – but to an improved mindset, as proposed by Gilovich and Davidai in their headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry research: of gratitude, of learning in context, of conducting pre-mortems, for examples.
Will leaving the EU or having a non-politician achieve that? Hardly. But it may create the circumstances where these traits are needed and in fact used, across the board.