The history of modern democracy is a tale of steady success accompanied by the constant drumbeat of anticipated failure. The intellectual commentator who first spotted this distinctive feature of democratic life (and who did most to explain it) was Alexis de Tocqueville. When he traveled to America, in 1831, Tocqueville was immediately struck by the frenetic and mindless quality of democratic politics. Citizens were always complaining, and their politicians were endlessly throwing mud at one another. The grumbling discontent was frequently interrupted by bursts of outright panic as resentments spilled over.
Yet Tocqueville noticed something else about American democracy: that underneath the chaotic surface, it was quite stable. Citizens' discontent coincided with an underlying faith that democratic politics would see them right in the end.