Originally published: 1835 & 1840 (in two volumes)
317 pages (abridged)

Chapter 8

DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA

Alexis de Tocqueville

 
America, in all its guises, has fascinated Old World intellectuals since well before 1776, and French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville was no exception. As a young man he was particularly captivated by the allure of our nascent democracy. Though his 1831 visit to the newly formed United States, when he was but twenty-six years old, lasted only nine months, his account of that journey continues to provide intriguing insights into the challenges inherent in a Jeffersonian democracy. There are few men who are more often or more widely quoted than this connoisseur of the American experiment.
     When Tocqueville arrived in the New World the United States had recently celebrated its fortieth anniversary as a nation. The last of the Founders were passing into history and the focus was no longer solely on the new government but on the new country and the new citizenry. The states were yet mostly equal partners with the administration in Washington and economic and social relationships were beginning to form patterns. The free market was still the wild card. As would become clear over the years, capitalism itself (as much as the citizens) needed rules to constrain its darker impulses. But most Americans were too close to their own world to see what they had wrought. It took the independent and quite sophisticated view of a foreigner to comprehend all the potential-good and bad.
     Tocqueville's own aristocratic family had suffered greatly during the liberty, equality, and fraternity of the French Revolution of 1789 yet he held no enmity toward the egalitarian effects of majority rule or democracy. Instead, he was fascinated by the question of what a democracy 

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could be now that he well understood from his own country's revolution what it shouldn't be. And although the ostensible purpose of his trip to the New World was to study the American prison system his ultimate goal was to view constitutional government firsthand:

               It is not, then, merely to satisfy a legitimate curiosity that I have
               examined America: my wish has been to find there instruction by
               which we may ourselves profit. . . . I sought there the image
               of democracy itself . . . in order to learn what we have to fear
               or to hope from its progress.

     What is unique about Tocqueville is his ability to get over the giddy feeling that the fraternity of democracy, coupled with the rule of law, is designed to foster. As a result of the French Revolution he plainly understood that human beings do not always strive for the good of their fellows. No matter what system of governance is chosen it has to be designed to restrain man's sometimes dismal nature. Tocqueville also opines that the well-being of any society achieved by equalitarian (as opposed to egalitarian) efforts is at risk if its citizens do not recognize the corrosive effects of too much equality, or equality that is forced, not earned. Finally, Tocqueville understood the nature of power (even if achieved by democratic means) and its effect on those who suddenly find themselves in a position to wield it.
     In America, Rousseau's theoretical tyrannical majority (a majority that could make decisions without considering the rights of, or its duties to, a mostly powerless minority) is hypothetically stymied by the Constitution. The design offers protection for most of the citizenry's natural rights and puts forward some political guarantees. But that document does not dictate human character; that is, citizen individuality or morality, or perhaps most important of all, human courage. In other words, Tocqueville sees the first chinks in the practice of American freedom. They relate not to the documents or their direct governmental functioning but to the effects of a democratically imposed uniformity and striving for an intellectual notion of equality. Tocqueville is troubled that a social or corporate conceit might arise vis-à-vis the value of equality that could destroy individuality. As equality's leveling effects (intellectually) insist on uniformity the ultimate result can be complaisance bred of felt individual impotence or unimportance, or even just the obligation to go along.  Breaking out from this smothering compliance can often be termed, by those in power, as anti-social with every stigma such

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a contention evokes.  This is “soft” tyranny, that only grows in power with each instance of acceptance.  The first evidence of soft tyranny is when speech is curtailed.  This is where political correctness begins to blossom.
     A corollary to this concern lay in America's vast commercial potential. Tocqueville sees the titanic American economic nation earlier than many others. Yet in that national possibility-encompassed in unimagined expanses of land and natural resources and pure enterprise-he also sees a tendency toward leveling that might command a repressive political/psychological unity in the name of progress. Tocqueville sees a uniform intention to achieve material success and thus an American society where its economic goals become increasingly both homogenous and overwhelming. Tocqueville fears a populace bereft of intellectual, cultural, or social diversity if all are solely focused, as they seemed to be, simply on profit and temporal abundance. What he didn't witness and therefore didn't count on was what could be done with those profits by private citizens, which as the years passed became a massive amount of individual activity not directed at further material success but aimed at fellow-citizens and society as a whole, and at sheer personal enjoyment, which is notably unequal.
     Tocqueville worries further how America will ameliorate the potentially harmful effects of a constantly encroaching commercial power on both the freedoms and the rights of the minority. He sees that an overt but potentially false majoritarian intellectual or philosophical hegemony by those in positions of power, commercial and political power together, is possible and is thus a concern. Tocqueville warns of a "government for and of the people, but not by them." It should be remembered that Tocqueville visited America in the midst of Jacksonian democracy's flowering when ideas of egalitarianism and majority rule were approaching their apogee. However, the representative facet of governing, where wisdom is to be interposed between citizen democracy and laws, he sees as potentially being subverted. He foresees commercial interests clinching the social and economic bit in their legislative teeth to impose supposedly majority concepts that do not necessarily have majority backing or real majoritarian interests at heart.
     And Tocqueville's fears did come to fruition to an extent by the turn of the twentieth century when the so-called robber barons seemed to operate by their own rules. At that point a counterforce arose in the form of Teddy Roosevelt's trust-busting efforts. The checks and balances worked, albeit slowly as they must, first, because the society is so large

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and fluid, and second, because when action is taken too precipitously the law of unintended consequences comes into play. Often that law brings forth results that are more destructive than the ill that is to be cured.
     On another front, as Tocqueville also anticipates, some ideologues were extending the idea of majority rule and its egalitarian intentions to irrational conclusions that had nothing to do with democratic representation and everything to do with politics. Tocqueville predicts that if
"intellectuals" can posit that our equality before the law also creates an expectation that we will treat everyone's talents and capabilities as equal, then someone would do so. Equalitarian elitists do not stop with the premise that the citizen's vote or opportunity is to be equal. They contend that the usefulness or value of a citizen's capabilities is to be determined, to a greater or lesser degree, not by the free market but by the state. Ultimately, this social equalitarian view embraces the charge that we should strive for equality of result-particularly economic result-and not just equality of opportunity. This call for equal result is a dishonest distortion of the Constitution's specific call for equal treatment and equal opportunity. Yet this demand continues unabated when demagogues posture as the supposed friends and guardians of human dignity. (James Madison, primary author of the Constitution, foresaw the probability of a call for equal result by means of the Constitution's insistence of equal opportunity, and addressed this possibility directly in Federalist #10.)
     In pursuing this long train of suppositions and possibilities Tocqueville comments at length upon the dynamic relationship between equality and individuality. He repeatedly suggests that individuality is at risk of being reduced to a mere concept by the leveling effects of majority rule. He sees not just the tyranny of the majority but the hegemony of the median-a social attitude against exceptionalism or excellence or even just the right to be different. For Tocqueville, the danger is one of fostering a docile citizenry that will ultimately come to accept an equalitarian dictatorship formed out of intellectual pretensions simply because it doesn't know any better, or is afraid to challenge it.
     Yet Tocqueville also notes that Americans appear to distrust “intellectual systems” or theoretical solutions to real-world circumstances, preferring instead to concentrate on facts.  This observation fits well with his and many other author’s notions that centralized government, founded on broad intellectual principles, works poorly in practice because every rule, every  decision, every pronouncement—whether administrative, legislative, or judicial—does not fit either every person or every circumstance.  Distrust of theoretical systems also reflects

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the nineteenth and twentieth-century dislike of the Enlightenment’s good intentions, which almost invariably devolve into one-size fits all systems.  The theory is, this system will work because it is rational.  The problem is everyone is not rational in the same way; as well, human beings are not easily corralled into lock-step fealty when it comes to choices.  Thus good intentions are not sufficient to govern, we must also look at results, and if the results do not match the intentions, then the value of the intention or any action that springs therefrom, speaks for itself.
       To bring this concept forward to the twenty-first century, one might consider the effects of political correctness or its cousin moral relativism. A society where differences are seen as merely opposite sides of various coins and right and wrong essentially do not exist can ultimately lead to anarchy, or meekness in the face of despotism. As emotionally satisfying as social homogenization may seem at first, progress is never grounded on sameness but rather on unique and valuable differences.
     As fearful as some of Tocqueville's premonitions are he also argues the other side. He sees that an ability to ameliorate coercive majority rule (to ensure it would not become majority tyranny) rests in three uniquely American factors: strong and independent local government, the advantages of a socially mobile society, and the benefits of unfettered economic opportunity used to achieve self-sufficiency. As Tocqueville predicts, the ever-expanding grasp of federalism still fights for intrusive control at all levels of local and state government. He sees it as up to the citizenry to resist this intrusion into local and state affairs and incursion into the lives of individuals. He isn't sure the populace is up to this task because of its timidity in the face of idealized equalitarianism. Tocqueville is not so much pessimistic in these musings as realistic. He could not foresee how Power could be controlled by the populace but he is encouraged that in America's design there was at least a mechanism for allowing that to happen.
     In America's early years Tocqueville did observe a social structure that was fluid, a condition which served as a bulwark against class jealousies and warfare both then and now. He found that the vast majority of the people were "sufficiently well-off to desire order, but not so well-off to excite envy." With respect to government he states that the American electorate is not degraded by habits of subservience to laws and officials, especially to the nobility and a king as was the case in monarchical Europe. He sees that this condition could continue so long as the public, through its right to vote, chooses the laws and people to whom

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obedience will be due. In other words, Tocqueville sees democracy as potentially self-correcting with regard to most of the indignities and insanities that exist when power is concentrated, but only if the populace remains vigilant, as citizens, and does not become complacent, as subjects. His theories of what could happen, on the positive side, however, do not leave him sanguine. His understanding of human nature is his overriding concern thus he expresses anxiety about majority rule.
     Tocqueville considered local administration a powerful safeguard against corruption and oppression by either the national or state governments. He knew that a centralized administration simply couldn't run the whole country, even a nation as yet as uncomplicated as the United States was in 1831:

               However enlightened and skillful a central power may be, it cannot
               of itself embrace all the details of life. Such vigilance exceeds the
               power of man. And when it attempts unaided to create and set in
               motion so many complicated springs, it must submit to a very imperfect
               result, or exhaust itself in bootless efforts.

These comments are inevitably an oblique denunciation of the ultimate authority over every facet of life claimed by the French socialist state that had evolved in the aftermath of the Revolution of 1789.
     Tocqueville sees a partnership in America that was lacking in Europe:

               When the [American] state seeks to act, within its own limits, it is
               not abandoned to itself . . . the duties of private citizens are not
               supposed to have lapsed because the state has come into action:
               but every one is ready, on the contrary, to guide and support it.

     Yet, irrespective of any real or imagined citizen/government partnership Tocqueville still predicts the accretion of federal power through the "need" for policy to be guided in areas such as defense, transportation, and commerce that are inevitably national in scope. He expects these activities of the national government to proliferate and expand into control of ever more minor and local aspects of governance in order to achieve political or economic goals. It is an incontrovertible fact that bureaucracy feeds on itself. When we see today's federal

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government reaching down to the local level on issues such as welfare, health care, and education, and achieving ever smaller results, it is clear Tocqueville's fears were well founded.
     Tocqueville, remembering the excesses of Rousseau's idealized omnipotent democracy, expresses his own intellectually healthy fear of the majority:

               If it be admitted that a man possessing power may misuse that power,
               why should not a majority be liable to the same reproach? Men do not
               change their characters by uniting with each other. The power to do
               everything, which I should refuse to one of my equals, I will never
               grant to any number of them.

     Today, following the lode opened in Tocqueville's observation, we have seen those who wish to govern too often simply demand of the voters "Trust me." We hear the media or candidates
themselves speak of "mandates" when an office-seeker wins 55% (or even less) of the vote. Gaining 55% of the vote still leaves a substantial minority not necessarily in agreement with any supposed mandate. Although the intentions of those elected are often "good," Tocqueville knew there is too much risk in granting to any majority a blank check uncoupled from fiscal, personal, or corporate responsibility. This result was seen at the beginning of the twenty-first century as the newly majoritarian neoconservatives engaged in political sleight-of-hand that resulted in fiscally capricious programs such as the Medicare prescription drug benefit or the No Child Left Behind education mandates.
     Following this vein Tocqueville comments on the potential for excessive legislative and executive reach and the means by which such excesses could be curbed. He observes that his fear of the legislative majority or the electoral mandate is somewhat attenuated by the power of the judicial system. He views the ability of both elected and appointed judges to determine a law unconstitutional as one of the most powerful barriers that had ever been devised against the tyranny of politicians and political assemblies. Tocqueville and others were correct in viewing the judiciary as an antidote to oppressive legislative or executive grasp. They foresaw judicial control of extreme insults to the Constitution as a given; what they did not foresee, however, was the gradual debasement of Constitutional tenets through judicial interpretation and activism, and an omnivorous bureaucracy.

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     The compulsion of some in the judicial establishment to make judgments based on a "new era" or a new understanding often amounts to nothing more than the promulgation of law from the bench. In the end such actions are just as effective in changing the plain meaning of constitutional protections as would be any amendment to the document itself. This is primarily a twentieth- and twenty-first-century phenomenon that has yet to be resolved and can only be addressed by an informed and active electorate.
     As observant as Tocqueville is about so many negative possibilities he nevertheless sees an oppressive majority and an ever-intrusive federalism coming to fruition only in stages. In his view there is ample opportunity to employ counter-measures to retain what might be lost. For Tocqueville there is as much hope as gloom in all of this. If the inherent effectiveness of citizen activism is realized it will act as a check on the potential oppressions of the governors; the people can maintain control of their own destiny and Tocqueville's fears of the slippery slope to electoral or actual tyranny can be abated. Unfortunately, in significant measure the course and consequences he presciently predicts have come to pass. On paper we still retain a democracy but as always the devil is in the details. In America, many today feel the need to reassert the importance of Tocqueville's countervailing "details" to lessen the hegemony of base equalitarianism fostered by an increasingly centralized government.
     To a large extent the ability of the citizenry to control its government rests on what the people know. Tocqueville understood this correlation and dissects his era's media-newspapers and pamphlets-and their ability to encourage debate by spreading the word. He sees writers and editors as capable of creating groups of people who "will never meet, talk, study, or explore together, but who will nevertheless act as political blocs," (often today through political blogs). His observations are probably even more germane in the twenty-first century when the Internet and the media-much proliferated in terms of variety, numbers, and availability to citizens-operate so as to create even larger groups of unconnected but like-minded people. Ultimately, as Tocqueville foresees, we have created "mass civilization."
     Tocqueville opines regarding the media: "The evil they produce is much less than the evil which they cure." Some today would disagree, arguing that the immense amount of information-along with
concomitant misinformation and disinformation in quantities Tocqueville never imagined-actually has a negative effect. The sheer volume

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overwhelms the individual's capacity to comprehend even a portion, much less all that is available. A resulting inability to decide what is true, or truly best, ensues. The ultimate effect of this mass of media may be closer to intellectual paralysis than the systemic practicality Tocqueville hopes for.
     Tocqueville ultimately recognizes the power of ideas to thwart government compulsion, especially in cases when the media fails the public or even joins the tyrannical majority:

               Force is never more than a transient element of success, and after
               force, comes the notion of right.

Ideas Have Consequences (Chapter 35), The Commanding Heights (Chapter 29), The Road to Serfdom (Chapter 13), and other books reviewed in following chapters repeat this theme and offer myriad examples of its truth. Ideas are the salvation of the worried, the tool of the oppressed, and the bane of the powerful. They ultimately right our wrongs.
     The latter portions of this abridgment of Tocqueville's Democracy in America deal to a large extent with observations of the effect of majority rule and democracy on the personalities, habits, outlooks, achievements, and goals of American society. Tocqueville goes a considerable distance to demonstrate the direct relationship between the extent of democracy and what we would call today the "dumbing down" of citizens. Tocqueville predicts that as both democracy and commerce proliferate the individual can become marginalized with population growth and the need for overarching government uniformity in an increasingly diverse and complex society. On one occasion he discusses the potential for people to relinquish their individual character and thus, ultimately, their intellectual franchise:

               When neither law nor custom professes to establish frequent and
               habitual relations between men, their intercourse originates in the
               accidental similarity of opinions and tastes. In democracies, members
               of the community never differ much from each other, and naturally
               stand so near that they may all be confounded in one general mass.

     In juxtaposition to this, however, is the dynamism Tocqueville sees in American ambition and, especially, in its commerce. Without

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excessively belaboring the obvious, it remains true that his sometimes schizophrenic approach makes one wonder whether we are as monotonous and bland (and perhaps doomed) as he sometimes describes us. Is it true that ever-pressing majorities homogenize us and cause our differences to be trivialized, or is our individual freedom of choice and action always the antidote to mass society taking over?
     Tocqueville's overall observations on the differences between democratic freedom and democratic despotism-the latter expressed as the leveling effects of democracy gone too far-are as cogent and vital today as they were when he wrote them:

               There is nothing more arduous than the apprenticeship of liberty. It is
               not so with despotism: despotism often promises to make amends for
               a thousand previous ills: it supports the right, it protects the oppressed,
               and it maintains public order. The nation is lulled by the temporary
               prosperity, which it produces, until it is roused to a sense of its misery.
               Liberty, on the contrary, is generally established with difficulty in the
               midst of storms: it is perfected by civil discord: and its benefits cannot
               be appreciated until it is already old.

     Tocqueville warns that the greatest danger to a failed democracy is not anarchy, as would seem natural, but totalitarianism. "Nations are led away [by the principle of equality] to servitude, without perceiving its drift." Although anarchy is what appears to be happening initially, totalitarianism eventuates because the people's will is broken by anarchic actions; they give up and give in, in order to obtain security. In the face of anarchy security is more valued than freedom.
     As noted previously, Tocqueville foresees two great dangers for democracy: the accretion of central power because of administrative necessity, and the self-censoring fear of speaking up in an equalitarian society because we judge our opinions as no more valid than anyone else's. Here are the seeds of today's political correctness. These forces inure people to docility, and often strike them mute. Tocqueville proposes active freedom of expression as the remedy for this disease. He ultimately conveys confidence in the power of ideas and in the vehicle that carries those ideas, the human spirit. This is a lesson that, two centuries, later, still transfers well from Tocqueville's musings.
     Tocqueville introduces us to a thousand truths about a democratic society. All are tied up in the details of self-government exercised

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with care and corruption, fidelity and perfidy, by a people continually redefining and reinventing themselves. His time-honored observations on the human condition and its antidote, individual liberty, still define a practical framework.

About the Author
Born in 1805 into the French nobility, Alexis Charles Henri Clerel de Tocqueville was precocious, aggressive, inventive, and self-sufficient. His family was exiled after the revolution of 1830, but Tocqueville stayed in France, swearing allegiance to the new government. He obtained a French government grant to study the prison system in America and traveled around North America for three-quarters of a year during 1831-32. Publication of his preeminent work, Democracy in America, in two volumes in 1835 and 1840, made him both famous and sought after. Subsequent to the success of this book he led a rather quiet life, marrying an Englishwoman and accepting a series of minor posts in the French government. He forewarned of revolution in 1848 and endured the massive upheavals of 1848-49. He retired from public life in 1849 because of his poor health, suffering from a disease of the lungs. He moved south to a more temperate climate on a doctor's orders. Alexis de Tocqueville died in 1859.

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