By identifying and attempting to ameliorate democracy’s paradoxical excesses toward conformity and individualism, Alexis de Tocqueville sought to make democracy safe for liberty and to promote an ennobled, rather than a debased, form of equality.
Among conservatives and liberals alike, the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville is perhaps the most often quoted political theorist of democracy. In the words of Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop, Tocqueville’s two-volume work Democracy in America (1835) remains “at once the best book ever written on democracy and the best book ever written on America.” Touching on themes and conditions that have in some cases only become apparent to Americans themselves more than a century and a half after his 1830–31 visit to the United States, Tocqueville argued that democracy was a “providential” new political arrangement of modernity, a regime legitimated not only by the official activities of voting and representation but more importantly, a radically new social arrangement based upon “equality of conditions” that transformed every aspect of human life and from which all of democracy’s unique virtues and vices flowed.
In using the phrase “equality of conditions” Tocqueville did not refer to the literal material equality of all American citizens, but rather the universal assumption that no significance was to be accorded any apparent differences—material, social, or personal. This assumption led to suspicion and the ultimate demise of aristocratic claims to excellence. Since every person’s judgment is to be regarded as equal to one’s own, the sole basis of determining the legitimacy of public issues is by means of majority rule. Regarded by Tocqueville as the “dogma of the sovereignty of the people,” this form of rule—founded on the apparently benign principle of equality—in fact leads to the belief that the opinion of the majority on any specific issue is unassailable and must be followed. While Tocqueville knew that in America the actual physical repression of a dissenting minority was rare (though not unheard of), the result of such equality in mass democratic society is the ever-present potential for a “tyranny of the majority,” which bases its claim to rule upon numbers, not upon rightness or excellence. The fear of such a tyranny results in a new form of internalized psychological control, an anticipation of disapproval by majorities and a concomitant attempt to avoid public commitment on any issue. In such a context, the best means of avoiding public indignity is to retreat to the private dignity afforded by one’s intimate family circle.
For Tocqueville, fear of “tyranny of the majority” leads to the rise of “individualism,” a sense of personal significance that results from interaction in one’s “little society.” This sense of personal potency, which paradoxically stems from a loss of actual influence in political life, forces democratic man to retreat constantly before the potential indignities of public life in order to support his belief in his personal private significance. Democratic man is marked by an anxiety that this sense of individual potency might be lost at any time, which in turn creates universal democratic “restlessness,” a form of mobility and crass materialism intended to add to each person’s sense of individual significance. In fact, this “restlessness” becomes a perpetual state of motion and discontent, a grasping search for something better that cannot be satisfied. The attempt to find dignity in private life, both by means of an increasingly narrow circle of acquaintances and by engaging in an unending pursuit of trivial material pleasures, has the ironic effect of only increasing democratic man’s felt sense of indignity and weakness.
In such a condition, the great danger for democracy, according to Tocqueville, is the rise of “democratic despotism,” a benign form of social control by a centralized bureaucratic state supported by a weakened and isolated citizenry. Unable to turn to their wider circle of acquaintances and fellow citizens for assistance during hard times, democratic citizens turn instead to the state, “an immense tutelary power” that “takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watches over their fate.” The rule of such a state is “mild” and “does not tyrannize,” but rather “hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.” Tocqueville feared that the price of equality was the willing loss of liberty, and he therefore admonished democracies to guard against this deceptively gentle form of democratic tyranny.
Tocqueville recommended two strategies for democratic citizens who would resist isolation and weakness and attempt to maintain or regain their personal and political dignity. He recommended active participation in associations within civil society, by means of which one could find others who held similar views—even as one’s own views might be enlarged—and thereby resist the psychological fear of the tyranny of the majority. And he further argued that democracy ultimately required firm religious commitments, which would curb individu-alism’s worst excesses by instilling in persons a sense of dignity and humility. By identifying and attempting to ameliorate democracy’s paradoxical excesses toward conformity and individualism, Tocqueville sought to make democracy safe for liberty and to promote an ennobled, rather than a debased, form of equality.
Republished with gracious permission of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (March 2011).
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The featured image is an oil of canvas painted in 1850 by Théodore Chassériau and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.