Tocqueville and Democracy

Among Americans, French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville is best known for his commentary on American democracy. Among the French he is best known for his commentary on the ‘ancien’ regime and the revolution. Writing in the middle half of the 19th century, Tocqueville questioned why the Americans had launched a revolution aimed at establishing a free, stable and constitutional government and made a success of it, while the French had done the same and ended up lurching from one form of government to another, including another revolution. He was also astonished by the spectacle of American democracy and wished to understand how and why it worked.

Democracy in America – Volume 1

Tocqueville’s ‘Democracy in America’ is written in two volumes. The first is essentially an answer to the question of how the Americans maintain with such success a stable but lively democracy. Tocqueville argues that in the United States the people truly rule, and they rule without the danger of relapse into tyranny or anarchy. The United States has been able to avoid the greatest threat to a democracy – the tyranny of the majority. In the Hobbesian sense, Tocqueville considered sovereignty to lie with the majority, but if the majority is not answerable to the minority it is strictly speaking despotic. The system of checks and balances within the US constitution can severely frustrate the majority, but this is not the most important defence. Executive, legislature and judiciary are all elected, so all must reflect public opinion, but only of the majority. If all branches of government are in sway to public opinion then the checks between them are useless. The key defence is the weakness of American central government, in comparison to Tocqueville’s native France. Americans are self-reliant and manage affairs at the local level, which prevents nationally organised uniformity of opinion.

Tocqueville ends volume one with some sombre reflections regarding American Indians and black slaves. He had no doubt that the Indians were doomed to extinction and that for three reasons this was a moral disaster. The cruelty they were treated with was disgusting, the government had violated every treaty it had signed, and it was the destruction of an essentially aristocratic way of life that Tocqueville admired. Their virtues of honour and courage were exactly what democracies were in danger of losing. The situation of black slavery was intolerable, but Tocqueville was also concerned with the damage it was doing to America. He saw no happy outcome, even with emancipation. It was clear to Tocqueville that the southern states were doomed to backwardness compared to the north, and this would lead to resentment. Slavery was naturally suited to an agricultural economy, which could not match a modern industrial economy. Tocqueville had seen that even Americans in the northern states saw blacks as second class citizens, and anticipated that social apartheid would follow emancipation.

Democracy in America – Volume 2

The underlying theme of volume two is Tocqueville’s fear that individuals turn away from politics and society and look inwards. He called this ‘individualism’, and described both its dangers and the forces that resist it. The danger is that it makes society vulnerable to the tyranny of the majority, first discussed in volume one. To quote Tocqueville, it “reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd”. In a society without aristocrats and therefore natural leaders, associations were the cradle of democratic self-reliance. Americans set up societies, clubs and associations to achieve almost anything, such as establishing schools or building churches. These were generally non-political associations, but they fostered the skills of government, such that America was a genuinely self-governing republic. This was the main force resisting individualism. Tocqueville believed democracy has an inbuilt tendency to centralisation and big government. There was a danger that individuals would give in to the temptation to have the state do everything for them, but so far Americans had resisted.

L’ancien Regime

Tocqueville’s real concern is for the prospects of liberal democracy in France, rather than America. He was aware that Americans had not had to contend with the class hatreds left over from the ancien regime, or with the legacy of the French Revolution which made it almost impossible to agree on what a legitimate regime would look like. His ‘L’ancien regime’ was written to understand how the regime and subsequent revolution continued to affect French politics. In it Tocqueville refuted the claim that the revolution was caused by the intolerable misery of the French people. While a major factor was the failed harvests, it was not the rural peasantry that stormed the Bastille, it was the Paris mob led by members of the professional middle class. He employed what would later be called ‘reference group theory’ to explain this. Whether we feel happy or not depends not on our absolute situation but on our situation in comparison to those around us. The potential resentment is made worse if we start to improve our situation in relative terms but then find our progress blocked by others. The regime has allowed the middle classes to steadily improve their situation, but had then started to block their progress, including demands for constitutional reform.

The significant weaknesses of the ancien regime also helped cause the French Revolution. In order to increase its authority, the French monarchy had for centuries reduced the political power of the aristocracy, and compensated this loss with financial privilege. These privileges were not a legitimate reward for social function, and so the aristocracy came to be seen as a parasite by the poor. In addition, the closed caste-like system of the French aristocracy prevented the support of the middle classes. In contrast the British aristocracy were willing to accept into its ranks people who secured wealth and power through trade, and so the middle classes had a stronger stake in the system. The extreme centralisation of the state also meant that once the revolutionaries had Paris, the rest of the country followed relatively quickly.

Hegel, Mill and Tocqueville mark a period when liberals were asking how an egalitarian society can avoid being dominated by public opinion and the dead weight of the “mass”. Can members of a modern society be citizens as well as subjects, practicing self-government as well as benefiting from rational administration and efficient bureaucracy? The modern world was clearly very different to the ancient world, and this introduced a deep uncertainty about how different it might become in future. All three men were close enough to the French Revolution to agree that violent revolution was the method of last resort to affect change. Karl Marx on the other hand felt differently, and will be the subject of the next post.

If you are interested in finding out more about this topic, I strongly recommend getting a copy of Alan Ryan’s ‘On Politics’, which this blog is predominantly based on. Here are a few links you can use to find it:

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