Tocqueville: democracy in America

Tocqueville: democracy in America

TOCQUEVILLE: DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA Dr Imogen Peck University of Warwick FRENCHMEN IN AMERICA Gustave de Beaumont (18061866) Alexis de Tocqueville (18051859) Travel together to America in April 1831, arrive in May, and then return to France at the end of February 1832. DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA

Two volumes: 1835 and 1840. Ostensibly about America but actually about France? America as the most pure case of democratic revolution i.e. a transition from a land-based military nobility to a society of great diversity but without a dominant caste or class. This change inevitable; but its outcome is not. 'DEMOCRACY IN DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA Democracy as the Spirit of the Age Used in 2 ways: I. A society marked by equalisation of condition II. A form of political rule in which the people are sovereign How can you have a well-ordered society, if it is going to

be one marked by this equalisation of condition? What political form are going to be suitable to democratic society, and are going to protect peoples individual liberty? CL AIM I: GENERAL HISTORICAL THESIS OF TENDENCY TO EQUALIS ATION OF CONDITION Structure dominated by a few families. The power of the clergy is founded and increases. The clergy open their

ranks to commoner and noble; so, equality moves into government. 'the value attached to high birth declined just as fast as new avenues to power were discovered' Kings and nobles ruin themselves with war, while the lower orders enrich

themselves with commerce. Merchants and financiers take their place in government. Knowledge became an attribute of government FEATURES OF EQUALISATION OF CONDITION Fashion and consumption: inherently equalising. Development of science and knowledge increases: every addition to science, every fresh truth, and

every new idea became a germ of power placed within the reach of the people.... Rise of literary culture: Literature became an arsenal open to all, where the poor and the weak daily resorted to arms'. Everything contributes to advance the people against their rulers. This is an inescapable process a 'providential fact all have been blind instruments in the hands of God.' CL AIM II: TH IS P ROCESS IS NOT FULLY DETERM INED Could end in despotism

and tyranny a democracy abandoned to its wild instincts, as it was in France during the terror. Or it could end in a system in which liberty is preserved. CLAIM III: REQUIRES A NEW SECIENCE OF POLITICS One that is going to study democracy in its fullest and most peaceful form (i.e. America) is not just about legal and constitutional solutions Three major influences:

I. Geography and physical circumstances II. Laws III. Moeurs habits of the heart, the moral and intellectual condition of the people TOCQUEVILLE ON FREEDOM Freedom is central: i. For diversity ii. For security and prosperity iii. For virtue 'Freedom is in truth a sacred thing. There is only one

thing else that better deserves the name: that is virtue. But then what else is virtue if not the free choice of what is good. Reciprocal character of freedom and virtue. 4 WAYS DEMOCRACY THREATENS FREEDOM I. Tyranny of the Majority/of Opinion II. The valuing of equality above liberty III. The undermining of the conditions for sustaining a commitment to the public realm IV. The threat to freedom from centralized authority TYRANNY OF THE MAJORITY

government in America is the absolute sovereignty of the majority. State constitutions have done little to further and much to enhance this (although not the Federal constitution). It is achieved by dominance of people over the legislature through frequent elections. Government is subject to general convictions and the passions of the majority; representatives become delegates, their freedom of action restricted, so little room

for virtue and judgment. The power of the majority is irresistible: numbers outweigh all other factors. The minority TYRANNY IN AMERICA 'If an individual is wronged in the US, to whom can he apply for redress? If to public opinion, public opinion constitutes the majority; if to the legislative, it represents the majority and implicitly obeys it; if to the executive power, it is appointed by the majority and serves as a passive tool in its hands. The public force constitutes the majority under arms; the jury is the majority invested with the right of hearing

criminal cases; and in certain states even the judges are elected by the majority. However iniquitous or absurd the measure of which you complain, you must submit to it as well you can. Vol 1, p. 271 CHECKS ON TYRANNY 'If a legislative power could be so constituted as to represent the majority without being a slave to its passions, an executive so as to retain a proper share of authority, and a judiciary so as to remain independent of the other two powers, a government would be formed which would still be democratic while incurring scarcely any risk of tyranny.

(Vol I, p. 272) IMPACT OF TRYANNY ON OPINION 'the majority possesses a power which is physical and moral at the same time, which acts upon the will as much as upon the actions and represses not only all contest, but all controversy. I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America. Vol I, p. 273 In the American republics, where the majority is so absolute and irresistible, one must give up one's rights as a citizen and almost abjure one's qualities as a man if one intends to stray from the track it prescribes.

EQUALITY VS. FREEDOM Equality has a tendency to undermine freedom Need an elite to inspire respect and can act as a restraint the judiciary and law. 'The passion for equality may elevate the humble to the rank of the great but there exists also in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to attempt to lower the powerful to their own level and reduces men to prefer equality in

slavery to inequality with freedom. His concern is with the way in which France unleashed a series of forces in the revolution that its institutions could not control that the levelling spirit means that people will brook no authority and in that process, it will degenerate into anarchy that produces and necessitates, despotism cf Napoleon. DEMOCRACY AND INDIVIDUALISM Tendency for democracy to undermine the conditions for commitment to the public realm.

Democratic societies, by their obsession with equality, and associated obsession with material wealth, result in individualism, viz: i. faith in individual reason as the sole basis of opinion and belief and (relatedly) ii. self-centred, self-interested concentration on personal ends. Individualism is a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows and to draw apart with his family and friends, so that after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself. [] Selfishness blights the germ of all virtue; individualism at first only saps the virtues of public life; but in the long run it attacks and destroys all others and is at length absorbed into downright selfishness. THE EFFECTS OF INDIVIDUALISM The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent

and guided; men are seldom forced to act, but they are constantly retrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd. THREAT OF CENTRALISATION Individualism means centralised government will become more and more powerful, as we surrender more and more responsibility to government. Which we think serves our interests but in fact, it means that we collapse back into this private world.

'Private life in democratic times is so busy, so excited, so full of wishes and of work, that hardly any energy or leisure remains to each individual for public life. RESTRAINTS ONTYRANNY OF THE MAJORITY Separation of government from administration; local involvement as a breakwater against central power. Respect for legal profession Role of judges in American society Natural environment; laws, customs, manners and moeurs ('the whole moral and intellectual condition of a

people'). Religion Crucially religion, where a diversity of sects is combined with a universality of moral law; Christianity reigns without obstacle, by universal consent; the consequence is that every principle of the moral world is fixed and determinate, although the political world is abandoned to the debates and experiments of men...while the law permits the

Americans to do what they please, religion prevents them from conceiving, and forbids them to AMERICA VS FRANCE good manners and customs; strong religion; independent judiciary; multiple secondary associations and intermediary associations; separation of powers. In such a state freedom, and thus virtue, can be resiliently


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