Alexis De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America: An Animated Introduction to the Most Insightful Study of American Democracy

We can­not right­ly see our­selves with­out hon­est feed­back. Those who sur­round them­selves with syco­phants and peo­ple just like them only hear what they want to hear, and nev­er get an accu­rate sense of their capa­bil­i­ties and short­com­ings. And so the best feed­back often comes from peo­ple out­side our in-groups. This can be as true of nations as it can be of indi­vid­u­als, pro­vid­ed our crit­ics are char­i­ta­ble, even when unspar­ing­ly hon­est, and that they take a gen­uine inter­est in our well-being.

These qual­i­ties well describe one of the sharpest crit­ics of the Unit­ed States in the past two cen­turies. Alex­is de Toc­queville, aris­to­crat­ic French lawyer, his­to­ri­an, and polit­i­cal philoso­pher, who trav­eled to the fledg­ling coun­try in 1831 to observe a nation then in the grip of a pop­ulist fever under Andrew Jack­son, a pres­i­dent who became noto­ri­ous for his expro­pri­a­tion of indige­nous land, ruth­less relo­ca­tion poli­cies, and embrace of South­ern slav­ery. But the groups who flour­ished under Jackson’s rule did so with a tremen­dous enthu­si­asm that the French thinker admired but also viewed with a very skep­ti­cal eye.

De Toc­queville pub­lished his obser­va­tions and analy­ses of the Unit­ed States in a now-famous book, Democ­ra­cy in Amer­i­ca. Though we’ve come to take the idea of democ­ra­cy for grant­ed, for the young French­man, a child of Napoleon­ic Europe, it was “a high­ly exot­ic and new polit­i­cal option,” as Alain de Bot­ton tells us in his ani­mat­ed video intro­duc­tion above. De Toc­queville “pre­scient­ly believed that democ­ra­cy was going to be the future all over the world, and so he want­ed to know, ‘what would that be like?’”

With a grant from the French gov­ern­ment, De Toc­queville trav­eled the coun­try (then less than half its cur­rent size) for nine months, get­ting to know its peo­ple and cus­toms as best he could, and mak­ing a series of gen­er­al obser­va­tions that would form the vignettes and argu­ments in his book. He was “par­tic­u­lar­ly alive to the prob­lem­at­ic and dark­er sides of democ­ra­cy.” De Bot­ton dis­cuss­es five crit­i­cal insights from Democ­ra­cy in Amer­i­ca. See three of them below, with quotes from De Toc­queville him­self.

1. Democ­ra­cy Breeds Mate­ri­al­ism.

For De Toc­queville one kind of materialism—the exces­sive pur­suit of wealth—disposed the coun­try to anoth­er, “a dan­ger­ous sick­ness of the human mind”—the denial of a spir­i­tu­al or intel­lec­tu­al life. “While man takes plea­sure in this hon­est and legit­i­mate pur­suit of well-being,” he wrote, “it is to be feared that in the end he may lose the use of his most sub­lime fac­ul­ties, and that by want­i­ng to improve every­thing around him, he may in the end degrade him­self.”

De Toc­queville, says De Bot­ton, observed that “mon­ey seemed to be quite sim­ply the only achieve­ment that Amer­i­cans respect­ed” and that “the only test of good­ness for any item was how much mon­ey it hap­pens to make.”

2. Democ­ra­cy Breeds Envy & Shame

“When all the pre­rog­a­tives of birth and for­tune have been abol­ished,” wrote De Toc­queville, “when every pro­fes­sion is open to every­one, an ambi­tious man may think it is easy to launch him­self on a great career and feel that he has been called to no com­mon des­tiny. But this is a delu­sion which expe­ri­ence quick­ly cor­rects.” Unable to rise above his cir­cum­stances, and yet believ­ing that he should be equal to his neigh­bors in achieve­ments, such a per­son may blame him­self and feel ashamed, or suc­cumb to envy and ill will.

De Toc­queville was far too opti­mistic about the abol­ish­ment of “pre­rog­a­tives of birth and for­tune,” but many Amer­i­cans might rec­og­nize them­selves still in his gen­er­al pic­ture, in which “the sense of unlim­it­ed oppor­tu­ni­ty could ini­tial­ly encour­age a sur­face cheer­ful­ness.” And yet, De Bot­ton notes, “as time passed and the major­i­ty failed to raise them­selves, Toc­queville not­ed that their mood dark­ened, that bit­ter­ness took hold and choked their spir­its, and that their hatred of them­selves and their mas­ters grew fierce.”

3. Tyran­ny of the Major­i­ty

De Toc­queville, De Bot­ton says, thought that “demo­c­ra­t­ic cul­ture… often ends up demo­niz­ing any asser­tion of dif­fer­ence, and espe­cial­ly cul­tur­al supe­ri­or­i­ty, even though such atti­tudes might be con­nect­ed with real mer­it.” In such a state, “soci­ety has an aggres­sive lev­el­ing instinct.”

It wasn’t only attacks on high cul­ture that De Toc­queville feared, but what he called the “Omnipo­tence of the Major­i­ty,” a phrase he used to denote the pow­er of pub­lic opin­ion as an almost total­i­tar­i­an means of social con­trol. In vol­ume two of his study, pub­lished in 1840, De Toc­queville devot­ed par­tic­u­lar atten­tion to “the pow­er which that major­i­ty nat­u­ral­ly exer­cis­es over the mind…. By what­ev­er polit­i­cal laws men are gov­erned in the ages of equal­i­ty, it may be fore­seen that faith in pub­lic opin­ion will become for them a species of reli­gion, and the major­i­ty its min­is­ter­ing prophet.”

From this pre­dic­tion, De Toc­queville fore­saw “two ten­den­cies; one lead­ing the mind of every man to untried thoughts, the oth­er pro­hibit­ing him from think­ing at all.”

De Bot­ton goes on to dis­cuss two close­ly relat­ed cri­tiques: democracy’s sus­pi­cion of all author­i­ty and its under­min­ing of free thought. Rather than encoun­ter­ing the kind of mar­ket­place of ideas the coun­try prides itself on fos­ter­ing, he found in few places “less inde­pen­dence of mind, and true free­dom of dis­cus­sion, than in Amer­i­ca.” The crit­i­cism is harsh, and De Toc­queville did not flat­ter his hosts often, and yet for all of its “inher­ent draw­backs,” De Bot­ton writes at the School of Life, the French­man “isn’t anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic.”

His aim is “to get us to be real­is­tic” about demo­c­ra­t­ic soci­ety and its ten­den­cies to inhib­it rather than enlarge many free­doms. As Arthur Gold­ham­mer observes at The Nation, De Toc­queville believed that “True free­dom lay not in the pur­suit of indi­vid­u­al­is­tic aims, but “in ‘slow and tran­quil’ action in con­cert with oth­ers shar­ing some col­lec­tive pur­pose.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Why Socrates Hat­ed Democ­ra­cies: An Ani­mat­ed Case for Why Self-Gov­ern­ment Requires Wis­dom & Edu­ca­tion

20 Lessons from the 20th Cen­tu­ry About How to Defend Democ­ra­cy from Author­i­tar­i­an­ism, Accord­ing to Yale His­to­ri­an Tim­o­thy Sny­der

Bertrand Russell’s Ten Com­mand­ments for Liv­ing in a Healthy Democ­ra­cy

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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