Tocqueville’s Uneasy Vision of American Democracy


Did Tocqueville use deep realities about democracy or an evasion of it? Both. As for insight, he saw that there is nothing wonderful about counting votes: For people to accept one another as their equates to and co-rulers takes a fantastic act of creativity, sustained– or undermined– by millions of small acts in every day life. Democracy was not simply a new mode of government, but a new world, which would touch and change whatever within it. People would become both more particular of their private uniqueness and worth and more like one another, more generic, and from the hearth to the battlefield this new kind of person would do things in new methods. Part of the pleasure of checking out Democracy in America is the variety of its social observation and, indeed, large speculation on topics from American manners and marriage (unforced and egalitarian in both cases, Tocqueville thought) to aspiration (seldom lofty but intense) to the most likely future of democratic poetry and faith, which he expected would end up being abstract and pantheistic, at the same time customized and generic (spiritual but not religious, anybody?). Tocqueville saw that, in this changed world, politics would remain both harmful and vital, however in manner ins which altered with whatever else. If democracy did not mean a brand-new golden era of peace and virtue, as some of its giddier supporters pictured, nor the end of the world, as the Terror should have appeared to Tocquevilles own family, then the styles of political life would have to be rethought for a brand-new sort of life. His analyses of the tyranny of the majority, democratic despotism, constitutional ideology, and civic involvement were all contributions to this reassessing, updates of the extremely old styles of liberty and condition, tyranny and order, dispute and harmony, for a world of people who thought fiercely in their own equality.To state that democracy depends upon culture is close to a truism, though an essential one. Tocqueville thought that it depended on components of culture that a democrat might consider positively anti-democratic: an implicit agreement on what federal government need to do that prevented major questions of circulation or social organization from becoming political contests. Tocqueville abhored the socialism that rupture into French politics in the advanced battles of 1848, which he saw as seeking to “reverse … society itself.” Its doctrine that the masses ought to make a new social order, that the freedom of equals indicated satisfying and dignified work and the complete satisfaction of human needs, seemed to Tocqueville to guarantee initially the tyranny of the bulk– smashing existing laws, organizations, and judgment classes– and then democratic despotism, making the state “not just the director of society but also the master of each individual … his tutor, his instructor.” Tocqueville thought the Americans had actually avoided this trajectory with their localism, their culture of rights, and their constitutionalism. Their lesson for sustaining democracy was to take its pledge of equality, as the phrase has it, seriously but not actually.


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