The Nineteenth Century was a period of great change, of revolution. It was during this time that the spirit of democracy swept across the continent of Europe, bringing the poor masses of people to flock to its banner, rising up against the aristocracies and monarchies of the era, and establishing new governments founded on the principles of liberty and equality for all. Or at least, that is the image that is commonly held today. At the time, democracy was new, and it brought with it an uncertainty that is, by its very nature, unsettling. While there were many great authors who wrote, contemplated, and discussed the ideals and consequences of the newfangled democracy, one in particular stands out as an figure of note, and that is the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville lived through a period of severe instability in the history of France, and saw first-hand the affects of the revolution to the French society. He is known best though for his two-volume work Democracy in America, in which he discusses the intricacies of democracy, and how it relates to the American States (these comparisons are drawn from the time that he spent in the United States). It is from this work that this essay will be based on. The question is, given his background and experience, was Tocqueville afraid of democracy? The answer to this question is self evident, and immediately apparent upon opening Democracy in America—he is terrified of it, and the threat that it represents to society, to a level bordering on religious terror. Moreover, he is also saddened by the great moderating force that, in his mind, the ideas of uniformity and equity bring to the world, blunting the extremes that to him, make the world so great. What is the more interesting, and more important question, which this essay will seek to explore is why Tocqueville was afraid of democracy, and, why he thought that the American Democratic Republic had been able to, and continues to, overcome the inherent problems with the democratic state, and thus maintaining liberty and equity for all of its citizens.
Tocqueville was first attracted to America because of the equality of conditions that it possessed—something that has not existed with liberty within the European continent. While equality of conditions did exist in Europe, it was equality under the rule of the aristocracy, in which almost all were in the same abject poverty. In America, this was different. In the United States, liberty and equality were a fundamental aspect of the founding of the state, with the English bringing with them the knowledge and positive valuation of the jury, of freedom of speech, of freedom of the press—which he views as vital in the maintaining of equity in a democratic state, when individuals are all relatively powerless when compared the the state—, a sense of the significance of individual liberty, the importance of independent courts, and the idea of individual rights. These together created a foundation for free institutions that did not exist on the mainland of Europe, which had spent its time under the control of various monarchies and aristocracies. This is one of the integral reasons why the United States is different, and an exception when discussing the habits and trends of democratic states and peoples, lying in the Providence of the United States (as does its isolation from other great powers, and its vast reaches, allowing for expansion without conflict and the ability to turn what would be vices—that being the desire for the accumulation of great wealth and the drive to be independent—actually serve to benefit the state, as it allows for the colonization of the extensive uninhabited parts of the nation, among other things). The other axioms that hold the American Democratic Republic together, keeping it from the ruin of tyranny, are the laws that it has, and the habits and mores it possesses.
As to the laws in which the United States has, Tocqueville is referring in particular to the administrative system of Federalism that exists within the United States, the political power that the town has, and subsequently the way in which power flows from the people and the town upward toward the federal governments, as opposed to the opposite in France, and the underlying foundations of the judicial system in the United States, and how it acts as a counterweight to the unchecked evils of democracy.
The model of federalism in which Tocqueville so greatly admires is based on the idea of decentralizing the administrative capabilities of the state. In France, there exists a hierarchy of the administration, with each level of administration accountable to the one above it, and with the eventual head of the administration, that being the monarch, accountable to the people, not in the way of being elected, but in the way that if he were to act against their interest, they would be able to rise up and overthrow him. With democracy, Tocqueville does not believe that this is possible, as each individual is quite weak, having surrendered their power to society, and through it, the state. Tocqueville believes that in order for the state to do anything substantial, it needs to have a certain degree of administrative centralization (with states being able to accomplish more the more centralized they become). However, administrative centralization also creates a government that is in the perfect set of conditions for despotism and tyranny to take hold. Federalism works to counter this, with the federal government making laws that apply to everyone, but only dealing with aspects of life and governance that are extremely specific, and laid out in the American Constitution, leaving all else up to the States. The States in turn legislate only on the issues that are held common between all of the counties that exist within its borders, and the counties do the same for towns—leaving the smallest political institution with a great deal of power, and spreading out the administrative duties of the government out across four different levels of government.
The political power of the town in America is, in itself, quite simple, and so it will not be explored in great detail. Suffice to say, towns are directly democratic institutions that see the most of the everyday needs of the people who live within them, and act as entities on the behalf of their citizens when dealing with the other levels of government, and due to their power as an entity, they have the ability to exert great influence over the proceedings of the county and the state.
Last on the list of the three things holding the American Democratic Republic from ruin is the court system that it has. What Tocqueville notes as important in the American court system is that it has a strong, independent judiciary, which he believes is vital if liberty is to reign supreme. The American judiciary is able to remain independent, and yet somewhat accountable, by the nature of jurists being appointed by the executive, and approved by the elite of the two branches of the legislature—that being the Senate, when regarding the federal Congress. After they have been appointed, however, the American jurist is able to exercise extreme freedom in the judging of cases, and of laws, for unlike in other states, the American jurist is able to act as a legislative agent in the sense that he can strike down or modify laws that are viewed as contrary to the Constitution of the country. This allows for the jurists to put an end to any laws that would seek to work against the democracy as a whole, which they—the jurists—are in favor of, for it favors them, thus forming a symbiotic relationship between the two. Together, these three facets of the American Democracy serve to counter the inherent problems of democracy, which we will now examine.
It was said by William Churchill in an address to the House of Commons that “democracy is the worst form of government, except all of the other forms that have been tried.” In this, Tocqueville would tend to agree Churchill. Tocqueville's fears of democracy are founded in the way in which democratic peoples think about themselves, and about the world. One of the core principles of a democracy is that all people who have suffrage—that being all of the citizens—are equal to each other, at least under the law. This is the important distinction between democracies and aristocracies, in the latter of which you have a small elite that are given the right to vote. In this form of government, you have an inequality that is then implicit between the aristocrats and everyone else. The benefit of this system is, according to Tocqueville, that because people are unequal, people have the ability to rise up against tyrannical forces, whenever they rear their head. This is not possible, in Tocqueville's mind, for democracies, as democratic peoples, believing themselves to be equal to all of their fellow citizens, and having sacrificed much of their own power to the state and to society, will not able to fight against a tyranny that installs itself within the state. Democratic peoples would argue that this is not a problem, as the society would stop the tyranny from materializing in the first place. This is, at least in Tocqueville's mind, not the case.
Tocqueville observes that when there is an equality of conditions within a society that the people of that society tend to stop believing in the supernatural. Instead, they move to believe in the greatness of human reasoning, a belief that he thinks is often inapt. This belief in human reasoning is then translated into a trust in the beliefs and decisions of the public, for such a vast amount of people is certainly incapable of being wrong. It is here that the danger that democracy represents begins to emerge. For, the belief in the public leads to ever more extreme consequences. First, with the belief that the public is going to be correct in its decision making, people are willing to sacrifice a great amount of their power as individuals to the state, since it is the greatest embodiment of the public and its opinion. This initial forfeiture is just the begin of the rights that will be given over to the state. Another cause of people willingly handing over their rights to the state is when they feel unsafe, or when they feel as if the peace of the society is threatened. This can be combined with, and exploited by the person or persons who are entrusted to lead the state, as Tocqueville notes that democratic people hate complicated things, and thus relegate enormous amounts of power to their leader or leaders, favoring simplicity over the potentiality of exploitation for tyranny and despotism. This, Tocqueville views, as one of the many weaknesses of democracy. It is a way in which it can be corrupted. So those are the avenues in which democracy becomes perverted, but what is the result of the perversion? Tyranny and despotism are warned of, but how do they manifest themselves while the state remains democratic, and does not fall to dictatorship?
There are two answers that are presented to these questions. The first is presented quite early on in Democracy in America, and the second comes near the end of the work. The first, and most simply form of tyranny that can exist within a democracy is the tyranny of the masses—or, by another name, the tyranny of the majority. Democracy, by its nature, works to benefit the greatest number of people, which is something to be admired about it. However, this can be abused. The worry of the tyranny of the masses is that the masses will use their power to oppress the minority of the society. In democracies like the United States, because they are set up to favor the majority, the institutions that exist within are made in such as way as to allow the majority to rule like a tyrant. A perfect example of this is the treatment of Japanese and Japanese-Americans in the United States during the Second World War, in which the majority decided that to deprive people of Japanese descent of their rights and their liberty for the duration of the war, fearing that they would pass along information to the Japanese Government, purely on the basis of their heritage. This suspension of the writ Habeas Corpus and to a free and speedy trial as guaranteed to everyone under the Constitution occurred because of the tyrannical majority. It is this kind of scenario that Tocqueville fears, though it is not the only form of tyranny that he fears comes from democracy. For, the tyranny described above is the tyranny of the democratic people, not the tyranny of the democratic state, which has the potential to be equally as terrifying.
The tyranny of the democratic state is resultant of the aforementioned process of the consolidation or centralization of the administration of a state into the hands of one person or a small group of persons, as well as the forfeiture of many or all of the rights of individuals to the government. This centralization seems to correspond with the level of equality in a society. As the government increases its power, it is thus able to increase the dependence that the individuals in the society have to it, and thereby is able to increase the state of servitude that individuals have to the government. As a result of the increased power, the government then begins to take over aspects of society and of life that were never before under the purview of the state during the times of the aristocracies. Among these facets of society that the government takes control of are charities, education, and industry. The cost of this now much larger administration is much higher than it was in the past, which then requires new avenues for the generation of revenue for the state, as cultivation of the lands held by the government and taxes no longer suffice. This leads to two problematic situations, in the eyes of Tocqueville, though I believe that only one of them would be considered a problem today, and that is the government having to take out loans from the rich, thus becoming debtors to them. The fear here is not that the rich will be able to ruin the economy by calling in the debt that the state has, as that would be counterproductive to do. No, the worry here is the undue amount of influence that the rich are able to gain by lending money to the government. By giving money to the state, they are able to make their opinions have more weight to legislators and the executive than those of the common people. This is an inherent threat to democracy. The other worry that Tocqueville has with funding is banks, and in particular those led by the state, however, as time as showed, banks are not to be feared, so long as there is regulation and an amount of banks that is great enough to prevent an oligopoly.
Now that the state has increased power, and the core of democracy is corrupted by the rich having undue influence, we can see the beginning of what Tocqueville fears is the tyranny that the state will exert. The tyranny that Tocqueville sees is one in which from birth, people are shaped by the government to fit a particular mold, a particular role for it. They are raised to do as they are directed by the state, to be docile, like a herd of sheep, with the government being their shepherd, constantly hindering them, and obstructing their liberty and their right to self determination. He believes this is possible for the reason listed above, but then also because he believes that, for the most part, a large amount of people want to be led. However, since they also want to be free, it ends up being that people essentially are choosing “freely” their masters, who they will then obey without hesitation. This is a tyranny that is unlike any of the others that has existed in the whole of Humanity's existence, and because of that, Tocqueville is afraid of it.
Earlier in this essay, it was mentioned that Tocqueville believes that everything is moderated by democracy. This is because democracy promotes unity and equity. This is a beneficial aspect of democracy in many respects, as it is able to abate poverty and hunger, and bring the masses of the uneducated into literacy. It also moderates the wealth of individuals, eliminating aristocracy. It can even, in Tocqueville's mind, moderate tyranny that will assert itself within democratic states and peoples. It also has negative effects, such as the moderation of great minds, and all other good extremes that exist in the world. Due to this, Tocqueville is saddened by the shift toward democracy, and the moderation it brings, for it, in his mind, makes life much less interesting and diverse.
It is quite clear and simple then what Tocqueville believes about democratic peoples and states. Tocqueville is both terrified of democracy, and also conceded that it is inevitable. He believes that democratic people, through their misplaced faith in human reasoning, give undue credence to the will and opinion of the majority, and thus, to the government. This power, and faith, can then be used and exploited by the government to gain additional power, and expand its influence into facets of life and society that until recently have been considered completely private matters. By amassing power at these levels, the state is then able to shape and control citizens at a subconscious level, and is able to deprive them of their right to self determination. The other aspect of this faith in the majority is that it allows for the majority to, on its own, act tyrannically toward minority groups, such as was done in World War Two with the Japanese internment camps, or as is still going on today with institutional racism in the United States, and elsewhere. Tocqueville does have some hope though in the stemming of the tyrannical tendencies of democracy, and those manifest themselves quite exemplary in the American Democratic Republic through its Providence, its laws, and its customs and mores.