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January 29, 2012


Reflections on Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America”

by Kyle Becker

The sense of bewilderment affecting the country-deprived patriot, who watches his beloved homeland crumble before his very eyes, is not a new phenomenon particular to the devout American. How a minority of oligarchical radicals could penetrate all spheres of government and civil administration, abetted and sanctioned by the schools, the courts, and the arts, is a perplexing and distressing reality to grapple with. The confidence in the center-right majority and the institution of elections has proved too great; the enemies of freedom and the Constitutional republic have circumvented our most potent barriers to unchecked democracy, have looted the treasury, destroyed all notion of civic rights, and brought the nation to the brink of despotism.

It would do us well to go beyond the founding to seek out the origins of our travails, to the hazy period of the mid-nineteenth century, and to parse the insights provided by the gifted French statesman by the name of Alexis de Tocqueville. The stranger in our nascent republic brought with him the penetrating intellect of the most enlightened political philosophers; perhaps even of a Montesquieu and certainly surpassing a Rousseau. A succession of passages, and but one among many such invaluable juxtapositions, deserves to be well-considered and pursued to its logical ends. The re-establishment of barriers to unlimited democracy, and the re-imposition of individual rights animating a Constitutional republic, are the daunting tasks to which this present generation is reconciled, lest the United States join the ranks of failed nations.

Ruminating on Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, revisiting passages over and over, glossing on the sparkling prose, gleaning some sense of where and when the great experiment went horribly awry, several strands of thought appear salient, and can be recombined in such a manner as to draw out new insights.  The book is not one to pick up and attempt to conquer in one sitting; it is more a resource to be pondered, and can shed new light on our condition depending not only on the most pressing affairs of the day, but on the disposition and focused perspicacity of the reader.

First, let us trace the role of political parties in bringing this country to the precipice of ruin.

In the absence of great parties, the United States abound with lesser controversies; and public opinion is divided into a thousand minute shades of difference upon questions of very little moment. The pains which are taken to create parties are inconceivable, and at the present day it is no easy task. In the United States there is no religious animosity, because all religion is respected, and no sect is predominant; there is no jealousy of rank, because the people is everything, and none can contest its authority; lastly, there is no public indigence to supply the means of agitation, because the physical position of the country opens so wide a field to industry that man is able to accomplish the most surprising undertakings with his own native resources. Nevertheless, ambitious men are interested in the creation of parties, since it is difficult to eject a person from authority upon the mere ground that his place is coveted by others. The skill of the actors in the political world lies therefore in the art of creating parties. A political aspirant in the United States begins by discriminating his own interest, and by calculating upon those interests which may be collected around and amalgamated with it; he then contrives to discover some doctrine or some principle which may suit the purposes of this new association, and which he adopts in order to bring forward his party and to secure his popularity; just as the imprimatur of a King was in former days incorporated with the volume which it authorized, but to which it nowise belonged. When these preliminaries are terminated, the new party is ushered into the political world.

All the domestic controversies of the Americans at first appear to a stranger to be so incomprehensible and so puerile that he is at a loss whether to pity a people which takes such arrant trifles in good earnest, or to envy the happiness which enables it to discuss them. But when he comes to study the secret propensities which govern the factions of America, he easily perceives that the greater part of them are more or less connected with one or the other of those two divisions which have always existed in free communities. The deeper we penetrate into the working of these parties, the more do we perceive that the object of the one is to limit, and that of the other to extend, the popular authority. I do not assert that the ostensible end, or even that the secret aim, of American parties is to promote the rule of aristocracy or democracy in the country; but I affirm that aristocratic or democratic passions may easily be detected at the bottom of all parties, and that, although they escape a superficial observation, they are the main point and the very soul of every faction in the United States.

To quote a recent example. When the President attacked the Bank, the country was excited and parties were formed; the well-informed classes rallied round the Bank, the common people round the President. But it must not be imagined that the people had formed a rational opinion upon a question which offers so many difficulties to the most experienced statesmen. The Bank is a great establishment which enjoys an independent existence, and the people, accustomed to make and unmake whatsoever it pleases, is startled to meet with this obstacle to its authority. In the midst of the perpetual fluctuation of society the community is irritated by so permanent an institution, and is led to attack it in order to see whether it can be shaken and controlled, like all the other institutions of the country.

It may be expanded that the democratic impulse towards equalization of property and conditions has permeated all spheres of American life. No business, no organization, not even national sovereignty itself is withstanding the onslaught. The society is breaking down in this nefarious, unhalting machinery. The result is a kind of national anomie described by Tocqueville.

But epochs sometimes occur, in the course of the existence of a nation, at which the ancient customs of a people are changed, public morality destroyed, religious belief disturbed, and the spell of tradition broken, whilst the diffusion of knowledge is yet imperfect, and the civil rights of the community are ill secured, or confined within very narrow limits. The country then assumes a dim and dubious shape in the eyes of the citizens; they no longer behold it in the soil which they inhabit, for that soil is to them a dull inanimate clod; nor in the usages of their forefathers, which they have been taught to look upon as a debasing yoke; nor in religion, for of that they doubt; nor in the laws, which do not originate in their own authority; nor in the legislator, whom they fear and despise. The country is lost to their senses, they can neither discover it under its own nor under borrowed features, and they entrench themselves within the dull precincts of a narrow egotism. They are emancipated from prejudice without having acknowledged the empire of reason; they are neither animated by the instinctive patriotism of monarchical subjects nor by the thinking patriotism of republican citizens; but they have stopped halfway between the two, in the midst of confusion and of distress.

In this predicament, to retreat is impossible; for a people cannot restore the vivacity of its earlier times, any more than a man can return to the innocence and the bloom of childhood; such things may be regretted, but they cannot be renewed. The only thing, then, which remains to be done is to proceed, and to accelerate the union of private with public interests, since the period of disinterested patriotism is gone by forever. (XIV)

One of the greatest problems facing Americans is their deluded belief that mixed government and mixed economy is able to function. Socialism was developed as a critique of capitalism with the aim of destroying it;  democracy is a form of government hostile to the animating principles of a representative republic. It delivers the state into the hands of a micro-managing bureaucracy, which consequently and ineluctably makes freedom for the individual impossible.

I do not think that it is possible to combine several principles in the same government, so as at the same time to maintain freedom, and really to oppose them to one another. The form of government which is usually termed mixed has always appeared to me to be a mere chimera. Accurately speaking there is no such thing as a mixed government (with the meaning usually given to that word), because in all communities some one principle of action may be discovered which preponderates over the others. England in the last century, which has been more especially cited as an example of this form of Government, was in point of fact an essentially aristocratic State, although it comprised very powerful elements of democracy; for the laws and customs of the country were such that the aristocracy could not but preponderate in the end, and subject the direction of public affairs to its own will. The error arose from too much attention being paid to the actual struggle which was going on between the nobles and the people, without considering the probable issue of the contest, which was in reality the important point. When a community really has a mixed government, that is to say, when it is equally divided between two adverse principles, it must either pass through a revolution or fall into complete dissolution.

I am therefore of opinion that some one social power must always be made to predominate over the others; but I think that liberty is endangered when this power is checked by no obstacles which may retard its course, and force it to moderate its own vehemence.

Unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing; human beings are not competent to exercise it with discretion, and God alone can be omnipotent, because His wisdom and His justice are always equal to His power. But no power upon earth is so worthy of honor for itself, or of reverential obedience to the rights which it represents, that I would consent to admit its uncontrolled and all-predominant authority. When I see that the right and the means of absolute command are conferred on a people or upon a king, upon an aristocracy or a democracy, a monarchy or a republic, I recognize the germ of tyranny, and I journey onward to a land of more hopeful institutions.

In my opinion the main evil of the present democratic institutions of the United States does not arise, as is often asserted in Europe, from their weakness, but from their overpowering strength; and I am not so much alarmed at the excessive liberty which reigns in that country as at the very inadequate securities which exist against tyranny. (XV:II)

The rift between the ruling class and the middle class has never been more gaping. The political elites share neither love of country with the people, nor respect for common decency and morality.

I have heard of patriotism in the United States, and it is a virtue which may be found among the people, but never among the leaders of the people. This may be explained by analogy; despotism debases the oppressed much more than the oppressor: in absolute monarchies the king has often great virtues, but the courtiers are invariably servile. It is true that the American courtiers do not say “Sire,” or “Your Majesty”—a distinction without a difference. They are forever talking of the natural intelligence of the populace they serve; they do not debate the question as to which of the virtues of their master is pre-eminently worthy of admiration, for they assure him that he possesses all the virtues under heaven without having acquired them, or without caring to acquire them; they do not give him their daughters and their wives to be raised at his pleasure to the rank of his concubines, but, by sacrificing their opinions, they prostitute themselves. Moralists and philosophers in America are not obliged to conceal their opinions under the veil of allegory; but, before they venture upon a harsh truth, they say, “We are aware that the people which we are addressing is too superior to all the weaknesses of human nature to lose the command of its temper for an instant; and we should not hold this language if we were not speaking to men whom their virtues and their intelligence render more worthy of freedom than all the rest of the world.” It would have been impossible for the sycophants of Louis XIV to flatter more dexterously. For my part, I am persuaded that in all governments, whatever their nature may be, servility will cower to force, and adulation will cling to power. The only means of preventing men from degrading themselves is to invest no one with that unlimited authority which is the surest method of debasing them. (XV:II)

The current trajectory of the country is anarchy fomented by and directed by aspiring tyrants.

Governments usually fall a sacrifice to impotence or to tyranny. In the former case their power escapes from them; it is wrested from their grasp in the latter. Many observers, who have witnessed the anarchy of democratic States, have imagined that the government of those States was naturally weak and impotent. The truth is, that when once hostilities are begun between parties, the government loses its control over society. But I do not think that a democratic power is naturally without force or without resources: say, rather, that it is almost always by the abuse of its force and the misemployment of its resources that a democratic government fails. Anarchy is almost always produced by its tyranny or its mistakes, but not by its want of strength.

It is important not to confound stability with force, or the greatness of a thing with its duration. In democratic republics, the power which directs *e society is not stable; for it often changes hands and assumes a new direction. But whichever way it turns, its force is almost irresistible. The Governments of the American republics appear to me to be as much centralized as those of the absolute monarchies of Europe, and more energetic than they are. I do not, therefore, imagine that they will perish from weakness.

If ever the free institutions of America are destroyed, that event may be attributed to the unlimited authority of the majority, which may at some future time urge the minorities to desperation, and oblige them to have recourse to physical force. Anarchy will then be the result, but it will have been brought about by despotism. (XV:II)

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Shutterbug
    Jan 30 2012

    Simply brilliant! Thanks for the post

  2. Jan 30 2012

    One vote for de Tocqueville. However, who are the radical plutocrats? I firmly believe that FDR saved capitalism in the 1930s. Strip away all the safety net and you may not be able to save it again. I certainly will not lift a finger to save the 1% if they persist in present-day greed.

    • Jan 30 2012

      The premise of your criticism that the top 1% income earners is “greedy” is that the gain of the wealthy necessarily comes at the expense of the poorer. This is erroneous. In fact, government has exacerbated the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest in a myriad of ways, but I will concentrate on the two most potent.

      In the first place, the Keynesian economic policy of intentional inflation furthered by a central bank disproportionately harms the poor and enriches the wealthiest and most connected. When money first enters the economy via banks, it is at its most valuable; “information” of the currency’s presence in the economy has not yet trickled throughout the system. That money is first invested in assets, loaned out, or even put into government bonds. The poor wind up with their savings eroded and their daily commodities increased in price.

      This central bank policy also abets politicians who seek to entrench themselves in office by bribing the masses with their own money. Without being able to perceptibly harm the great majority via taxation, the politician actually harms the poor in a two-fold manner: by spending money the government doesn’t have, aided by central bank practices; and by dispensing of various kinds of “public welfare.”

      It seems to be an inconvenient fact for liberals that welfare makes the poor poorer, and stratifies society further. It safeguards the place of the elites, and mollifies the unctuous proletariat. The human damage welfare has wrought can be seen across the country. The practice additionally expands the bureaucracy, which ossifies the economy, and utilizes resources for idle make-work. A most convenient arrangement for do-gooder liberals.

      Before the twentieth century began, the government consumed a total of about 2% of GDP for all its functions. Now we are fast approaching 40% of GDP, and much of that is being spent for debt financing of past indigence already consumed.

      How did the Americans survive in a vast, untamed wilderness without politicians safeguarding each person from every imagined ill? How did Americans manage to build the most powerful nation on earth in less than a century, with a modicum of assistance from government; namely, through the protection of property rights, the ensuring of contracts, the regulation of bankruptcies, and by assisting other basic practices of relatively free market capitalism?

      And furthermore, how was it in de Tocqueville’s day that equality of conditions was the unmistakable norm? The author writes about what happened from his day until now, with prescience and clarity: democracy tends towards equalization of conditions, and as barriers to democracy have been lowered, we find the majority rapaciously voting itself indulgences from the Treasury to the point that the nation’s finances are ruined. Without rules for economic order, or principles left for good governance, the country is certain to eventually collapse into anarchy and despotism. Unless, that is, more people understand this tendency of democracy and can reverse course before its too late. (And of course, de Tocqueville was well aware of socialism, and considered it a form of slavery.)

  3. shutterbug
    Jan 30 2012

    walthe310: please explain how FDR saved capitalism.


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