“Democracy in America” by Alexis de Tocqueville


Equal conditions impact on the functioning of American democracy. Although it seems very contemporary, this obsession has a clear precedent in one of the fathers of liberal republicanism, Alexis de Tocqueville. This academic and politician of French origin established in one of his most influential works, Democracy in America, one of the fundamental pillars of the political thought of his time. In his work, resignation before the arrival of a new world is mixed with a conscientious analysis of the spirit that leads to the emergence of the young democracy of the United States.  For him, there is an inevitable trend towards a world in which the passion for equality will forever be at the center of all things. Work of Tocqueville questioned whether that passion inevitably drags us into tyrannical individualistic selfishness or democracy can have redemption that makes us all free citizens. Tocqueville was liberal in temperament and training, but aristocrat by the condition. Seeing and living in the United States what he called \”a level playing field,\” and its impact on the structuring of power and the political system, he raised alarms for system reforms (De Toqueville, 2019).

Equal conditions effect

Given the character of \”providential fact\” that the expansive principle of equality had, Tocqueville did not consider the absurd attempt to stop the advance of that principle in his native place, to which he would arrive sooner or later to dismantle the immutable structures of the social order. He understood that in a democratic regime, when the associative natural forms of the aristocratic regime no longer existed, individuals would be exposed to isolating themselves from one another and being oppressed by what he called the \”soft despotism\” of a political power elected by the people, but without the necessary social and not only institutional balances. From there, he derives all his thought about the importance of individuals finding different ways of associating around their particular interests, union, or public interest as a way to create the mechanisms of containment and balance that individuals, isolated from each other, could not achieve (Swedberg, 2018).

In any case, the starting point of his reflection is the principle of equality and its intrinsic force to bring down hierarchies, privileges, and exclusions. Thus, in another of his sharp observations, he stated: \”It would be incomprehensible if equality did

not end up penetrating the political world as well as the rest. It cannot be conceived that there are eternally unequal men in one point and equal in all the others. They will end, then, in a given time, for being equal in everything\”. As stated, Tocqueville wrote these ideas with a warning tone to the members of his aristocratic class to prepare to accept what would come sooner or later. But the validity and freshness of the same would suggest that they were written by some postmodern thinker of those who tends to be in vogue from time to time. It means that the warning is also valid for the present time. The discourse of non-discrimination for reasons of race, sex, color, religion, sexual preference, political or philosophical opinion, disability, social or personal condition necessarily connects with that Tocquevillian intuition about the expansive and unstoppable nature of the principle of equality. It is a principle, of course, that frightens and intimidates since, on many occasions, it strongly calls into question forms of social structuring that we believe to be natural and imperishable, or that subverts deep-rooted moral and religious beliefs that we believe to be absolute and indisputable (De Toqueville, 2019).

In Tocqueville\’s time and society, the issues \”threatened\” by the principle of equality were others – fundamentally the hierarchical, closed, and privileged social order of aristocratic society – but the great contribution of this fine thinker was to capture how he was doing. He called to operate that principle that he first saw in practice when he toured the different States, counties, cities, and communities of the United States of that time. Today, the demands for equality are of other types, although the fight for political equality and democracy is always present even in democratically established societies. People can see women demanding equal conditions in the labor market or in the spaces of representation and political leadership of society.

Equality and individualism

Various interpretations of the term democracy have been given out of which the two meanings can be highlighted in Tocqueville\’s work: democracy as a political regime, which forms the first part of Democracy in America, and democracy as a social state analyzed in the second. The first part of the interpretation refers to political forms of some kind to make up the democracy. However, as per Tocqueville, it rather refers to a social state that has equality as a significant underlying principle in its core. The other definition refers to the fact that the status of all people should be free of hereditary variances and dignity, honor, occupations are meant to be accessible to everyone. The social and political ties that united human beings have been broken. Presently we as a whole face each other as equivalents, free yet in addition frail. This reality definitely prompts the spread of independence. Everyone turns into the focal point of a modest private universe, with its quick hover of family members and companions, and dismisses society on the loose. A passion for well-being and material comforts, a concern for the private good, excluding all consideration of public affairs, and an inevitable mediocrity are all the aspects he saw. It could be said that when echoes are heard about the loss of identities (class, national ) or the crisis of values – the constant criticism of young people – it seems that we have been going around in circles for two hundred years (Li, 2020).

Individualism in the views of Tocqueville is a natural state, but when coupled with a level playing field, it stimulates a ravenous thirst for material luxuries. All avenues have been opened towards satisfying the desire for well-being in overwhelming competition – the self-made man, the entrepreneurial. However, Tocqueville\’s main thesis is to define a level playing field as the basis of the democratic human\’s desire structure. But be careful, because that equality is not a real state of things, it is a perception. What is new is not so much social mobility as people living in unequal conditions feel the same. This generates tension; the restlessness derived from the social expectations created by democracy and the real possibilities of fulfilling them. As Alexis de Tocqueville put it emphatically, in America, there are many ambitious people and no great ambition(Li, 2020).

The vanity that Tocqueville discovers in America, the need for flattery, is restless, ambitious, and always linked to material desire. In different passages, Tocqueville wonders with some bitterness the reason why in democratic peoples, the love for equality is more ardent than the taste for freedom. In his view, such an inclination is due to the fact that, while equality appears as a free gift, freedom is a good that must be fought for. Also, the charms of freedom are discovered in the long term, while equality offers goods that can be quickly enjoyed. Here is the so-called \”childhood disease of democracy.\” The comfortable is the enemy of the free. A strong sense of independence is created among people when they abandon the public sphere making them believe to be self-sufficient. The withdrawal into domestic intimacy leads to a progressive obsession with its mere material interest. Individualism begets, according to Tocqueville, a weak human type, characterized by being moderate but without virtue or courage.

The fundamental paradox of democracy, as Tocqueville interprets it, is that a level playing field is as compatible with tyranny as it is with freedom. Freedom requires effort and vigilance; it is difficult to reach and easy to lose. Its excesses are evident to all, while its benefits can easily escape our attention. On the other hand, the advantages and pleasures of equality are felt instantly, without requiring any effort. According to their conception of equality as a \”state of mind,\” people are driven to desire goods that they cannot obtain, but competition is such that everyone has little chance of realizing their ambitions. Furthermore, the struggle to satisfy these desires is not equitable; victory is inevitably for those with superior abilities. In this way, democracy awakens an awareness of everyone\’s right to all the advantages of this world but frustrates men who try to achieve them. This frustration causes envy. For this reason, man seeks a solution that satisfies his most intense desire, freeing him from the anguish that this causes him. In this way, equality prepares a man to dispense with his freedom to safeguard equality itself. In a society in which everyone is equal, independent, and powerless, there is only one means, the State, especially capable of accepting and supervising the surrender of freedom.

Tocqueville calls our attention to the growing centralization of governments: the development of immense tutelary powers that willingly accept the burden of giving comfort and well-being to their citizens. Hence, democracy creates a new form of despotism: society tyrannizes itself (Sonin, 2018). For the French author, the apparent homogeneity of democratic society hides that talents are inexhaustible sources of heterogeneity since intellectual capacity is unevenly distributed. The many, if they recognize these facts, try to annul them. Thus they substitute the intellectual superiority of the few for superiority due to considerations of quantity. This, Tocqueville observes, points to a new phenomenon in human history that would obsess all the liberalism of the time. The tyranny of the majority requires conformist behavior. Holding an opinion contrary to the established one in an important matter is not only reckless or useless; it is almost dehumanizing. The majority tyranny over the spirits of those who hold a contrary, and better-founded opinion makes democracy\’s disposition to mediocrity absolute (Morgan, 2018).In America, Tocqueville refers, the majority exercised legislative omnipotence, placing themselves above the executive power (due to the importance that assemblies assumed in daily life) and the judiciary (since judges were also elected by the people). But the majority exercise their tyranny mainly through social conformity. Thus, it acts on the freedom of the press and imposes subtle censorship weakening the independence of judgment and the ability to criticize until influencing the national character – again, and it sounds familiar. Broken nonconforming opinion exerts intellectual violence that engenders a general state of passivity and apathy that opens the doors to this new form of despotism (Strausz-Hupé, 2018).

While previous authors had viewed fostering parties, factions, or associations as a dividing measure in society, Tocqueville considered them absolutely essential to the well-being of democratic society. Far from contributing to the destruction of the unity of society, associations overcome the divisive propensities of democracy. In the acts that accompany the organization and operation of an association, individuals learn the art of adapting to a common purpose. One has to associate. One has to participate. Of course, we have heard this many times (to the left and right), and in that vein is Tocqueville, who saw in the associations a means not only of softening the majority tyranny but also of overcoming that mediocrity to which democracy was prone(Strausz-Hupé, 2018).The evolution of a sense of public morality, out of the spirit of extreme individualism that characterizes democratic times, is the obsession of almost all of Tocqueville\’s work. And for the French author, the most effective antidote against individualism is undoubtedly participation in collective affairs. If men are not to be withdrawn from their own domestic circles altogether, if the public spirit is not to have utterly vanished, men must be taught that out of enlightened self-interest they will need to constantly help one another, sacrificing part of their time and wealth to the well-being of the community (Henary, 2014).

The duty of the citizen

Perhaps Tocqueville\’s most interesting contribution is that he overcame classical liberalism by trying to reconcile the inheritance of Constant and Rousseau. That is, on the one hand, the freedom of the moderns, limited sovereignty, the value of private independence. On the other, the freedom of the ancients, popular sovereignty, the imperative of public participation can also play their role. In this sense, he predicted that the love of equality could become its opposite, in the surrender of despotism. This fear is something that runs through many authors behind it.Tocqueville also warns vehemently of the dangers inherent in excessive individualism. For him in this phenomenon, there is an erroneous notion of freedom, understood as a right and not as a duty. Their fundamental problem is how to make the individual a citizen. The main obstacle to carrying out such an undertaking, the individualism that dries up the public virtues and leaves the individual alone in front of the State, producing a social and political vacuum that the bureaucracy is preparing to fill. In contemporary societies, by far much more individualized than those that Tocqueville lived in, where the intermediate bodies go down, where, as Robert Putnam said, we bowled alone, these fears seem very true. The loss of value of associating and doing things in common, that artificial vehicle to overcome our selfish interests is warning signs. However, the Tocqueville reflection always helps that there are past times that will not return and that, whatever the new time may be, it must be done differently (De Tocqueville, 2015).

It is true that, as a good republican, a demanding moral perspective predominates in Tocqueville; Participation in public affairs is essential. Of course, Tocqueville\’s basic assumption is that men have real alloying power in politics. His optimism in this regard was never extinguished. Because of that faith in the human condition, he attacks in his works any determinism that belittles our individual responsibility as citizens. The exercise of freedom is a continuous tension between different forces: it is a struggle against the State, against a tyrannical majority – modern Leviathan in democratic disguise – and against man himself, split between his passion for comfortable equality and the rational exercise of your citizenship (Sonin, 2018).Democracy in America is a political treatise devoted to the problems posed to France at that time by the conjugation of the principles of equality and freedom. It is a treaty about democracy as a social state generated by the equality of conditions between citizens and, therefore, it is a study of the differences and, in relation to the European continent, of the process of change between aristocratic institutions and the democratic ones. The field for the study of all this, with constant use of England and France as terms of comparison and discussion, for a kind of elaboration of ideal types, both of democracy and aristocracy, is provided by the United States of America. It is, therefore, a work dedicated to that political novelty that was a democracy but on the subject of American democracy. And it was to talk about something new because the democracies of Antiquity were not, in the author\’s opinion, useful for comparison and because the modern concrete realization of democracy that could be observed in the New World was pioneering and, at that time, unique. Above all, for a liberal aristocrat like Tocqueville, to expect and fear equality for the destiny of freedom is an idea that was integrated into this (Morgan, 2018).


Alexis de Tocqueville\’s Democracy in America is not a history book, although history is not lacking among its pages, and it is not, therefore, an American history book. So much so that it even reveals insufficient knowledge of the history of the American colony. At least this was said of him immediately after the publication of the first part, and somehow it was an observation that Tocqueville expected. Perhaps in this regard, it is quite significant that he writes at the beginning of his book (note on chap. II) a long, commented list of historical works on the United States for the interested reader. In any case, Democracy in America is not, was not going to be, a history book, and it was not, consequently, an American history book either. But this does not mean that, in Tocqueville\’s opinion, history can be dispensed with for the explanation of the present. On the contrary, even less in the case of the United States. For if what happens is that, according to Tocqueville, in most cases, the recourse to history is hardly illuminating because men have managed to obscure it entirely, from which the limitations of the historical method in certain cases, is not precisely this. According to the conception of equality as a \”state of mind,\” people are driven to desire goods that they cannot obtain, but competition is such that everyone has little chance of realizing their ambitions. Today, the demands for equality are of other types, although the fight for political equality and democracy is always present even in democratically established societies. People can see women demanding equal conditions in the labor market or in the spaces of representation and political leadership of society.


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