If Alexis de Tocqueville was right in observing that the American nation insists upon “perpetual adoration of itself,” why have Americans been such devoted readers of Democracy in America for almost two centuries now? Maybe initially Americans mistook the title itself for praise: Surely the author means that democracy in America is a good thing in a good place. And, indeed, in his introduction to volume one (published in 1835), Tocqueville attributed the democratic revolution to God’s providential will, with America being a chosen nation of sorts, since it had most completely attained “equality of conditions.” God’s will notwithstanding, Tocqueville quickly and emphatically made clear that he would not be joining the democratic choir: “One would be strangely mistaken to think that I wanted to make a panegyric.” In the notice that opened volume two (1840), Tocqueville again highlighted his “severe words” for us and for democracy.
Among the severest was his statement that because of the tyranny of majority opinion, “there is no freedom of mind in America.” Political correctness reigns. The majority craves adulation, and even the minority who know better cravenly comply. Tocqueville, however, did note that “only foreigners or experience can make certain truths reach the ears of the Americans.” On this 150th anniversary of Tocqueville’s death, it is clear that the French nobleman has become our favorite truth-telling foreigner, especially as experience has so often confirmed his foresight. Interestingly though, the more we turn to him and his “new political science,” the more we have a chance of invalidating his most unflattering observations and most dire predictions. With Tocqueville as our guide, independence of mind might be declared.
Tocqueville had a knack for extrapolation. He was, of course, a penetrating observer of political and social life, but he always strove to see what was in front of him not just today but tomorrow. He had both insight (contemporaneous) and vision (prospective). As he stated in the last line of his introduction: “I wanted to ponder the future”—especially, the perils of the democratic future.
Why focus on the perils? Was Tocqueville, to the manor born, an enemy of democracy? He explicitly denies it: “It is because I was not an adversary of democracy that I wanted to be sincere with it.” Though not an adversary, he doesn’t quite say he is an advocate either: “Men do not receive the truth from their enemies, and their friends scarcely offer it to them; that is why I have spoken it.” Neither adversary nor advocate of democracy, Tocqueville is nonetheless sincerely interested is us and the new ordering of the soul and society that we exemplify.
Although Tocqueville lays claim to a new political science, in many respects he fits the description of Aristotle’s “expert in politics” who always tacks against the prevailing political wind and thereby keeps the regime on an even keel. Aristotle, for instance, says that democracy is preserved not by making democracy more extreme, but rather by moderating it with oligarchic and aristocratic elements. Our Founding Fathers understood this as the distinction between a pure or direct democracy (bad) and a complex republic (good). Tocqueville extends this method of diagnosis and treatment beyond political institutions to encompass our entire way of life.
He examines how ideas, sentiments, and mores are affected by the impulse to equality, which he calls the “primary” or “generative” fact of American life. He shows how family, religion, and language are profoundly transformed and recast. He shows as well how this reign of equality might be perfectly compatible with despotism—might in fact tend in that direction. Already visible in America was tyranny of the majority; looming in Europe was the possibility of the tyranny of one alone (presiding over subjects equal in their debasement).
Neither of these dangers was new; Aristotle had described both at length. What was new, however, was the unchallengeable dogma of equality which undercut the “natural” sources of resistance to tyranny—pride, honor, ambition, and the noble love of liberty. In the tremendous culmination of his reflections in volume two, Tocqueville sketches a third shape that tyranny might take: the administrative despotism of the nanny state—all-caring and all-controlling. This was a genuinely new and portentous modern threat.
Here again, the Americans were exemplary, for their political practices and especially their mores often served as remedies for these democratic diseases. Among the things Tocqueville mentions favorably: administrative decentralization, from federalism down to the New England-style township; the idea of individual rights, which can counter the leveling effects of democratic envy; the prominence of lawyers who breathe a conservative element into the system by virtue of their penchant for order and formality; the status of religious belief in America (Tocqueville calls religion “the first of their political institutions”—despite the fact that religion “never mixes directly in the government of society,” it “singularly facilitates their use of [freedom]” by making women and men moral); the American knack for forming associations encouraged by an enlightened and expansive conception of self-interest that links self to others, thus overcoming the isolating effects of individualism; and finally, my personal favorite, “the superiority of its women.”
Superior to whom one might ask—well, superior certainly to those pampered dolls in Europe; Tocqueville says that American women are serious partners in serious tasks (like settling the frontier) who are accorded respect rather than compliments by their men. But he also hints that American women, since they are less democratized, are superior to American men. Despite being the intellectual and moral equals of men, American women accept (or better, they knowingly choose) economic and political inequality. For the sake of the domestic happiness of all (children, men, and themselves), women remain in the domestic realm. Their resistance to the thoroughgoing application of equality involves a measure of noble self-sacrifice. Although the principle of equality renders wives equal to husbands, nonetheless Americans avoid the disintegrative effects of equality by a special understanding of sexual equality that enshrines sexual differences. Instead of an androgynous ideal (which only produces “weak men and disreputable women”), they opt for “separate but equal” with complementary roles and complementary virtues. Obviously, over time many American women decided they preferred democratic justice (the suffrage, economic independence, and the demise of the sexual double standard) to the consolations of nobility. Nonetheless, despite the changes we have undergone since Tocqueville’s visit, Americans have not entirely abandoned the model of marital bliss that he recommended, nor have they stopped wondering whether the changes have, in fact, been all to the good.
Whether his descriptions of us still hold or not, Tocqueville is invaluable. Reading him is like running a virus-scan on the American polity. How healthy are those immune functions like federalism and the jury system? Does religious belief still protect us from willfulness on one side and despair on the other? If not, what can be done? We should remember Tocqueville’s message to his homeland, for he wrote Democracy in America as much for France as for us. Tocqueville knew that the remedies America had developed (particularly those rooted in mores) were not native to France. He did not propose that they could be directly imported or transferred. However, neither did he resign himself to American exceptionalism. As he explained, “My goal has been to show, by the example of America, that laws and above all mores can permit a democratic people to remain free.”
The American combination of equality and liberty is offered neither as the rule, nor the exception, but rather as a paradigm, a proof of possibility. The ways and means by which equality and liberty could be balanced may look quite different in a democratized Old World, and quite different again in twenty-first century America. It may not be possible for us now (any more than Europe then) to reinstate the precise protections that Tocqueville described. However, if we are friends of liberty—and Tocquevilleans are—then we might find and craft new protections, suited to current circumstances. Tocqueville’s “new political science” looks to revive the ancient (and aristocratic) love of liberty and reincarnate it in fresh and perhaps surprising forms. In the end, the modern friends of liberty are also the rarest friends of democracy—those who through their constructive opposition make possible the regime’s perpetuation.
Diana Schaub is professor of political science at Loyola College in Maryland and a member of the Hoover Institution’s Task Force on the Virtues of a Free Society.