If democracies have an obvious defect, incomplete or imperfect laws, Tocqueville argues that it takes more time and care to study democracies’ advantages. Democratic legislation tends to promote the welfare of the many, rather than the few—but that’s the extent of its advantages. Aristocracies are much better at the science of making laws, while democracies are often inept. While Aristocracies have well-trained, clever officers, Democracies often struggle to place admirable people in power. Still, the lack of class interest in the U.S. often means that public officers are working for the benefit of all, not their friends.
Although Tocqueville still wants to carefully weigh the advantages and disadvantages of democracy, here he does tend toward the sweeping generalization. He also betrays his own class prejudice as an aristocrat who assumes that those of greater birth, wealth, and education are more intelligent than those who haven’t been given such advantages.
Tocqueville identifies two forms of patriotism. One is the instinctive love for one’s birthplace and ancient traditions tied to the land and property of one’s ancestors, which can lead to pride and defense in times of need, but which dwindles in times of peace. Another more rational if less ardent form of patriotism comes from knowledge and attachment to laws, and grows through the gradual attainment and use of civil rights. While this process is still taking place, a period of crisis might shake such patriotism to the core, threatening to erode any kind of spirit and love for one’s country. In order to prevent such a possibility, Tocqueville thinks, it’s necessary to make people feel implicated in the governing process and to extend political rights so that, should a crisis arise, citizens are willing to defend their country. America’s extension of political rights to nearly all has enacted such spirit and involvement. The eager patriotism of Americans is irritating, he acknowledges, but also admirable.
The first category of patriotism is, for Tocqueville, the kind of patriotism that an aristocracy develops. He thinks that democratic patriotism, the second category, is worthy of admiration and defense. However, his concern here is for the moments of democratic transition (a period that, he believes, Europe is undergoing as he writes), when nations find themselves between two forms of government and thus between two forms of attachment and patriotism. It’s during these moments of transition that governments are the most vulnerable, leading Tocqueville to suggest the extension of political rights to all people as a way to counter such a danger (with America serving as the model).
Tocqueville praises the principle of rights, which he describes as the extension of virtue into the realm of politics. Democracy extends political rights to all citizens, and while it isn’t always easy to teach people how to exercise them, it’s worthwhile and important. Today, when religious belief and the divine notion of right is shaken, when morality is challenged, it’s even more urgent to connect the idea of rights to private interests if nations have any chance of ruling without fear and tyranny. The early period of universal rights is the most dangerous, when people don’t know how to use them. Learning liberty is difficult, unlike despotism.
It can be difficult to characterize Tocqueville as a political thinker based on the categories familiar to modern readers. It’s important to remember that, while he remained skeptical about many aspects of democracy (above all its equality of condition), he was a firm believer in and supporter of what many today tend to consider the key aspect of a democracy—the extension of political rights to all, even if that extension is fraught with danger.
Tocqueville argues that the authority of the law is always strengthened when the law is formed in consultation with the people, as in America, where only slaves, servants, and “paupers” (those supported by township charity) don’t have the right to vote. Americans thus don’t fear the law as an enemy, as many Europeans do, although the wealthy have a greater anxiety with respect to it, just like the poor do in Europe.
Though Tocqueville characterizes America as unique in its universal suffrage, this passage reveals an important qualification of the right to vote. Indeed, the categories Tocqueville names are rather vast, and he doesn’t even mention women. That said, American suffrage was far greater than that of many other nations at the time.
Tocqueville expresses amazement at the cacophony of political affairs that he’s witnessed in the United States. On a single day there might be a meeting to decide on the building of a church, deliberation on a public road project, an assembly to debate a recent law, and so on. No people spends more time in the pursuit of happiness, he says. Even women often attend public meetings. Debating clubs take the place of theatrical shows, and sometimes Americans in private conversation grow enthusiastic and proclaim “Gentlemen” to their interlocutor, as if at a debate. Tocqueville isn’t unreservedly enthusiastic about these tendencies—they often lead to inefficiency and disorder—but they involve ordinary people in governing to an admirable extent. Rather than giving people a skillful government, democracies thrive through their activity, energy, and force.
Tocqueville’s remarks here are full of admiration mixed with skepticism and amusement. The comment about Americans’ incessant pursuit of happiness, for instance, is tongue-in-cheek while also seeking to characterize a quality he sees as being common to many Americans. Even as he humorously recounts some of the excesses of Americans’ involvement in political associations, he is quick to point out that such involvement seems like a key solution to the problem he posed earlier about the dangers of a transition to democracy in a place where people are not so directly involved in government.
If what one wants from society is the elevation of the mind, strong convictions, refined manners and arts, and honor, then a democracy is not the best option, Tocqueville argues. But for the promotion of well-being, clear understanding over genius, peace, and prosperity over brilliance, democracy does win out. Either way, since such a choice is no longer possible, he suggests we make the best of the circumstances.
Tocqueville concludes by pointing to a contrast between aristocratic and democratic tendencies in the sphere of lawmaking. This contrast will be returned to again and again throughout the book, as Tocqueville weighs the benefits of aristocratic “genius” against the greater well-being afforded to the many under democracy.