Democracy in America

by

Alexis de Toqueville

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Democracy in America: Chapter 12 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Tocqueville defines democracies by having sovereignty of the majority, which in America happens through directly-elected, briefly-held legislative offices that counterbalance executive power. Custom has bolstered this through the assumption that a large number of men are more intelligent and wiser than a single individual (or prizing quantity over quality). The French under monarchy believed the king could do no wrong, while Americans think the same about the majority.
Tocqueville returns to the question of sovereignty, but here in order to linger over the specific consequences that ensue when people make decisions based on a numerical majority. While one might think that such sovereignty is what distinguishes a democracy for the better, Tocqueville characterizes it here as merely a new form of blind trust in a ruler.
Themes
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While in an aristocracy, there is always a small minority with its own privileges and opinions, in America all small parties and interests hope to one day be in a majority—so the general principle and authority of the majority is never challenged. This is harmful, and dangerous, Tocqueville thinks. A collective majority is only a kind of individual whose opinions are opposed to that of another individual, the minority. Thinking about things this way makes it easier to see that the majority should not abuse its power against the minority, which it often does.
Tocqueville continues to elaborate his comparison of the majority to an individual ruler. If everyone in a democracy thinks that they may one day enjoy the rights and privileges of the majority, then they won’t despise those who happen to occupy the majority position at that moment—whereas those who don’t have power in an aristocracy despise those who do, since they can never hope to take their place.
Themes
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Tocqueville argues that unlimited power is always dangerous for humans, whether it be in a king, an aristocracy, or the “people.” Only God is omnipotent. Tyranny is possible in any form of government, but in America, the evil of democratic institutions arises from their strength, not their weakness. If a member of the minority is wronged in America, there’s no one to whom he can appeal for help. Public opinion is bound to the majority in the executive, legislative, and judicial spheres. If only, he thinks, the branches could represent the majority without being enslaved to its desires. As it is, there is no sure guard against tyranny.
Although Tocqueville spends a great deal of time warning against majority rule—a key aspect of a democracy—his point here is that his concern is actually in the interest of liberty, not against it. Tyranny is tyranny regardless of whether it happens through the rule of one or the rule of many, he argues. The stronger a democracy becomes, the more powerful the majority becomes as well—and thus the more it approximates the force of a despot.
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Related Quotes
Tocqueville distinguishes between tyranny, which may well be enacted within the law, and arbitrary power, which may be enacted for the public good and thus not be tyrannical. The power of the majority in the US favors both tyranny and the arbitrary power of the lawmaker. Magistrates’ privileges are rarely defined. They are more independent than in France, and as a result, America remains potentially susceptible to challenges to its liberties.
Even though lawmakers are democratically elected, Tocqueville warns that that’s not enough if they’re given nearly unlimited power once in office. If tyranny is facilitated by majority-based election in America, arbitrary power is facilitated by the lack of checks and balances in the legislative branch.
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The tyranny of the majority is potentially more insidious than that of a despot, Tocqueville thinks, since it is based on thought, not force. As soon as the majority decides on something, discussion ceases: while a king may have physical power, the majority also exerts moral will. He characterizes America as a country with less independence of mind and freedom of discussion than anywhere else. The majority raises barriers around liberty of opinion. If someone oversteps these bounds, he won’t be executed, but his career will be over, his life a continual misery. In a democracy, the body is left untouched, but the soul is “enslaved.” He who thinks differently is condemned as a stranger, shunned, an object of scorn.
In a powerful series of arguments, Tocqueville drives home his point about the danger of majority rule. Physical force and violent submission are not the only means of denying people’s natural rights and freedom, since creating a society in which everyone is pressured and incentivized to think the same way also destroys these rights. The vision that Tocqueville is painting here sounds like a modern-day dystopia, and eerily foreshadows the rise of 20th-century totalitarian regimes.
Themes
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American writers are continually applauding and praising each other, never to learn the truth about their vices or follies. The lack of freedom of opinion is why America has had no great writers or great politicians, Tocqueville thinks (at least after the Revolution, when crisis prompted the rise of the great Founding Fathers). Now, only rarely has he met someone who deplores the defects of American customs and laws, but that person speaks to an empty room.
Although Tocqueville’s blanket statement about the lack of any good writers or politicians in America betrays the narrowness of his perspective, the principle behind his argument is that placing prohibitions on people’s opinions is destructive of a healthy public discourse.
Themes
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Tocqueville argues that governments fall because of impotence or tyranny: people usually think that democracies are susceptible to the former, but he claims that the latter is a greater danger in America. The omnipotence of the majority may one day destroy the free institutions of the country—but because of despotism, not weakness. Tocqueville quotes James Madison’s writings on the need for society to protect justice by protecting the minority, and Jefferson’s statement on the need to counter the tyranny of the legislature.
Tocqueville continues to stress his viewpoint that, if there’s a threat to American democracy, it’s not that its institutions are too weak but rather that its democratic methods are too strong. James Madison, one of the Federalists that Tocqueville so admired, serves as a forceful piece of concluding evidence on behalf of protecting the minority as a truer form of liberty.
Themes
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