Tocqueville characterizes democratic societies as defined by “individualism,” which he calls a novel expression. “Égoïsme” (or selfishness, the exaggerated love of self) is ancient, but individualism, a sentiment that causes each person in a community to separate himself off from his fellow men, is not a question of depraved morals but rather of mistaken intellectual judgment. Still, individualism threatens to destroy all other virtues and eventually end as pure selfishness.
Although Tocqueville didn’t coin the term “individualism,” it was far rarer at the time he was writing than it is today. He distinguishes the eternal, human quality of selfishness from what he considers to be the historically contingent, culturally specific quality of individualism—even if one can yield to the other.
Aristocracies, according to Tocqueville, encourage people to band together with their fellow citizens and impose duties on themselves as a result of their fixed position in society and in their family. But in democracies, new connections and divisions are constantly arising, which leads people to become strangers to each other. As more people gain greater wealth, they no longer have to rely on other people; they expect nothing from anyone else and imagine that their destiny lies in their actions alone.
Even as Tocqueville has explored how democracies invite people to join together into a powerful mass (the majority), he doesn’t think that this majority is one of true moral or even social communion. Indeed, aristocracies, for him, are much better at creating real bonds between people, while democratic communities are simply individuals added together.