Tocqueville argues that despotism and equality actually promote similar vices: equality puts people side by side while eroding bonds between them, while despotism similarly applauds a lack of fellow-feeling by raising barriers between people. Democracies are thus peculiarly susceptible to despotism. This is what makes it even more essential for people in a democracy to participate actively and constantly in their own political affairs. When they are involved in governing themselves, they gain a sense of the social bonds necessary for peace and prosperity and accept that they can’t do without their fellow citizens. Election fraud and malicious political intrigue aside, in the long run political participation ends up counteracting the dangers of individualism.
Earlier, Tocqueville has described despotism as one potential consequence of equality; here he considers despotism and equality side by side in order to repeat how one can lead to another. Once again, Tocqueville begins with what he considers to be an advantage of aristocracy—its cultivation of social bonds—and asks how a democracy might replicate this. Even while acknowledging a few drawbacks to intense involvement in political affairs, Tocqueville finds such involvement to be crucial in a democracy.
Tocqueville argues that Americans’ free institutions have worked against individualism. It’s difficult to draw people out of their small circles to make them care about a larger destiny, but by implicating them in local affairs, such as the building of a road, it becomes easier to see that there is a connection between private affairs and public life. Tocqueville thinks it would be unfair to characterize American patriotism as insincere or only a result of private interest: he’s witnessed real sacrifices made for public good. Political freedom, he concludes, is the greatest remedy for the potential evils of equality.
Even as Tocqueville isolates certain disadvantages inherent to democracy in general, part of what makes America such a useful model for him is that it seems to have found ways to combat and mitigate the most pernicious aspects of democratic equality. Here, Tocqueville returns to his earlier analysis of political decentralization in order to draw out the relationship between politics and aspects of the American personality.