Democracy in America

by

Alexis de Toqueville

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Democracy in America: Chapter 38 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Tocqueville turns to the institution of the family, where, he argues, traditional parental authority and filial obedience have been eroded. Independence, an assumed right in America, comes to affect the relationship between father and son, as well. Aristocratic nations only recognize the father in a family: he retains a political as well as moral right and becomes a kind of ruler. But a father in a democracy is only one more member of a community, neither superior nor inferior to another.
Initially, as he describes how family structures have changed between aristocratic and democratic societies, Tocqueville seems suspicious or at least wary of the dismantling of parental authority, especially given his preference for certain other forms of aristocratic society that are now being lost.
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Tocqueville adds that the division of land prompted by democracy is also significant: when a father only owns a small property, he occupies the same space as his son, sharing the same occupations, habits, and necessities, and leading to a kind of familiar intimacy that erodes authority and respect.   
Again, the language of loss and erosion seems to suggest that Tocqueville looks with some wariness on the conditions of family life in a democracy.
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Tocqueville argues that at least individually, men gain by the erosion of parental authority: family relations become more intimate and affectionate, and the father becomes a confidant and advisor rather than master. Fathers and sons address each other familiarly and warmly rather than with ceremonious stiffness as in Europe.
Surprisingly, given the tone that’s preceded these sections, Tocqueville now proposes that the new arrangements and norms of family life in a democracy are actually to be preferred to their equivalents in Europe.
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In turn, the eldest son—rather than looking down on his brothers as in Europe, since he will inherit all the property and wealth—looks out for his brothers, who seek to support him in turn. Democracy may divide a father’s inheritance, but it unites the sons together by free sympathy. Such charms are readily apparent to aristocrats, even, Tocqueville says, and yet social conditions and such manners are indissolubly linked. Democracy loosens social ties but productively tightens natural ones, he concludes.
Tocqueville makes sure, as he concludes this chapter, to emphasize that while Europeans might look at America as a productive model for their own processes of democratization, they can’t merely cherry-pick the aspects of American society that they like the best if they’re not willing to engage with other aspects of democracy.
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