Tocqueville argues that, in a country that has existed for centuries with classes and rank-based distinctions, democracy can only be attained through violent revolution, leaving periodic aftershocks. It seems natural that general equality will make people restless and covetous, and thus that democratic ages should continue to be times of constant transformation: yet he argues that this will not happen.
As he often does, Tocqueville offers a common-sense explanation or possibility only to dismiss it: by means of this process he makes a claim for the superiority of his own arguments over those of his contemporaries, and thus the need for people to pay attention to his work.
Inequality is always the root of revolution, Tocqueville argues. The vast majority of democratic societies are made up of the middling sort, neither rich nor poor, sufficient in property and desiring to be richer, but lacking any obvious class to fight in order to take its wealth. They are also aware that a revolution may well cause them to lose their coveted property: there’s far more to lose than to gain. Finally, commerce is averse to revolution, making people independent and practical, desirous of freedom rather than radical change.
Tocqueville’s suspicion of revolution is nevertheless mitigated by his acute insight that people sometimes have rational motivations for pursuing revolution—that is, intense inequality between rich and poor. But he also suggests that democratic conditions are actually averse to revolution (another advantage that Tocqueville finds in them).
In democracies, all people strive to improve their fortune, preferring that to political agitation and dismissing violent political passions in exchange for pettier concerns. There will always be some ambitious men eager to make revolution, but they will be hindered by the attitude of their contemporaries. People in democracies may always be in states of agitation, but they direct their energies toward secondary, not fundamental affairs.
Tocqueville returns to the assumption that there is a direct link between democratic equality and material desire. As he’s done before, he generalizes to a great extent about Americans’ single-minded pursuit of fortune, but he’s also developing a complex argument about the link between peace and democracy.
Indeed, Americans tend to view revolutionary or other radical theories with far more suspicion than in Europe. While Americans have the opinions and passions of democracy, Europe still has those of revolution. The only way America could ever undergo a revolution would be as a result of its slavery, that is, its fundamental social inequality. Still, it’s not that democracies are absolutely secure from revolutions, but that democracy helps ward them off.
Even as Tocqueville contrasts American tendency toward peace with European radicalism, he makes a remarkably prescient statement about the possibility of war based on slavery. This is also one of the few points at which he nods to the one glaring exception to American equality.
While Tocqueville has heard that people in democracies are constantly changing their minds, he never observed that in America, where, indeed, it was difficult to convince the majority otherwise once it had settled on an opinion. The human mind there is never at rest, but it strives after new material goals, not new principles. The intellectual anarchy he witnesses in France is not, he thinks, the natural state of democracy, but rather a result of France’s current period of transition.
Contrasting received wisdom about the intellectual tumult in a democracy with his own experience, Tocqueville returns to his point about the “enervation” that can result from the triumph of the majority. At the same time, he makes a distinction between America’s near-complete equality of condition and France’s state of transition.
Indeed, democracies are suspicious of intellectual superiority, making intellectual revolutions unlikely as well. If Martin Luther had had to convince each independent person, rather than have a ready audience of princes and nobles, he might have struggled far more to transform Europe. It’s an uphill battle to get a democratic people excited about any theory without a direct, material consequence in daily life.
Citing Martin Luther, Tocqueville refers to the massively influential Protestant Reformation that the thinker helped to spark, but he argues that its success had largely to do with the intellectual scaffolding (not to mention embrace of abstract theory) present in Europe.
Tocqueville returns to the question of the power of public opinion and the tyranny of the majority, which exerts an undue influence on each individual person’s ability to reason for himself and change his own mind. Stability of opinion is the natural result. In fact, Tocqueville dares (because he’s writing in the wake of a revolution himself) to say that he fears revolution in the future far less than intellectual stagnation, the tendency to be suspicious of every new theory and therefore to fail to strive toward a better society.
Examining once again his earlier arguments about tyranny of the majority, Tocqueville reiterates what he fears from a democracy—as he emphasizes the difference between his own views and what his contemporaries find dangerous in a democracy. But Tocqueville also continues to show a desire for progress, not for a return to an old system.