Democracy in America

Democracy in America Chapter 51 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Tocqueville argues that as equality of conditions spreads among many nations, as is happening in Europe, people will grow more and more alike, making international strife and war increasingly rare. The fact that commercial interests will come to implicate people from different nations with each other will similarly discourage war. However, that also means that once two nations do go to war, it will be difficult for them not to involve other countries too. Finally, once differences between nations are lessened, the only major difference will be numerical—making larger nations much more likely to triumph than in the past.
Once more, Tocqueville returns to his predictions about what today we would call “globalization,” the extension of homogeneous commodities, systems, and even ways of life across the entire globe. Tocqueville’s insight is that this is not solely an economic phenomenon resulting from the power of capitalist corporations, but has to do with political equality. Still, he argues that while equality might lessen the chance of war, it may also make war more unfair.
Themes
Liberty, Equality, and Tyranny  Theme Icon
Politics, Customs, and Culture Theme Icon
Tocqueville notes that aristocracies struggle both to conquer and be conquered: it’s difficult to collect forces together but also easy to resist an enemy in small distinct ways. The reverse is true for democracies, which are only strong when forces are joined together—but that also means that if the capital (which manages this union) is conquered, the nation is lost. After the defeat of its army, members of an aristocracy will continue to fight individually rather than submit; citizens in a democracy have far too much to lose. Whereas once small battles and long sieges were more common, now decisive battles and attempts to rush upon the capital are preferred. Napoleon embraced this method, but it was changing society that made it successful.
Tocqueville’s argument here rests on certain assumptions and claims that he’s made earlier, such as the claim that smaller nations are always in danger of being subsumed into stronger ones. Napoleon was initially democratically elected but then seized power as an emperor. He also promoted many aspects of what Tocqueville defines as equality of condition; here, though, he argues that these conditions enabled Napoleon’s success more than the other way around.
Themes
Liberty, Equality, and Tyranny  Theme Icon
Civic and Religious Institutions Theme Icon
Politics, Customs, and Culture Theme Icon
These statements, Tocqueville argues, also apply to civil wars—democracies have many structural obstacles to civil war. The power of the majority is such that it usually succeeds in tamping down resistance; those who would want a revolution can only hope to seize the government at a single fatal blow. The only way a civil war could happen, he thinks, is if the army splits into two factions, one remaining faithful to the government and one rebelling—and even so that war wouldn’t be long. Civil wars, then, should also grow less frequent in a democracy.
Once again, Tocqueville’s arguments seem eerily prescient. Even as he argues that civil wars will be less likely in a democracy, his claim that they will arise from an army’s division into factions seems like a premonition of America’s later division into Northern and Southern states, Union and Confederacy, during its Civil War.
Themes
Civic and Religious Institutions Theme Icon
Politics, Customs, and Culture Theme Icon