Democracy in America


Alexis de Toqueville

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Democracy in America: Chapter 54 Summary & Analysis

Tocqueville turns to the habits of democratic people that encourage them to concentrate power. He reminds the reader of his discussion of individualism and argues that private passions and work leave people without much time or energy for public life. At the same time, the desire for well-being leads to a dread of violent disturbance, leading people to hand over more rights to the central power in order to maintain stability. Just as people are independent, they are not required to lend support to each other, so they remain powerless, similarly leading them to desire a strong public power.
Here as elsewhere, Tocqueville makes an implicit distinction between democratic tendencies in general and the specific American example. Here, he focuses on the latter, suggesting that the desire for concentration of power (which he’s identified to varying degrees in America) is at the very least something that the nation should be wary of, given the vulnerability of a democracy to this potential form of despotism.
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In addition, as the hatred of any kind of privileges increases, people become more amenable to locating all privileges in the sovereign alone, since he is unquestionably above all other citizens and thus not a source of envy. A democratic man is loath to obey his neighbor, an equal, but will happily obey the leader whom his neighbor must also obey. Local independence and local liberties, therefore, will only be retained by “art,” while centralization will be the natural temptation.
Tocqueville’s argument—that precisely because people in democracies are less inclined to obey each other, they will happily obey a far more powerful person—is based on the acknowledgment that since some kind of power or authority must exist, democracies prefer to locate that authority in a single person and embrace equality everywhere else.
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