Democracy in America

by

Alexis de Toqueville

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Democracy in America: Chapter 55 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Tocqueville qualifies his points about centralization by making certain distinctions between cultures. For instance, in Europe, where equality is increasing as freedom remains unfamiliar, power is quick to be centralized. In America, though, people had centuries to learn how to take part in public affairs and to learn to enjoy liberties of speech, press, and individual rights. There, freedom is older than equality.
Tocqueville has already made this point about the benefits of freedom preceding equality, rather than the other way around; here he applies that claim to the specific realm of centralized power, in order to explain why centralization is more of a problem in Europe than America.
Themes
Liberty, Equality, and Tyranny  Theme Icon
Checks and Balances  Theme Icon
Civic and Religious Institutions Theme Icon
Politics, Customs, and Culture Theme Icon
Tocqueville thinks that Napoleon should be neither praised nor condemned for his massive centralization of administrative power, given that he inherited a nation where classes had just been destroyed; but no comparable process has ever needed to happen in America. The degree of centralization, then, depends on how equality has been established in a country. At the start of a democratic revolution, for instance, the people strive to centralize government in order to siphon away power from an aristocracy; at the end, it’s the aristocracy who desires a strong central power, which it prefers to tyranny by the people, who continue to despise aristocrats.
Writing during France’s July Monarchy, after monarchy had been restored to France but during which many people remained nostalgic (even if they had to officially hide such loyalties) for the Napoleonic age, Tocqueville navigates this thorny political terrain as he contrasts the French situation to the American. He also maps the desire for centralized power onto a historical process of democratization, in which those who desire such power shift over time.
Themes
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Politics, Customs, and Culture Theme Icon
Therefore, Tocqueville thinks, central power is always stronger in a democracy that has gone through a long, difficult struggle to reach equality, rather than having experienced it all along. This explains why central power isn’t as strong in America as it could be. In addition, Tocqueville uses the example of the Pacha, the current ruler of Egypt, who discovered that people there were equally ignorant, and thus he could use European science in order to govern them through immense central power—Egypt has become the Pacha’s own manufacturing plant.
Tocqueville implies that the process of democratization was much more natural and easily accomplished in America than it will be in Europe, given its long acquaintance with freedom. This is also another instance at which Tocqueville uses a non-Western example to show how central power has functioned elsewhere (even if this example betrays Tocqueville’s own cultural prejudices).
Themes
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Politics, Customs, and Culture Theme Icon
Tocqueville thinks that centralized government ends up “enervating” a nation, but he acknowledges that it may be able to carry through certain, limited important undertakings more easily and successfully. Since military men prefer centralization because of its strength and efficiency, democracies often subject to war will be more centralized as well. In addition, if a democratic ruler represents the people’s interests faithfully, they are willing to put nearly unlimited confidence in his power, whereas citizens will look upon kings somehow still connected with the old aristocracy with suspicion.
“Enervation” is a term that Tocqueville uses again and again: it’s what he sees as one of the greatest dangers that democratic equality can have on a society, far greater than anarchy or disorder. Still, in his typical penchant for balance, he concludes that there may be certain advantages, in certain cases, to highly centralized power; while he doesn’t name examples, he might be thinking of infrastructure projects or social reforms.
Themes
Liberty, Equality, and Tyranny  Theme Icon
Checks and Balances  Theme Icon
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