Democracy in America

by

Alexis de Toqueville

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Democracy in America: Chapter 56 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Tocqueville returns to his earlier point about the particular kind of despotism to be feared in democracy. After five years, his fears remain, but they’ve changed slightly. He reflects that in no aristocracy did the sovereign power ever attempt to administer a vast empire alone, making all people uniformly subject to the same laws and requirements. Roman emperors permitted a great deal of diversity and local administration; even as they did abuse their power, such abuse remained limited in range.
This passage reminds us of the five-year gap between the first and second Parts of Democracy in America, a gap that helps to explain some of the repetitions that are to be found in the work. Here, one change seems to be Tocqueville’s broader, more long-term viewpoint by which to judge democratic conditions and the fear of tyranny.
Themes
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Tocqueville argues that despotism in a democracy would be more extensive, though less violent; just as equality facilitates the spread of despotism, it limits its strength. Mild manners, solid education, pure religion, and industriousness all make the rise of violent tyrants unlikely. Instead, a kind of oppression may arise with no historical equivalent, one for which even the words “despotism” and “tyranny” are insufficient.
Here Tocqueville addresses more frankly than he has before one particular difficulty of his project, the fact that he’s not just analyzing the history and development of democracy in America (and elsewhere), but also attempting to predict the consequences of this unprecedented political form into the future. 
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Tocqueville attempts to imagine a world in which innumerable people are all striving after petty, small pleasures, remaining a stranger to each other, both ignorant and careless of their common cause. Above them is absolute (though mild) power that seeks to keep people in constant childhood: the power provides for their security and facilitates their pleasures, preventing them from having to think or care about the troubles of life. Man’s agency becomes restricted; it’s not shattered but softened and bent. People aren’t prevented but rather discouraged from acting; they aren’t tyrannized but “enervated” and stupefied, until each nation becomes a flock of timid beasts.
In these powerful passages, Tocqueville paints a chilling portrait of the potential future that awaits democratic nations. Given his many moments of praise and admiration for American life, such a bleak prediction may seem out of place; but Tocqueville has been striving all along to grasp what is best about democracy while also remaining clear-eyed about its dangers—dangers that for him are not inevitable but rather crucial to combat while there’s still time.
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Related Quotes
At the present, Tocqueville notes, people want both to be led and to remain free: but both desires are in conflict with each other. They allow themselves to be chained because it is they who have freely chosen their guards—but this surrender is troubling to Tocqueville. Of course, sovereignty of the people leaves room for individuals to intervene in more important affairs, but increasingly men will become enslaved in minor details of life, where Tocqueville thinks freedom is even more crucial.
Even as Tocqueville identifies one possible mitigating factor for the tyranny that may result from democracy—sovereignty of the people—he also argues that this isn’t enough if people are content to follow the crowd in their opinions, choices, and everyday experiences. The inability to think for oneself is, to Tocqueville, dangerous in any capacity.
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Tocqueville worries that people will soon lose the capacity to think and act for themselves and thus lose the very thing that makes them human. He can’t imagine how people who have given up the habit of self-government can properly choose someone to govern them; governments themselves may thus lose their ability to be wise and energetic. Tocqueville concludes that despotism is easier to establish in a democratic time than at any other: he thus wants to cling to freedom all the more. Still, he argues that those who try to base freedom on aristocratic privilege today are bound to fail. Equality must be the first principle of a legislator if he hopes to succeed at all: since reinstituting an aristocracy is impossible, the question becomes how to encourage liberty in a democratic society.
Tocqueville’s explicit embrace of liberty is, in the final instance, intellectual more than anything else: his defense of liberty is ultimately a defense of independence of opinion and thought. It isn’t necessarily that democracies deny such independence—indeed, there are a number of aspects of a democracy that promote and encourage it. But Tocqueville also wants to linger over the ways democracy can actually work against freedom and independence, even as he acknowledges that the solution is not to turn back the clock and return to an aristocracy.
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Given that democracies will inevitably have more centralized, extensive, uniform governments, and that society will be stronger and the individual weaker, private independence will never be as great in democracies as in aristocracies. Tocqueville doesn’t think this is to be desired, given that in aristocracies the mass is usually sacrificed to the individual. He suggests that some administrative powers be vested not in the central government but in other public bodies composed of temporarily appointed citizens—a kind of provincial assembly that the Americans have adopted. Hereditary officers have no place in a period of equality, but officers could be elected instead, which would similarly ensure their independence with respect to the government.
Even as Tocqueville continues to exhibit a love of what he here calls “private independence,” he also acknowledges that the existence of such independence in an aristocracy was always contingent on the subjugation of the many in favor of the few. In order to get out of this conundrum, he draws on the American provincial institutions that he’s already studied and praised. These concluding sections, indeed, are most explicitly concerned with his own country and fellow citizens.
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Similarly, whereas aristocracies have many independent wealthy people who can’t easily be oppressed, something analogous might be made in a democracy by joining many private citizens together in associations. If in aristocracies people are bound up closely with their fellow citizens, rather than remaining alone as in democracies, the liberty of the press (the greatest democratic instrument of freedom) and judicial independence might play a similar role.
Rather than advocating for a return to aristocratic conditions, Tocqueville suggests that democracies find equivalents to the characteristics of an aristocracy that were most conducive to freedom and independence, and adapt them to a new set of political conditions.
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Tocqueville reminds his readers of some of the most significant dangers that equality poses to freedom. In democracies people disdain “form,” that is, customary manners and traditions, preferring to rush into action—a pitiable state of affairs that Tocqueville thinks should be combated. He also condemns the way that democracies undervalue the rights of private people, even while extending the rights of society as a whole. Revolutions are also more dangerous to democracies than aristocracies, because they tend to be more permanent. He doesn’t claim that people in democracies should never make revolution, since they may at times be justifiably led to do so, but he argues that they should think longer and harder beforehand than those who live under other conditions need to.
Tocqueville has been somewhat ambivalent about the status of manners in a democracy, expressing various degrees of praise or censure for the particular ways Americans act with each other and in society. But here he takes a more explicitly negative stance on American manners as part of a list by which he reiterates some of his central themes: the dangers to freedom under conditions of democratic equality. But he also adds to and modifies his discussion of revolution in asking when exactly it might be justified. 
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Tocqueville wishes to conclude with a general idea that sums up his entire book. In aristocracies, there were small numbers of people with great power, and a weak social authority: the main political goal was to strengthen the central power and to limit individual independence and private interests. Now, however, the goal should be the opposite, as new problems call for new solutions. He proposes that rulers try harder to make great men, and that they recall that a nation can’t be strong when each man is individually weak.
In embarking on what will become several concluding chapters, Tocqueville briefly reprises his historical sketch in order in underline one of his guiding arguments, that new political conditions prompt the rise of new challenges to freedom. His call for “great men” seems to invite a return to an aristocracy, even as Tocqueville looks to the future and not the past.
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Tocqueville criticizes both those who only see anarchy and danger in equality (and thus abandon the goal of freedom) and those who have seen the possibility that equality leads to servitude and have accepted it as inevitable. While Tocqueville thinks the latter is certainly a danger, he has written this book because he thinks the danger is able to be mitigated. We should look to the future with productive concern, not idle terror.
Here Tocqueville addresses himself explicitly to his contemporaries, positioning his argument among the many other arguments about new political forms and how France should deal with the seemingly inevitable transition to equality of condition. Tocqueville then emphasizes once again his commitment to human agency.
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