While Tocqueville was ambivalent about the “equality of condition” that he observed in America, he found that certain aspects of American democracy did work to defend and maintain liberty, and thus could be models for the development of French democracy. Although he believed that the legislative and executive branches in America could be unduly influenced by what he dubbed the “tyranny of the majority," Tocqueville felt that other institutional facets of American political life—particularly an independent judiciary and decentralized administration—helped keep the power of the majority in check and ensure the maintenance of individual rights and liberties.
In examining the workings of American judges, lawyers, and juries, Tocqueville is careful to weigh both the advantages and disadvantages of the American legal system. He acknowledges, for instance, that democratic juries, composed of a cross-section of people from American society, function by majority vote and are thus subject to the same dangers that democratic election poses—i.e., the danger of “groupthink.” But Tocqueville also argues that juries have powerful pedagogical and political potential, since they teach people to judge others as they would want be judged themselves, and to feel themselves implicated in the everyday workings of their own democracy. If Tocqueville is slightly suspicious of one result of this pervasive use of juries, it is that legal language has seeped into many other areas of society, from business to schools and even to personal relationships, but he thinks this is a relatively low price to pay for the robust involvement of Americans in their political life.
In contrast to the highly centralized government in France, Tocqueville admires America’s federalism—a political system in which power is distributed between one central and various regional governments. Although giving the central government more power might seem to make the whole country more powerful, Tocqueville argues that such a practice actually weakens democracy by alienating citizens from the workings of those in power. By contrast, when power is spread among many different levels—from the national capital to states and townships—through federalism or what Tocqueville calls “decentralized administration,” the interests of the country are kept in view everywhere. As usual, Tocqueville acknowledges some of the risks of decentralization, including legislative inefficiency and the danger that antagonism between conflicting interests will spread. However, he prizes America’s balance between centralized and decentralized power, even as he predicts that democracies like America, in seeking to maintain peace, may eventually (though to their detriment) prefer an increasing concentration of power in the capital.
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Checks and Balances Quotes in Democracy in America
The people reign in the American political world as the Deity does in the universe. They are the cause and the aim of all things; everything comes from them, and everything is absorbed in them.
The only nations which deny the utility of provincial liberties are those which have fewest of them; in other words, those only censure the institution who do not know it.
The great political agitation of American legislative bodies, which is the only one that attracts the attention of foreigners, is a mere episode, or a sort of continuation, of that universal movement which originates in the lowest classes of the people, and extends successively to all the ranks of society. It is impossible to spend more effort in the pursuit of happiness.
In my opinion, the main evil of the present democratic institutions of the Untied States does not arise, as is often asserted in Europe, from their weakness, but from their irresistible strength.
The jury teaches every man not to recoil before the responsibility of his own actions, and impresses him with that manly confidence without which no political virtue can exist. It invests each citizen with a kind of magistracy; it makes them all feel the duties which they are bound to discharge towards society, and the part which they take in its government. By obliging men to turn their attention to other affairs than their own, it rubs off that private selfishness which is the rust of society.
Those who hope to revive the monarchy of Henry IV or of Louis XIV appear to me to be afflicted with mental blindness; and when I consider the present condition of several European nations,—a condition to which all the others tend,—I am led to believe that they will soon be left with no other alternative than democratic liberty or the tyranny of the Caesars.
But I am very far from thinking that we ought to follow the example of the American democracy, and copy the means which it has employed to attain this end; for I am well aware of the influence which the nature of a country and its political antecedents exercise upon its political constitutions; and I should regard it as a great misfortune for mankind if liberty were to exist all over the world under the same features.
For myself, when I feel the hand of power lie heavy on my brow, I care but little to know who oppresses me; and I am not the more disposed to pass beneath the yoke because it is held out to me by the arms of a million of men.
I think that democratic communities have a natural taste for freedom: left to themselves, they will seek it, cherish it, and view any privation of it with regret. But for equality, their passion is ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible: they call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that, they still call for equality in slavery.
Nothing, in my opinion, is more deserving of our attention than the intellectual and moral associations of America. […] If men are to remain civilized, or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve in the same ratio in which the equality of conditions is increased.
I am of opinion, that, in the democratic ages which are opening upon us, individual independence and local liberties will ever be the products of art; that centralization will be the natural government.
I perceive mighty dangers which it is possible to ward off,—mighty evils which may be avoided or alleviated; and I cling with a firm hold to the belief that, for democratic nations to be virtuous and prosperous, they require but to will it.