During and after his voyage to the United States, Alexis de Tocqueville paid close attention to what he saw as a worldwide trend of democratization—a trend that he considered positive in some ways, distressing in others, but in either case inevitable. Tocqueville thus studied the American example to help understand what France should seek to replicate and what to avoid in its own democratization process. Of particular interest to him was the question of whether or not liberty (which Tocqueville cherished, but worried that Americans might not love enough) could coexist with what he saw as the American “equality of condition”—that is, the lack of social hierarchies and barriers which gave people a relatively level playing field both politically and economically. Although Tocqueville identifies positive aspects of equality of condition, Democracy in America raises the possibility that equality might not strengthen liberty, but rather lead to a new type of tyranny of the majority over the minority.
Tocqueville does identify some positive aspects of striving for equality. He shows that sovereignty of the people—a characteristic of a society in which every person has equal share in power through the right to vote—can generate patriotism. Furthermore, he argues that valuing equality keeps peace and prevents revolution, since the possibility of social mobility (which necessarily accompanies the democratic ideal of equality) encourages people to strive for gradual improvement of their individual lives instead of fighting to overthrow the government. Tocqueville, a French aristocrat, sees this as positive, as he is eager to see an end to the revolutionary spirit of working class Frenchmen. With remarkable prescience (writing thirty years before the American Civil War), Tocqueville also notes that the one inequality that is most embedded in American society—that between white citizens and black slaves—is the most obvious potential source of violence. The implication here is that American democracy would be more stable if it were more equal in all respects.
However, to Tocqueville, equality does not necessarily make democracy fairer or freer. When rigid class hierarchies are erased and there is no intellectual or social distinction between people, there is no obvious answer to the question of whom one should listen to or agree with, Tocqueville argues. Instead, all opinions and ideas have equal weight, and as a result, the opinions that prevail are those held by the most people rather than those held by the wealthiest, most powerful, or most intelligent—and Tocqueville tends to equate these categories with each other. Tocqueville fears that this will cause people to stop thinking for themselves, preventing true moral and intellectual greatness from arising. In other words, he’s worried about what people today call “groupthink.”
In America, as in all democracies, the majority rules. Therefore, anyone in the minority may find his or her voice drowned out and will have nowhere to turn when they are wronged. Even worse, the opinions and laws of the majority will become so pervasive as to seem like common sense, preventing people from thinking for themselves. This kind of “tyranny of the majority” is almost worse than the despotism of a king or tyrant, Tocqueville argues, because of its insidious ability to masquerade under the cloak of the very value of liberty that Tocqueville so prizes.
Liberty, Equality, and Tyranny ThemeTracker
Liberty, Equality, and Tyranny Quotes in Democracy in America
If ever America undergoes great revolutions, they will be brought about by the presence of the black race on the soil of the United States; that is to say, they will owe their origin, not to the equality, but to the inequality of condition.
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.
But if the time be past at which such a choice was possible, and if some power superior to that of man already hurries us, without consulting our wishes, towards one or the other of these two governments, let us endeavor to make the best of that which is allotted to us, and, by finding out both its good and its evil tendencies, be able to foster the former and repress the latter to the utmost.
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.
I am of opinion, upon the whole, that the manufacturing aristocracy which is growing up under our eyes is one of the harshest which ever existed in the world; but, at the same time, it is one of the most confined and least dangerous. Nevertheless, the friends of democracy should keep their eyes anxiously fixed in this direction; for if ever a permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy again penetrates into the world, it may be predicted that this is the gate by which they will enter.
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.
The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting: such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compressed, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
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.