Tocqueville’s discussions of American cultural life, customs, and manners rest on his assumption that democratic egalitarianism creates, or at least strongly shapes, American culture and character. While he admires certain aspects of the national character and makes valid criticisms of others, Tocqueville also reveals his own aristocratic prejudices, as well as the limits of his self-proclaimed role of ethnographer, in his sometimes condescending attitude toward American ways of life.
Tocqueville’s more credible and illuminating observations about American culture tend to be narrow in their scope rather than general. He admires, for example, what he calls Americans’ frank and natural manner, even if he expresses impatience with their pride and patriotism. In addition, Tocqueville makes certain cultural observations that seem, in hindsight, prescient and morally sophisticated. For example, Tocqueville praises the ways in which democratic egalitarianism has proved beneficial for women, and he makes a case that women’s education—which will eventually make women the equal of men—should be embraced in France, as well.
However, many of Tocqueville’s discussions of American culture draw overreaching or overbroad conclusions from observations that are, themselves, often suspect. For example, he describes Americans as peculiarly self-absorbed and vain, and he links these qualities to the low levels of social differentiation in the country. With little to distinguish themselves from each other, Tocqueville argues, Americans overemphasize minor distinctions in speech and dress. Of course, it is unlikely that Americans in 1830 were any more or less vain than the average Frenchman, and such specious observations undercut Tocqueville’s credibility as an ethnographer. Furthermore, he claims that, due to the flattening effects of the “tyranny of the majority,” he’s never seen so few ignorant people, nor so few learned. This leads him to extrapolate that American tastes tend toward the middlebrow (neither overly unsophisticated nor overly refined). In general, Tocqueville’s desire to view all aspects of American culture through the lens of the “leveling” effect of equality sometimes causes him to make off-base generalizations about what was, historically, a diverse and eclectic culture. His sweeping statements at times say more about his own aristocratic biases than about nineteenth-century American culture.
In his discussion of cultural life in America, Tocqueville is also concerned with the effects of an egalitarian society on poetry and the arts. Relying on the same overarching frame of equality’s leveling effect, he determines that individual genius is far rarer in America than in an aristocracy, though he grants Americans that artistic production is so abundant in the Untied States that some successful works are bound to emerge. Virtually never citing specific examples, Tocqueville characterizes American artistic works as bold, stylized, and passionate; speed is emphasized over perfection, and quantity over quality. In history and philosophy, Tocqueville also prefers sweeping generalizations to analyzing specific examples, emphasizing the preference for general causes and theories over the influence of specific individuals, and on pragmatic and useful (rather than theoretical and abstract) knowledge. Tocqueville’s treatment of American pragmatism tends to be most convincing when he identifies specific, narrow historical causes and traces the development of certain assumptions; often, though, he prefers broad strokes to careful accuracy. His sweeping generalizations about American culture reveal the difficulty in arguing for a tidy correspondence between politics and culture. Although his entire book takes for granted the idea that all aspects of American life can be traced back to its democratic egalitarianism—and although he manages to make some convincing arguments for these connections—his most overreaching conclusions about American culture fail to account for the country’s complexity and diversity, thereby calling into question the extent to which politics alone can explain culture.
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Politics, Customs, and Culture Quotes in Democracy in America
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 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.
In the ages in which active life is the condition of almost every one, men are therefore generally led to attach an excessive value to the rapid bursts and superficial conceptions of the intellect; and, on the other hand, to depreciate unduly its slower and deeper labors.
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.
Variety is disappearing from the human race; the same ways of acting, thinking, and feeling are to be met with all over the world. This is not only because nations work more upon each other, and copy each other more faithfully; but as the men of each country relinquish more and more the peculiar opinions and feelings of a caste, a profession, or a family, they simultaneously arrive at something nearer to the constitution of man, which is everywhere the same.
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.