On Tocqueville’s Democracy in America: Liberty and Equality and a Few Notes on Vol. 1, Pt. 2, Chp. 5

All quotes and pages mentioned below are from Harvey Mansfield’s and Delba Winthrop’s translation of Democracy in America, published by the University of Chicago Press.

1. “In America… democracy is given over to its own inclinations. Its style is natural and all its movements are free. It is there that one must judge it. And for whom would this study be interesting and profitable if not for us, whom an irresistable movement carries along daily and who advance as blind men, perhaps toward despotism, perhaps towards a republic, but surely toward a democratic social state?” (187)

The aristocratic and democratic principles are at war in Europe, making it impossible to see the effects of those principles in-and-of themselves. The war means that effects occur that may not be natural to the principles.

However, only the “style” of democracy in America is “natural.” Is democracy something natural? American representative democracy is probably not, but what matters right now are effects, not causes. And the effects are “movements” of the body politic unconstrained by other countries or aristocratic/oligarchic/religious classes.

It should be well-noted that the “irresistable movement” to a “democratic social state” can lead nations to “despotism.” I don’t think my Leftist friends or more libertarian Rightist friends always appreciate that merely insisting on more democracy can be very harmful – no less than Aristotle notes that a regime which carries its founding principle to an extreme destroys itself.

2. “On my arrival in the United States, I was struck with surprise to discover the extent to which merit was common among those who were governed and little there was among those who governed…. It is evident that the race of American statesmen has shrunk singularly in a half century.” (188)

Tocqueville gives several reasons for this happening:

  1. Enlightenment can only go so far. People need leisure to learn, but the masses work. Without learning, “they must always judge in haste and attach themselves to the most salient objects. Hence charlatans of all kinds know so well the secret of pleasing them, whereas most often their genuine friends fail at it” (189).
  2. “Democratic institutions develop the sentiment of envy in the human heart to a very high degree” (189). We each aim to be equal, and we have opportunities, but unfortunately we suck.
  3. We keep the “elevated classes” out of power, and truly aristocratic individuals are scared of politics (Tocqueville quotes Chancellor Kent slyly – the implication is that truly better people define themselves as the masses define them. Thus, “better” people avoid politics because everyone says politics is for liars).

I don’t know how much I buy the “envy” explanation – Tocqueville also believes that a passion for equality is natural to democracy, and uses this to argue that “tyranny of the majority” can come about because of a debased self-interest merged with “equality.” In other words, we would consistently use democracy and oneness of opinion to tear our betters down, and “equality” seems to be a bad guy in this story.

I have said that the story of America is that of the tension between liberty and equality. At times we swing too far one direction, and the other is in danger of being lost. Both rely on each other however; both are crucial to the democratic enterprise.

I think Tocqueville ultimately reasons correctly by seeing how closely linked liberty is to equality. Take note:

Democratic institutions awaken and flatter the passion for equality without ever being able to satisfy it entirely. Every day this complete equality eludes the hands of the people at the moment when they believe they have seized it, and it flees, as Pascal said, in an eternal flight; the people become heated in the search for this good, all the more precious as it is near enough to be known, far enough not to be tasted. The chance of succeeding stirs them, the uncertainty of success irritates them; they are agitated, they are wearied, they are embittered. All that surpasses them, in whatever place, then appears to them as an obstacle to their desires, and there is no superiority so legitimate that the sight of it does not tire their eyes. (189)

Something is curious about this “passion” – it seems to be a love that is less about “them” and more about individuals trying to fulfill a deep sensual longing each of them has. The individuals work together, sure – but even erotic desire for a lover involves another person. The “passion for equality” indicates to me that self-interest is being exercised for the sake of a choice. There is a communal result, but liberty is alive and well in the process, even if it is endangering itself.

My guess is that Tocqueville, in seeing Jackson’s America, saw a place dominated by the lower classes sniping at anyone different, if not forcibly relocating them. But I wouldn’t say “equality” is the problem of democratic political life, for “liberty” is a very difficult term to work with. Certainly Xenophon’s Socrates is called most free when compared with all others (cf. Xenophon’s Apology), but that is because he is free from vain desires. Our freedom is definitely not the same thing. (Also, and not helping matters: the only quote I can think of that says anything about “freedom” in-and-of itself is “freedom is the right of all sentient beings,” which is from Optimus Prime).

“Equality,” on the other hand, can be seen in its highest form very easily, in full accordance with true freedom. Cf. Aristotle Politics 1.1 – political rule is where one can rule and be ruled in turn, and this is more than an acceptable state of affairs, but done right makes us happy and virtuous in this life.

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