We often boast about having attained some unimaginable redefinition of ourselves and our nation. How odd, then, that someone born 210 years ago today could understand us with more clarity and depth than we understand ourselves.
Back in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville accurately foresaw both much of what ails us and our remarkable uniqueness and strengths. Tocqueville’s deservedly famous book, “Democracy in America,” was the product of his nine-month excursion throughout Jacksonian America. The purpose of this trip was to study our country’s political institution and the habits of mind of its citizens.
America’s Place in the World
Tocqueville correctly thought the then-developing America was the way of the future. As such, he foresaw that Europe would never be restored to its former greatness—though he hoped it could serve as the cultural repository of the West.
He also predicted Russian despotism, thinking that Russia was not yet morally exhausted like Europe and would bring about a new, massive tyranny. In fact, he conjectured that America and Russia would each “hold the destinies of half the world in its hands one day.”
The majority’s moral power makes individuals internally ashamed to contradict it, which in effect silences them, and this silencing culminates in a cessation of thinking.
He therefore hoped America would serve as an example to the world—a successful combination of equality and liberty. And an example of this was needed, since equality can go along with freedom, but it can even more easily go along with despotism. In fact, much of the world did go in the direction of democratic despotism—wherein the great mass of citizens is indeed equal, save for a ruling elite, which governs them. In a strange sense, Tocqueville would think that North Korea is egalitarian.
Despite his hopes for America, Tocqueville thought grave obstacles would diminish our freedom—though he didn’t think them insurmountable.
The Power of the Majority
Most alarming to him was the power of the majority, which he thought would distort every sphere of human life.
Despots of the past tyrannized through blood and iron. But the new breed of democratic despotism “does not proceed in this way; it leaves the body and goes straight for the soul.”
That is, the majority reaches into citizens’ minds and hearts. It breaks citizens’ will to resist, to question its authority, and to think for themselves. The majority’s moral power makes individuals internally ashamed to contradict it, which in effect silences them, and this silencing culminates in a cessation of thinking. We see this happen almost daily: to stand against the majority is to ruin yourself.
Moreover, Tocqueville feared that the majority’s tastes and opinions would occupy every sphere of sentiment and thought. One among many illuminating examples is his commentary on democratic art. He foresaw that the majority would have no taste for portraying great human beings doing great deeds. Art used to be the pictorial representation of man’s connection to the natural or divine order to which he belongs. But in modern democracies, art would go in the direction of the majority’s tastes: it would be abstract, focused on color and shape.
Why? Because to experience this kind of art, one needs to only have senses, whereas to experience the art of the past, one needs an education in the classics—the Bible and ancient literature especially. It’s easy to pontificate about Jackson Pollock, while it’s difficult to understand Michelangelo. But most revealing is that abstract art is an expression of democracy’s hatred for human greatness, the very theme of art.
Tocqueville’s Predictions About the Modern State
The influence on the mind of democracy and the majority weakens and isolates individuals. This creates fertile ground for a new kind of oppression that “will resemble nothing that has preceded it in the world.”
Tocqueville foresaw an “immense tutelary power”—the modern state—which would degrade men rather than destroy their bodies. Over time, he feared, the state would take away citizens’ free will, their capacity to think and act, reducing them to “a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.” Are contemporary China and Russia substantially different?
But Tocqueville did prescribe some solutions. He hoped that those having read his prescient book would come to understand that the defects of modern democracy require great attention and careful management. Specifically, he hoped, we would strive “to preserve for the individual the little independence, force, and originality” that remains to him.
In other words, when looking at any given policy, our lawmakers might look not at the benefits for their home district, or vainly calculate attention from the next media hit, but rather look at what any given policy proposal’s long-term effect will be on securing freedom and rights. Making individuals stronger, more independent, more able to resist the tyranny of the majority and of a constantly growing administrative state is the goal.
Tocqueville’s critiques are given in the spirit of friendship. He wanted us to “remember constantly that a nation cannot long remain strong when each man in it is individually weak, and that neither social forms nor political schemes have yet been found that can make a people energetic by composing it of pusillanimous and soft citizens.”
On the 210th anniversary of Tocqueville’s birth, asking contemporary Americans to pick up “Democracy in America” is perhaps too great a request. Nonetheless, we may at the least recall his clarity of vision and take seriously that America requires statesmanship and intelligent guidance to fight off the natural propensities that diminish our freedom.
Correction: This article originally stated that Tocqueville was born 225 years ago.