Words being arbitrary, they owe their power to association, and have the influence which custom has given them – for language is the dress of thought. Therefore on hearing the words “Democracy in America,” some will think of Alexis de Tocqueville’s book by the same title. Others, not having read the book (an enterprise of no mean feat), will think that it took a Frenchman to appreciate American democracy, as it existed nowhere else.
Still others may think that the concept of democracy and America are indissolubly and maybe exclusively linked, just as America is the obamanesque exceptional nation. But as there is a history in all men’s lives (1), so there is one in all men’s words. In the instance, it may interest some to know the curious and fortuitous circumstances that caused the book to be written.
First, a geographical-historical anecdote. Prior the Normandy landing in August 1944, American planes bombed the hinterland. A target was the Tocqueville family’s castle, which was heavily damaged. After the war and to repair the castle, the Tocqueville family sold all Alexis’ manuscripts to the Yale University. Ironically, American pilots were given a little booklet containing extracts from Tocqueville’s most famous book, possibly to read or use should they be shot down in enemy’s territory.
Tocqueville wrote “Democracy in America” in the 1830s, after an epic journey to America with his friend and colleague Gustave de Beaumont. They originally intended to study the penitential system in the United States. But once there they decided to conduct a thorough sociological study on the nation.
France had just undergone (or survived) the French Revolution, Napoleon’s French exceptionalism, the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy and the July 1830 revolution, featuring a change of dynasty and the crowning of a bourgeois king, Louis Philippe d’Orleans.
Louis Philippe was also a gourmet and had long lived in exile in London. When Disraeli, future British Prime Minister, paid an official visit to Paris, Louis Philippe, at dinner, insisted on slicing the ham for Disraeli. “I cannot allow this, a king cutting the ham for me” – said Disraeli. “No no – insisted Louis Philippe – I learned how to cut the world’s thinnest slices of ham from the chef of a London restaurant I patronized when I was in exile.” No doubt a bourgeois king.
But I digress. Louis Philippe himself would eventually flee Paris in disguise at the onset of the next 1848 and equally bloody revolution. Which was followed by a short-lived republic and eventually by the empire of Napoleon III. Incidentally, those interested in the turbulent post Napoleonic period in France may watch the related video I produced, titled “Revolutions Then and Now” https://youtu.be/AGB_ypTAuVY
Yet, only the most notorious revolutions have made it to history books, the post-1789 French-revolution period abounded with more upheavals, reformers and revolutionaries, such as Babeuf, Saint Simon, Proudhon, Fourier and others.
In this turbulent climate, credulity performed for America the office of faith, and panegyric the office of information. Or rather, America became a screen on which Europe could project its vision of an ideal world, accompanied by a sublime indifference to fact.
Here is an example from a European journalist, “In Virginia the members chosen to establish the new government assembled in a peaceful wood, removed from the sight of the people, in an enclosure prepared by nature with banks of grass. And in this simple spot they deliberated on who should preside over them.”
And “… the day when Washington resigned his command in the hall of Congress a crown inlaid with jewels had been placed on the books of the Constitution. Suddenly Washington seized the crown, broke it and threw the pieces before the assembled people. How petty the historical Caesar seems before this hero of America.”
In the imagination of enthusiastic Europeans, America had removed all artificial distinctions. “The Americans – wrote a German professor – are the most fortunate people in the world. They do not even know the name of many burdens worn by many subjects in Europe” etc.
In the 1830s a trip from Europe to America could take from 4 weeks to three months. Tocqueville’s travel through America was extensive, for the time, reaching Vermont and New Hampshire in the North, Ohio and Michigan in the Midwest, followed by a round-trip tour of the South.
Tocqueville’s books are massive, but some anecdotes may give the flavor of his observations. For example, given the absence of any touring or accommodation facilities, travellers resorted to local pioneers and homesteaders to obtain night hospitality for man, guide and horse. Hospitality that, as a rule, was willingly given.
Tocqueville noticed that the hosts did not make any inquiries about the guests, their origins or their travels. Questioned about why he had given hospitality to strangers, one host replied that he did so because he expected reciprocity when he would find himself in the same situation. As for interest in the guests the matter for him was irrelevant, because all his efforts were dedicated to production and to establish and expand his farm and homestead. Therefore he had no time for anything else.
Once in New England, Tocqueville reached a town during an election. He documented the procedures and noted how properly and carefully the election was organized. In 1830 the North had already abolished slavery and blacks had the right to vote, yet none showed up at the polling station. At first Tocqueville was told that the blacks would vote in the afternoon, but they didn’t. On asking about this absence the election staff replied half-jokingly that if any black would show up to vote he would be whipped.
In the South Tocqueville discovered that farmers whose permanent residence was in the North had actually two families, one in the North and one in the South. The growing season for cotton and tobacco being relatively short – about 4 months – they divided their time and residence accordingly.
The travellers learned with horror that when the white part-time Southern plantation owner died, his sons from family number 2 would be sold as slaves, because the owner’s Northern heirs considered their father’s sons in the plantation as part of the inheritance, an investment to be sold for the best return.
And, though slaves generally lived in poor conditions, they were still significantly better off as slaves in the South than as free men in the North. Slaves being a saleable asset – they were worth more alive, in reasonable conditions and therefore saleable, than dead and unsalable.
On returning to France the two travellers decided to write separately. Beaumont wrote a sociological novel about the plight of the natives. Tocqueville, in his extended two books, reached some tentative conclusions – here broadly summarized.
Problems in US are/were in reality the same problems as in France and elsewhere. But France could not copy or reproduce the American system.
Theory is complex, democracy is simultaneously the best and the worst political system. Accordingly, when citizens vote they simultaneously accept the best and the worst.
The popular view in France, at the time, was that America’s legendary ‘democratic’ superiority had to do with her laws – which Tocqueville studied and documented in detail. But that was not true. Mexico, for example, translated and copied the American laws verbatim, but with very different effects. Mexico did not become a democracy.
Conclusion: the laws do not per se make a system democratic. Otherwise it would only be necessary to translate the laws from the country where they have been proven to work to another and the problem would be solved.
Another theory held that democracy in America provided a safety valve for the dissatisfied, who could renounce the comforts of civilization and seek freedom by moving to the Western frontier.
Still the idea that of creating a US-like frontier in parts of Europe to resolve social problems was not convincing, even assuming that it had been possible.
What and when is a system really democratic? – Tocqueville asks. Studying history reveals a reality that cannot be reversed or repressed. The reality is the constant historical progress towards equality, notably from the 13th century onward – however accompanied by persistent social inequality.
Money creates social inequality but so do race and religion. Yet beyond doubt is the historical direction towards equality, accompanied by a generalized yearning for liberty. “Liberte’, fraternite’ egalite’” – said the Jacobins, who, nevertheless, proved their fraternal spirit by generously using the guillotine.
Yet Tocqueville cannot answer what does liberty really consist of, because – he says – liberty is a sensation. When someone asked him to define it, Tocqueville replied that the very asking the question proved that the questioner himself never felt free and therefore would not understand the idea.
Years later, in a conference where the same subject came up Tocqueville said that freedom does not exist because it is a sentiment akin to love, as described, for example, by French novelist Madame de Sevigne. And much like love, it is crucial to perceive and feel the sensation of freedom daily and continuously. For if we don’t feed the sensation, there is no freedom.
Still, the mind rejoices at deliverance on any terms from perplexity and suspense, says Tocqueville. But when the mass-man shouts, repeats and asks for ‘freedom and democracy’ he is asking for disaster.
There can be political systems that do not allow specific freedoms and yet where citizens can feel free. And the reverse is also true – there are systems apparently quite free, where the individual feels that he is not. Furthermore, the liberty of a citizen in one nation is not the same liberty of a citizen of another nation. And the liberty in one historical time is not the same liberty as perceived 20 or 30 years later.
Tocqueville reached the following conclusion. In future there may be republics, monarchies and other mixed forms of government. But in essence only three political systems can exist. One where liberty is the most important feature, irrespective of its consequences. But if this were so, eventually there would be no political form, no state or even politics – for complete freedom is anarchy, which is the antithesis of a political structure.
The second possibility is a system where equality and liberty coexist, with a tendency for equality to be perceived as more important than liberty. But this, says Tocqueville, after anarchy would be also the worst possible political system – from which an exit to freedom would be most difficult. Of this we have recent massive historic evidence in Europe during the XXth century.
The third possibility is a system where the political status-quo is daily brought into question and citizens are continuously involved.
Regrettably, both in the 19th century (as Tocqueville remarked), but also in our own times it is the equality-above-freedom political structure that the world at large seems to be directed towards. Most people like and want this system because it seems most attractive on the surface – consequently it will be implemented. We could add that the Western-Zionist slogan of the New World Order admirably embodies the concept, “You will own nothing and you will be happy.”
Such dreams may seem the children of an idle brain, begot of nothing but vain fantasy. Yet equality is attractive because everyone understands it. “I have the same rights as my neighbor, whatever my title, ethnic group, age, social condition, mode of dress or accent may be.”
It appears as the application of the simplest mathematical concept, 2=2, the foundation of reasoning, the principle of equality, of identity and of no-contradiction. Besides, equality is a principle easily impressed into our mind, whereas liberty is more complex.
But why in a democratic system equality seems more important than freedom? Because unconsciously we pretend to imitate the American pioneers on the Western frontier of old. Let us imagine – says Tocqueville – that we live in a system where education, origin, speech, religion are such as not to invalidate the concept of equality.
If so we quickly reach a paradox. Because all of us would be equal but, equally, all of us wish to be better than our neighbor, simply because we are human. However, as the inaudible and noiseless foot of time moves on, and under the impetus towards equality, things with an un-equalizing force such as education, life experience, determination, drive etc. tend to lose importance in the assessment of many.
In the end there is only one element that enables a citizen to demonstrate that he is better than his neighbor – meaning, in an environment where all wish simultaneously to be equal in theory but unequal in practice. And that contradiction-enabling element is money, more luxury items, more possibilities of ostentation, etc.
Which, in a democratic system – always according to Tocqueville – produces a somewhat dangerous mechanism. To achieve the objective we tend to focus our efforts only or exclusively on activities that we believe can secure more things, more money, greater, faster and easy wealth.
In turn, people abstain from what is more complex, does not promise an immediate economic reward and appears more distant from the immediate objective.
Humanities, philosophy or history do not seem to produce an immediate reward. The sought-for ideal knowledge is practical.
In this context, and as an update, we can interpret the current ‘cancel culture’ as the latest manifestation of the leveling principle – apart from other equally paradoxical and cataclysmic consequences, expected when the movement will reach its extreme.
The materialistic drive produces yet another paradox. Perceived social pressure forces the mythical average citizen to dedicate himself to the project of earning more money, to buy a bigger house, much like the pioneer of Tocqueville’s anecdote.
Hence the conviction that, with sufficient effort, one can resolve any problem, even when political. This is bad, says Tocqueville, because problems dealing with freedom and politics do not have easy solutions.
Yet the world ever looks for easy solutions – this was said in 1835-1840. The new French ‘bourgeois’ king’s message was, “Become rich, get more money, get more things.” With the consequence that in these conditions politics themselves lost (lose) their original function (in the Athenian’ sense, the ‘polis’ etc.).
He who compares himself with his neighbors may perhaps feel (about) equal, but when he compares himself with the rest he feels very small. I am as good as my neighbor – he may say to himself – but the mass inspires fear. And in a democratic system with emphasis on the material aspect of things the circle of reality becomes ever more restricted.
For this sentiment Tocqueville coined the term individualism, (1835), as confirmed by the Oxford dictionary that explains Tocqueville’s neologism as, “a self-centered feeling or conduct as a principle.”
Individualism – adds Tocqueville – is the first characteristic of a bad democratic system, leading to more people living alone and/or alone with their heart.
In the end– continues Tocqueville – citizens will only be interested in the narrower part of their family. In the 19th century families were still large, and it was revolutionary to think that eventually families would become smaller and smaller, with interest concentrated on the smaller family excluding everyone else.
Individualism, obsession for more money and for material things was the characterization of the pioneers whom Tocqueville met in America. I help other people so that they can help me, but without any other interest. Which means that I see others not as human beings but as a function of what they can do for me.
The ‘other’ person becomes an item of exchange, an element of the market. Which gives rise to another mysterious phenomenon or evolution; Tocqueville calls it the ‘tyranny of the majority.’
He explains as follows. To the self-centered individual political problems appear resolvable without great effort. For the mind rejoices at deliverance on any terms from perplexity and suspense.
How to tackle a strike, for example? A simple practical problem. Let’s tell the president of a company that tomorrow he should give all employees an equal and large sum of money, a house and a carriage. A seemingly practical solution.
The democratic illness, says Tocqueville, is the widespread citizen’s belief that problems can be resolved because they are assumed to be practical – like the material problems the citizen resolves in his daily life – where effort and dedication determine the result.
This reasoning, when applied to social or political issues, turns into the belief that, although a political problem is assumed resolvable, the individual has no time to dedicate himself to its solution, for he needs to concentrate his effort on the advancement of his career.
In defective democracies the individual citizen thinks that others have decided what is required to resolve the problems that he has no time to solve. Which leads to everybody agreeing that something is good or bad, and no one dares to oppose public opinion. As mentioned, Tocqueville calls it the tyranny of the majority. Or, using a contemporary term, the ‘thought unique.’
The thought-unique may suddenly change, but it will be affirmed with a conviction equal to its yesterday’s manifestation.
Hence yet another paradox. In previous eras (before Tocqueville’s) tyrannies were essentially material. There being no liberty, it was relatively easy to approach the castle or the palace of the lord, where the revolutionaries would execute the tyrannical ruler or lord. Meaning that tyranny ended due to the material nature of the tyranny. But eliminating the tyranny of the majority is a paradox, for we are the majority and consequently we tyrannize ourselves.
Furthermore we are convinced that we have formed our opinion independently. Therefore, concludes Tocqueville, when a democratic political system drifts towards equality but not liberty, we must adapt ourselves to be the objects of our own tyranny.
Eventually in a society where there is much equality but little freedom – we may think, individually, that we are taking our decisions independently, but in reality we are doing the same as other millions do.
Which is a terrible thing and a bad democracy, says Tocqueville, because it destroys the human being, and affects both social and family relations. It establishes an economic measure throughout society and throughout all relations among individuals, and it makes politics disappear.
Politics cease to exist, because no one wants, wishes or dares to face problems that hold no solution. And problems that have no solution but yet require it are the problems of politics, just like love, as explained by Madame de Sevigne’ in her novels.
How does it happen that, in such a society, we accept to resolve problems that have no solution? Poverty, for example, is a problem without easy or final solutions. It generates itself continuously. So is discrimination.
And there is no stability in politics, nor permanent liberty. Or rather, the thrust for liberty, again, should be a daily commitment and exercise.
But how is it possible that citizens may transform themselves into politicians?. For in a political system where democracy implies the tyranny of the majority we are only free once every four years when we vote. For the next four years we have ceased to be free.
In this sense we have improved on the past. Beforehand we could not elect our tyrants but now we can, once every four years. And when the voter casts his vote, he counts as one and he is free. In all other time he isn’t – says Tocqueville. Because, having renounced politics we have instead a state structure that fills the gaps we have left. Gaps filled with other things that reinforce our ideas that what is important is not politics but other things. The whole triggers a self-reinforcing feedback, whereby we dedicate ourselves to produce many things in order to own and produce more things. This is why, concludes Tocqueville, in a bad democratic system there are no citizens but only subjects.
Tocqueville was clearly pessimistic. He warned about the democratic political systems that established themselves in the 19th century – laden with great problems and greater risks. They are the most difficult systems to change – he said – for they require transforming subjects into citizens, an extremely complex, if not impossible, operation.
Subsequent authors who studied Tocqueville’s theories observed that today, in televised revolutions, the masses direct themselves not towards the presidential palace, but to stores, shops and supermarkets to break the windows and leave with as many stolen goods as possible.
Why? Because politics being perfunctory they are not felt as important. Toqueville almost reached the same conclusions as Fukuyama and his end of history.
What could occur in his time (the XIX century) if the political democratic systems were not sufficiently structured and managed? The citizenry at large, he sayd, would revert to a state of nature, of war of all against all, every man for himself, without solidarity, help, a social sense, friends or family.
On today’s stage – to test Tocqueville’s theory – where all men and women are still merely players, a citizen’s life in the new world order may approach the state of nature as defined by Hobbes, featuring disorder, chaos, aggressiveness, danger and fear. Antifa and BLM in America, and the US-Zionist-Nazi regime in Ukraine could be examples. The latter an attempt by the current US cabinet to maintain dominance by sophistry without art, and confidence without credit.
Tocqueville speculated, before Fukuyama, that the end of history could occur in the middle of the 19th century. For politics is dialog, debate, discussion, compromise, conversation and give-and-take – the lack of which Tocqueville already saw occurring in his time.
And while knowledge is often the parent of heresy, credulity performs the office faith and fanaticism assumes the language of inspiration. With the chance that, as time goes by, bipeds with the shape of men would meet themselves as wolves.
Equally, Tocqueville did not seem to account for or acknowledge, that the power of doing wrong with impunity seldom waits long for the will. In our historical times, the wars of destruction in the Middle East, Yugoslavia, the annihilation of the nation of Palestine, the US/NATO proxy-war in Ukraine are but some examples.
Could there be (have been) possibilities and means for Tocqueville to avoid his pessimistic conclusions?
Actually he himself attempted to transform the reality of the French political world by founding a movement or party. Possibly expectedly he failed and retired to his castle in Normandy.
His admirers attributed the failure to his being a political philosopher rather than a politician – and philosophers are not good politicians. Maybe, but perhaps they may have found an easier explanation in Moliere’s “Le misanthrope”, written about 200 years before Tocqueville. “C’est une folie à nulle autre seconde, De vouloir se mêler de corriger le monde.” It is folly second to none to set oneself up to correct the world.”
Which does not mean we shouldn’t try, subject to narrowing the geography of the endeavor. It may still be difficult but who knows? To quote 19th century English poet Robert Browning, “The aim, if reached or not, makes great the life – Try to be Shakespeare, leave the rest to fate!”
(1) Henry IV part 2