Democracy in America

Culture - January 17, 2023

That is the title of the famous work by Alexis de Tocqueville, a classic of political and philosophical conservatism.  Without frontally opposing the liberal revolution, Tocqueville warns about the dangers that come with the principles of equality and democracy.

In his introduction, he considers himself far from thinking that US citizens have found the sole form of government that a democracy can entail.  This is interesting for two reasons:  First, because it considers democracy as a form of government, not as a goal; second, because it criticises copying others’ political traditions, a liberal temptation particularly common in contemporary times.  In the particular case of the US, pope Leo XIII called this trend “Americanism”, condemning it as early as 1899.

When discussing government in different US states, he underlines the importance of local authorities, county and town, an antidote against centralist uniformity that jeopardises true representation.

Already at this initial stage in his long two-part essay, our author raises an item that he will further develop with more detail:

Besides, I am convinced that no nations are more exposed to fall under the yoke of administrative centralisation than those where their social state is democratic.

He does not long to return to aristocratic times, though in contrast to such nations where their social state is democratic, in aristocratic nations “the secondary bodies form natural associations which stop abuse of power”.  This recognition, when dealing with the subject on political association, of secondary bodies existing between the state and the individual, as well as the natural character of those, are two additional relevant pillars of our political tradition.  Under a dominant liberal ideology, political association would be reduced to the exclusive domain of political parties.

A rather deep thought comes, when delving into democracy as a form of government, with the relationship between democracy and virtue, or vice.  In particular, Tocqueville wishes not to conceal that “democratic institutions develop the sentiment of envy to a very high degree in the human heart”.  The reason for this is not so much that everyone has the means of being equal to others, but rather because such means are constantly disappointing those who use them.  “Democratic institutions,” he says, “wake up a passion for equality and flatter it without ever being able to satisfy it completely.”

Another common mistake is to oppose absolute power with democracy.  The French political scientist believes otherwise:  “It belongs to the very essence of a democratic government that the empire of majorities be absolute; for outside of a majority, in a democracy, nothing remains.”  In a certain way, one would rather agree that, according to this statement, a democratic government can be quite absolute, if nothing remains but the empire of the majority.  We need not recall here the recent historical example of Nazi Germany, or many current majority votes in the European Parliament against Poland and Hungary.

Precisely when examining almightiness of majorities, Tocqueville suggests that an indirect censorship against anything opposing the majority could be more ruthless and efficient than that exerted by an absolute monarch.  He even goes on to call the phenomenon “the tyranny of the majority”.

The power of kings was limited by an “invisible circle” of factors such as religion, the love for his subjects, his own goodness, honour, family spirit, local habits or public opinion.  Religion, in particular, being the first of them, loses its guidance on souls under liberalism; this has an influence on morals, to the point that good and bad seem no longer clear.

The erosion of local habits is similarly dangerous.  When provinces and local communities were respected within a common fatherland, all of them kept a particular spirit that would oppose general servitude.  When such habits are reduced to uniformity of laws, people can be more easily oppressed, either individually or jointly.  An echo of this observation resounds in the ECR Party’s defence of national traditions against EU centralism.

Same with family.  For Tocqueville, before the liberal revolution societies could oppose tyrants based on the strength of families, thanks to whom men would never feel alone.  But without the power of religion, local habits and families, each and every citizen is equally weak, equally poor, equally isolated, unarmed against government’s organised stamina.

Together with the factors that limited the power of kings, our essayist analyses change, another typical feature of the liberal revolution.  On the one hand, it is of course related to morals; change undermines morals, thereby diluting one more shield against despotism.  If moral codes are continuously changed, no moral can pretend to be preferable.  On the other hand, change destroys the firmness of the old for the alleged beauty of the new; but this generates an inclination to destruction and to risk.  Perhaps again Tocqueville manages to present with clear words what many conservatives share.

In the second part of the book, democratic instincts deployed by the principle of equality are widely described.  In fact, Tocqueville does not so much criticise them, but simply shows the situation in a factual way.  The first mentioned is a disproportionate love for material pleasures, to which the human soul opens itself.

Another one, linked to the former, is individualism.  Man commits less to his equals; affection for those that surround us decreases.  We care less for our ancestors and for children, to seek refuge in each of our own hearts.

A third instinct lies in the substitution of honour for money.  The French moderate notices that an American “calls a noble and worthy ambition what our Middle Age forefathers called servile greed”.  The reader can of course discern a new link with the material and individualistic mentality.

A fourth trait under democracy is a problematic survival of philosophy:

Life takes place in the middle of movement and noise, and men are so much applied to act that they have little time left to think.  What I would like to stress most is that they are not only busy, but that they are passionate about it.  They are in perpetual action and each of their actions absorbs their souls; their burning dedication to business prevents them from a burning dedication to ideas.

This, in turn, provokes the result that mainstream beliefs are difficult to challenge, as they are generally accepted as true and without much reflection; furthermore, it seems unsafe and useless to engage in any challenge at all, thereby feeding the same lack of deliberation.

Two more impulses assail democratic times as opposed to previous traditions:  a desire to control judges and to recognise only associations that submit to state power, for which they need to be surveyed, together with their members.  Once more, one cannot but recognise the level of scrutiny that EU minions are placing on Polish and Hungarian actions, regardless of their wide support on behalf of their respective civil societies.

As a consequence, Tocqueville distinguishes a view that is not far from the claimed paradise towards which cultural elites want to lead us:

Over a mass of equal people, a huge tutelary power has risen in order to provide them exclusively with their pleasures and to look after their destiny.  It is absolute, thorough, consistent, foreseeing and soft.  It would resemble paternal authority if, likewise, it would seek to prepare men for adulthood; but on the contrary, it pursues to block them irrevocably in infancy; it enjoys citizens having pleasure, as long as they do not think about anything else.  It works willingly for their happiness; but only if it is their only representative and judge; it looks after their security, previews and assures their needs, allows for their pleasures, manages their most important businesses, leads their industry, regulates their intergenerational links, divides their inheritance; what would it not do in order to take away their trouble of thinking and their pain of living?

Therefore, there is a significant likelihood that our will be weakened, and that our nations “be reduced to nothing more than a herd of animals, subdued and hardworking, of which government is the shepherd.”  ECR members would concur with the catastrophic effect of this national degradation.

In order to avoid this phenomenal risk of despotism in our democratic age, Tocqueville takes a new look at European history in his concluding chapters and ascertains that an aristocracy was actually sharing power with the monarch, so that this was limited; people, the subjects of the monarch, where governed through those independent representatives, the aristocrats, which the monarch could neither create nor destroy nor submit to his absolute will.

It is difficult to replicate the same independence in our times.  This is why Tocqueville turns to three institutions that, to some extent, can counterbalance oppression:  the press, the judiciary, and the granting of individual rights to each and every citizen.

That is also why, in his opinion, granting freedom of the press is particularly necessary in a democracy.  Though we could finally ask the great French scholar whether freedom of the press guarantees independence of same…

Source of image:  Wikipedia.