Tocqueville’s Democracy: Critical Yet Hopeful

Aditya Khan
7 min readDec 9, 2019
Alexis de Tocqueville. (Source: History.com)

Alexis de Tocqueville disliked the French monarchy. Though owning his own claims to aristocracy, Tocqueville, a classical liberal at heart, always supported a moderate parliamentary democracy. Unfortunately, for him, such a proposition was rare at the time. After all, the 1800s was still in the age of kings. In the French parliament, he fiercely defended abolition of slavery and free trade, all the while, supporting the colonization of Algeria. But perhaps most importantly, he hated the idea of revolution and a loss of order. In other words, a politician ahead of his time, with a few views that were par for the course at the time. So, when Tocqueville heard of the American experiment, a truly rare claim to democracy, he was rightly excited. As such, when he received the permit from the July Monarchy to travel to America to inspect its penitentiaries, Tocqueville along with his friend, Gustave de Beaumont, he instead took the trip to evaluate America’s democracy and make a few crucial postulations about its nature.

Tocqueville was overall, impressed by the American democratic system. He lauded the fact that democracy truly equalized the playing field for people. Coming from a monarchist background himself, he saw this equality as a great boon for the people. Equally though, he saw how this same democracy and the equality it created, could turn into a negative as well. As such, much of the writing and analysis he made of American democracy was critical. The important distinction to make is that he was not critical out of spite to the idea of democracy, but rather, to make sure that people knew that democracy was not infallible. To make democracy work, its constituents must first be able to make it work, and that is what Tocqueville wanted to get across.

The Individual in Democracy

Tocqueville came from a monarchical society, where social classes were defined, and people had little to no movement up (or down) the social ladder. The poor and the regular people had no care for money, as they knew that they could never rise up the social ladder. Equally, the aristocrats never had care for money either, as they could throw money around without facing any repercussions. So, when Tocqueville found America, where because of the system of government, there was no such thing as birthright titles, he was truly intrigued. Because of this, no one held a sense of fatalism within their country. Every American thought that they could ‘pull themselves up by the bootstraps’ — that it was possible for anyone to make a fortune and it was admirable for everyone to strive to do so. No one held any spite towards the rich people and reserved moral judgement for the poor people, all because they knew that everyone had the opportunity to succeed.

Tocqueville foresaw how this sense of a constant struggle to move up social classes, while good, could lead to materialism. Because money was the greatest way to make a fortune, everything in society could become monetized. Even things like toys for little children could become prey for the clutches of materialism. Profit could become a test of goodness, in a democratic society. As such, Tocqueville saw democracy and capitalism as the great equalizers in society, but also, a potentially oppressive way for people to judge each other, and judge goods, all the perceived merit of how much they/it was worth.

Another potential harm that Tocqueville saw from the removal of the prerogative of birth and inheritance, was the envy of the people, that a democratic society could embrace. Because in a democratic society, the social statuses are fluid, people are overly ambitious to make as much money as possible. This leads to a culture of envy, as the poor and the middle class start to resent the rich people, for their achievements and wealth. Even though in a democratic society like America, where the rich people are almost always self-made, poor people start to demonize them. Because democracy had dismantled every societal barrier, all societal members thought themselves to be equal, even though it is simply impossible for everyone to achieve material equality is a good way. To quote Tocqueville, “when inequality is the general rule in society, the greatest inequalities attract no attention. But when everything is more or less level, the slightest variation is noticed…” That is why, even in the greatest of ages, people who live in a democracy will always feel a sort of melancholy at their status in life.

Finally, Tocqueville discussed how democracy can turn the general people against the authorities and educated in society. In a society where people perceive everyone to be equal, commoners will often come to resent those who naturally have more knowledge and expertise in a subject. There is a reason that many of us these days rant against people know more about their subject field, even though we don’t know any better than them.

The Group and Society

Where the individual could harm democracy, Tocqueville thought it equally likely that the group could harm democracy as well. To explain this, Tocqueville formulated the ‘tyranny of the majority’ theory. If a government were to be elected by the majority, as is in democracy, that government will always represent the majority and do its best to pander to those people, so they can continue to get their votes. Therefore, the government essentially rules upon what the majority, instead of what is right. Because of this, the minority dissenters could have their opinions be called illegitimate, regardless of how correct or incorrect their opinions are.

“The authority of a king is purely physical, and it controls the actions of the subject without subduing his private will; but the majority possesses a power which is physical and moral at the same time; it acts upon the will as well as upon the actions of men, and it represses not only all contest but all controversy. I know no country in which there is so little true independence of mind and freedom of discussion as in America.” — Alexis de Tocqueville

This ties into the next harm associated with ‘the group’ — the unintentional repression of opinion. In a democratic society, where everyone can and wants to rise up the social and monetary ladder, people will be very careful not to step out of line from their neighbours, who might be their future customers or managers. Because of this, people will be more likely to simply stick to the established and trot our clichés. This is especially so, for people trying to sell something. There is a reason why literally all products, even if they are from different brands, are very similar these days.

Tocqueville’s Solution

Where Tocqueville realized that democracy was not infallible, he also realized that many of these issues that could crop up were not unfixable. Tocqueville’s solution is actually a rather simple concept: it’s a strong, cohesive social culture. However, while simple, a cohesive social culture is a profound idea and increasingly hard to make sure it happens. And for Tocqueville, this was best achieved with religion. Tocqueville believed that religion should be a choice for the people to follow, but also that a vibrant religious life is crucial towards maintaining order in society and preserving its preservation and prosperity. Because a common religion has an inherent ability to bring people together and give them a strong moral code they could follow at the same time, it is the best counterweight to many of the issues with democracy. For example, let’s take the problems with the individual in society — materialism and envy. Tocqueville realized that religion taught people that there were things in the universe more important than money and encouraged them to lift their eyes beyond the petty concerns of daily life and concentrate on higher and more distant goals. This takes away the issue of materialism. As for the issue of envy, religion teaches people about the virtue in the humility of self. Envy and pride are both sins all the Abrahamic religions and would therefore largely be a non-issue in a religious society. Even, the issues of the ‘group in society’ would be mostly erased. For example, the tyranny of the majority would not nearly be as magnified, due to the inherent brotherhood between people that religion promotes.

Of course, Tocqueville was afraid that in a materialistic society, a minority of human beings, reacting in disgust against what they saw around them, would become religious fanatics and adopt extreme views. His solution to this was that having a large presence of organized religion in society could remove much of the radical sentiment that people could grow. Having religion being a regular part of life takes away the incentive for religion to be used as a club to hammer down established institutions.

Furthermore, Tocqueville believed that the only way that this solution would be successful would be to have a separation between the church and state. Firstly, government-sponsored religion would be a violation of the freedom of people. Secondly, separating church and state would mean that the government can not use religion as propaganda to pass laws. Thirdly, Tocqueville believed that a government-sponsored religion risked the discredit of religion once the government became unpopular, as governments always eventually do.

A Look to the Present

Many of Tocqueville’s criticisms are looking more and more valid these days. Materialism, of course, has always been an issue in the urban centres in the West, but even the issue of envy is becoming mainstream these days. In America, you legitimately have presidential candidates who run their platform on taking away money from the rich, feeding the envy of the general populous. There is a reason that Tocqueville wrote and thought vehemently against socialism. All of this has become more and more common as religion is slowly slipping away from the public sphere, especially in major cities in the north of America. As such, many of the things that Tocqueville warned us against, nowadays, originate from that general region.

Of course, in current society, a religious revival in those places in the country is still far away. Creating a common culture where everyone cares about each other is the next best alternative. But, even the attempts at creating a common America ethos and culture to replace religion, has failed, with the division between political parties and geographical regions in the country continuing to grow. Lest our society further fall prey to the ills that Tocqueville described, it is time for not only America, but also other countries to, if not have a religious revival, at least regain a common culture.

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Aditya Khan

First year university student. Sometimes likes to write stuff.