Friday, August 6, 2010
Alexis de Tocqueville’s Classic Text on American Democracy
Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) was a French aristocrat whose family lost its estate under the French Revolution. He came to America in 1831 after being commissioned by the French government to study the American prison system, but his study turned out to be a much more extensive study that examined the nature of the American people and democracy in America. His history and anthropology Democracy in America (De la démocratie en Amérique) came out in 1835 in the first volume and in 1840 in the second. This classic of history and political science analyzes a why republican representative democracy has succeeded in the United States while failing in other places. De Tocqueville seeks to apply the functional aspects of democracy in America to what he sees as the failings of democracy in France, to report on the tendencies of the hearts and souls of the American people, to understand what drives them, and to forecast warnings to the readers as to how this new experiment in government may head into troubled waters. De Tocqueville remains humble in his pretensions in the book, acknowledging that “Time has not yet shaped [the fledging United States] it into perfect form” (Part II, Fourth Book, Chapter 8, ¶ 1623) and thus some of his warnings and predictions may as of yet be premature.
It is perhaps ironic that it was a French aristocrat who wrote the definitive text on American democracy. De Tocqueville’s noble birth and aristocratic background offered him the leisure of carrying out such a massive study, as well as several others, including one on the colonization system of French Algeria.
2. De Tocqueville’s Conservative Liberalism
He does, however, view general progress in human history. However, he does not concede that this has necessarily led to an amelioration over the state of affairs of men. “No man, upon the earth, can as yet affirm absolutely and generally, that the new state of the world is better than its former one; but it is already easy to perceive that this state is different” (Part II, Fourth Books, ¶ 1621). This progress includes the annihilation of the feudal system and the vanquishing of king and has led to “the advantage of democracy” (Part I, Chapter 1, ¶ 9) and to the general “equality of conditions” of men who now stand equally in their political and economic opportunities (not in their economic condition) in life (Part I, Chapter 1, ¶ 10). “The gradual development of the equality of conditions is … a providential fact, and it possesses all the characteristics of a divine decree: it is universal, it is durable, it constantly eludes all human interference, and all events as well as all men contribute to its progress” (Part I, Chapter 1, ¶ 9). This is a general progress and evolution that history has never yet experienced; de Tocqueville finds “no parallel to what is occurring before my eyes: as the past has ceased to throw its light upon the future” (Part II, Fourth Book, Chapter 8, ¶ 1623).
The printing press, Protestantism, firearms, and a host of other factors have led to this leveling off and equality of conditions, all under the hand of Providence and divine decree. “To attempt to check democracy would be in that case to resist the will of God; and the nations would then be constrained to make the best of the social lot awarded to them by Providence” (Part I, Chapter 1, ¶ 11). “[W]e obstinately fix our eyes on the ruins which may still be described upon the shore we have left, whilst the current sweeps us along, and drives us backwards towards the gulf” ((Part I, Chapter 1, ¶ 12). Thus, for De Tocqueville, the coming of democracy is the inevitable pinnacle of a general progress within history at the hand of God. Yet as we will see, he is not a proponent of socialism or of the general redistribution of wealth among the populace.
3. Civil Society and Townships
Everywhere in America, de Tocqueville would find spontaneous local associations of citizens who would bind together to solve some problem that has cropped up, without even appealing to the authorities. Civil society was its own government. Yet when the authorities were appealed to, de Tocqueville found that it was local government in the townships that was most important. This emphasis on the political unit being closest to society would later take form in Abraham Kuyper’s teaching on sphere sovereignty and in the Catholic teaching of subsidiarity under Pope Leo XIII. It was a hallmark of liberty and independence in the American mind. In the laws of New England, “we find the germ and gradual development of that township independence which is the life and mainspring of American liberty at the present day” (Part I, Chapter 2, ¶ 77). However, in his analysis of townships as well as of other subjects, de Tocqueville appears to dismiss out of hand the south. This may be in part to support his thesis and praise of democracy, for the south lagged behind the north and continued to institute slavery during de Tocqueville’s visit. Yet it is more likely that he found the heart and essence of America to be found in New England’s culture and, particularly, its Puritan faith and culture, which he believed would ultimately set the tone for national culture and politics.
De Tocqueville analyzes political associations in Part II of his work as a force that strengthens civil society and protects young democracies from the forces of tyranny and despotism. He writes that an “association for political, commercial, or manufacturing purposes, or even for those of science and literature, is a powerful and enlightened member of the community, which cannot be disposed of at pleasure, or oppressed without remonstrance; and which, by defending its own rights against the encroachments of the government, saves the common liberties of the country” (Part II, Fourth Book, Chapter 7, ¶ 1613). In a democracy where no classes exist to protect each of their members from tyrannical acts, associations are formed to protect men otherwise set apart, isolated, and weakened. The press is essential within this framework, for through it, men are able to make their appeals to fellow men for assistance.
4. Political Associations
De Tocqueville also gives extensive treatment of political associations in the United States. In chapter 12, he describes those associations that Americans have established and “unsparingly applied to a multitude of different objects” (Part I, Chapter 12, ¶ 401). Political associations are formed for a multitude of purposes: “to promote public order, commerce, industry, morality, and religion” (¶ 403). Americans only make recourse to authority when doing so is unavoidable. Otherwise, they band together in voluntary associations to deal with public and private affairs.
While de Tocqueville’s general tone towards political associations in America is generally highly positive, he offers the reader a strong warning as well: “If, in a people which is imperfectly accustomed to the exercise of freedom, or which is exposed to violent political passions, a deliberating minority, which confines itself to the contemplation of future laws, be placed in juxtaposition to the legislative majority, I cannot but believe that public tranquillity incurs very great risks in that nation” (¶ 408). However, de Tocqueville concedes that “the unrestrained liberty of political association has not hitherto produced, in the United States, those fatal consequences which might perhaps be expected from it elsewhere” (¶ 415). Rather, the presence of these associations is highly beneficial, for they are needed to “prevent the despotism of faction or the arbitrary power of a prince” (¶ 416).
5. On Faith and Its Relation to Morality and Liberty
De Tocqueville ties freedom in America with the faith that imbues the American people. The link between faith and liberty is unbreakable: “Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot” (Part I, Chapter 17, ¶ 745). A people can only be free civilly if it submits to and pledges allegiance to some other law, which governs the people and keeps order. De Tocqueville asks rhetorically: “How is it possible that society should escape destruction if the moral tie be not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed? and what can be done with a people which is its own master, if it be not submissive to the Divinity?” (Part I, Chapter 17, ¶ 745). A people without a strong central government will evolve into anarchy if morality is not there to check the consciences of the people. In the words of de Tocqueville, “Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith” (Introduction, ¶ 23). “Religion is no less the companion of liberty in all its battles and its triumphs; the cradle of its infancy, and the divine source of its claims. The safeguard of morality is religion, and morality is the best security of law and the surest pledge of freedom” (Part I, Chapter 2, ¶ 83).
The Americans “combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other” (Part I, Chapter 17, ¶ 742).
The strong role religion played in the United States was due to its separation from the government. According to the many members of the various denominations and the clergy that de Tocqueville interviewed, “the peaceful dominion of religion” was mainly attributed “to the separation of Church and State. I do not hesitate to affirm that during my stay in America I did not meet with a single individual, of the clergy or of the laity, who was not of the same opinion upon this point” (Part I, Chapter 17, ¶ 747). He contrasts this to France, where “the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom pursuing courses diametrically opposed to each other” (Part I, Chapter 17, ¶ 747). The connection between church and state in France led to an unhealthy antagonism between democrats and religion.
This separation of church and state in America has been made possible by the Gospel’s distinction of a heavenly kingdom that is distinct from the temporal world order. Christ does not consider his kingdom to be of this world. De Tocqueville contrasts this quality of Christianity with Islam, a religious system that also comprises a fully integrated worldview for law, society, and government: “Mahommed professed to derive from Heaven, and he has inserted in the Koran, not only a body of religious doctrines, but political maxims, civil and criminal laws, and theories of science. The gospel, on the contrary, only speaks of the general relations of men to God and to each other—beyond which it inculcates and imposes no point of faith” (Part II, First Book, Chapter 5, ¶ 1103). Based on this important distinction, he concludes that while the Christian faith is fully compatible with democracy, Islam cannot be. Islam “will never long predominate in a cultivated and democratic age, whilst [Christianity] is destined to retain its sway at these as at all other periods” (Part II, First Book, Chapter 5, ¶ 1103).
Throughout Democracy in America, de Tocqueville praises and endorses the equality that has developed in the natural course of events in American history. The equality he is treating is not, however, to be confused with oneness of economic conditions among the classes. Rather, it is an equality of conditions that allows all men to participate in their government and to engage in useful economic activities. This equality is manifested in a community where all of the members “take a part in the government, and that each of them has an equal right to take a part in it” (Part II, Second Book, Chapter 1, ¶ 1243). In such a state, “none is different from his fellows, none can exercise a tyrannical power: men will be perfectly free, because they will all be entirely equal; and they will all be perfectly equal, because they will be entirely free. To this ideal state democratic nations tend” (Part II, Second Book, Chapter 1, ¶ 1243).
Much of Democracy in America, and especially Part II, sets out to “point out the dangers to which the principle of equality exposes the independence of man” (Part II, Fourth Book, Chapter 8, ¶ 1622). De Tocqueville sets out the general dangers that attend to equality, including the possibility of despotism and the fear that some hold that equality inevitably leads to anarchy or to servitude. Refuting these claims, he takes a realistic view to the nature of equality in democratic nations, the dangers it can lead to, and the corrective measures that can be undertaken.
People in democratic nations, he says, love equality much more than liberty. The most perfect form of equality requires complete freedom. Yet imperfect equality can allow for great despotism. Equality is so deeply ingrained in laws, social conditions, mores, habits and opinions that destroying it would be extremely difficult. Political liberty, on the other hand, is easily lost. In addition, the dangers of liberty are immediate and easy to see, but the dangers of equality are subtle and visible only in the long run. Conversely, the benefits of liberty can only be seen over time and exercising liberty requires sacrifice, while the advantages of equality are felt immediately and easy to obtain. In most modern nations, equality preceded liberty, and it is a more deep-seated passion. As a result, democratic peoples want equality even if it means losing liberty.
However, de Tocqueville is not without his warnings. He writes that “the vices which despotism engenders are precisely those which equality fosters” (Part II, Second Book, Chapter 4, ¶ 1255) and that “it is easier to establish an absolute and despotic government amongst a people in which the conditions of society are equal, than amongst any other …. Despotism therefore appears to me peculiarly to be dreaded in democratic ages” (Part II, Fourth Book, Chapter 7, ¶ 1610). He contrasts aristocratic countries, which abound in wealthy and influential persons who cannot be easily or secretly oppressed, with democratic countries, which contain no such class of persons who “restrain a government within general habits of moderation and reserve” (Part II, Fourth Book, Chapter 7, ¶ 1611). However, private citizens in a democracy can combine together and constitute bodies of great wealth, influence, and strength, creating a class that by artificial means corresponds to the persons of an aristocracy, and in this way, guard the democracy from despotism or tyranny. These civil associations, combined with the power of the press and the general rights that all citizens equally enjoy under law give way to an active, provident, and powerful civil society unheard of in aristocratic nations.
This equality is not to be confused with socialism or equality of economic condition. De Tocqueville notes that Americans are a hardworking people that takes private property seriously: “I know of no country, indeed, where the love of money has taken stronger hold on the affections of men, and where the profounder contempt is expressed for the theory of the permanent equality of property” (Part I, Chapter 2, ¶ 96). The ideas of taxation and redistribution are foreign to the American mind. “In no country in the world is the love of property more active and more anxious than in the United States; nowhere does the majority display less inclination for those principles which threaten to alter, in whatever manner, the laws of property” (Part I, Chapter 21, ¶ 1518).