The Pathos of Politics (43) Alex de Tocqueville

Alex de Tocqueville

The main evil of the present democratic institutions of the United States does not arise, from their weakness, but from their overpowering strength. I am not so much alarmed at the excessive liberty which reigns in that country, as at the very inadequate securities which exist against tyranny. ~ Alex de Tocqueville

French political scientist, historian, and politician Alex de Tocqueville (1805–1859) had a liberal aristocratic background. He spent 9 months in the United States (1831–1832), ostensibly to study its prisons. From that experience de Tocqueville wrote a keen analysis of the vitality, excesses, and potential of American democracy.

I know no country in which there is so little true independence of mind and freedom of discussion as in America. ~ Alex de Tocqueville

de Tocqueville’s 2-volume Democracy in America (1835, 1840) was a seminal work of sociology and political science; an impressively prescient accomplishment for a man barely 30 years old when the 1st volume was published. His thematic intent – that a properly organized society could retain liberty in a democracy – became flotsam in what he found.

The taste which men have for liberty, and that which they feel for equality, are, in fact, 2 different things; and I am not afraid to add, that, among democratic nations, they are 2 unequal things. ~ Alex de Tocqueville

de Tocqueville understood that the federalism upon which America’s founding fathers had hoped would lend itself to largely local control was contradicted by democratic forces, which tended toward centralization.

Almost all the able and ambitious members of a democratic community will labour without ceasing to extend the powers of government, because they all hope at some time or other to wield those powers. It is a waste of time to attempt to prove to them that extreme centralization may be injurious to the State, since they are centralizing for their own benefit. ~ Alex de Tocqueville

de Tocqueville noted the paradoxical lust for and resentment of power in a democratic system. This is reflected today in the low opinion the public has of government; the very same public that constantly lobbies to siphon as much leverage and largesse out of the government that it can.

Democratic nations often hate those in whose hands the central power is vested; but they always love that power itself. ~ Alex de Tocqueville

The most chilling foretelling by de Tocqueville was the nascent socioeconomic inequality which he witnessed under the American political system.

Not only are the rich not compactly united among themselves, but there is no real bond between them and the poor. The poor have few means of escaping from their condition and becoming rich.

The manufacturer asks nothing of the workman but his labour; the workman expects nothing from him but his wages. The one contracts no obligation to protect, nor the other to defend; and they are not permanently connected either by habit or by duty.

The territorial aristocracy of former ages was either bound by law, or thought itself bound by usage, to come to the relief of its serving-men, and to succor their distresses. But the manufacturing aristocracy of our age first impoverishes and debases the men who serve it, and then abandons them to be supported by the charity of the public. This is a natural consequence of what has been said before. Between the workman and the master there are frequent relations, but no real partnership.

The manufacturing aristocracy which is growing up under our eyes, is one of the harshest which ever existed in the world. If ever a permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy again penetrate into the world, it may be predicted that this is the channel by which they will enter. ~ Alex de Tocqueville

Despite this, de Tocqueville could not betray his liberal heart. He retained an unsupported optimism that the world of man was perfectible, and that democracy was the instrumental polity by which such perfection may be attained. As history has shown, his apprehensions were truer than his hopes.

I am full of apprehensions and of hopes. I perceive mighty dangers which it is possible to ward off – mighty evils which may be avoided or alleviated; and I cling with a firmer hold to the belief, that for democratic nations to be virtuous and prosperous they require but to will it. ~ Alex de Tocqueville