Discussion: Tocqueville's Democracy in America
In Democracy in America, Tocqueville outlines the possible outcomes of the inevitable trend towards democratization and equalization of the social order. As the aristocracy wanes and connections based on traditional bonds become weaker, an aristocratic society in which a strong secondary power is able to challenge the sovereign becomes less and less tenable. For Tocqueville, once society becomes a collection of equal individuals, there are two possible societies that can emerge: one of participation and liberty, and another of general apathy and despotism. Tocqueville views despotism as a likely outcome of a society in which there is little or no solidarity and the only drive is towards achieving one's self-interest. In this sort of society, individuals are too absorbed in looking out for their own self interest, thereby ceding control over anything outside of their own sphere to a despotic state. The only way to prevent such an outcome, according to Tocqueville, is by creating a system in which the individual members of a society are actively trained to debate and resolve collective outcomes and are thereby forced out of the domain of their self-interest. It is only through participation in such a system that individuals can evade despotism.
The increased individualism of the modern era provides a stumbling block that must be overcome in order for a free society to exist. Whereas a stratified, hierarchical society created a system of mutual obligation in which people are linked, modern society creates a much less acute sense of obligation that is diffused throughout humanity. Because the traditional ties which united people are broken, an increased sense of individualism "disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends . . . leav[ing] the greater society to look after itself" (506). Ignoring any external obligations, the isolated individual feels no responsibility for collective outcome, instead immersing himself in the world of individual self-interest and competition. The results of this equality and individualism create a supportive environment for despotism. "Equality puts men side by side without a common link to hold them firm. Despotism raises barriers to keep them apart. It disposes them not to think of their fellows and turns indifference into a sort of public virtue" (510). The breaking of traditional bonds and the individualism this creates is a danger that must be counteracted if free society is to endure.
For Tocqueville, free society must combat these tendencies towards despotism by involving its citizens in mutual decision-making processes, preventing individuals from withdrawing into a world of pure individualism and requiring that they consider the public good. Due to the existence of local governments, "there [is] an infinite number of occasions for the citizens to act together and so . . . every day they should feel that they depend on one another" (511). Citizens involved in deciding minor matters can see more easily and concretely that an individual's destiny is not completely in his hands, but that matters of state have an impact on his well-being. This creates dedication to the system and causes individuals to concentrate on deliberation over political matters and develop an understanding of the common good. These artificial associations to not exist solely in the political sphere, and associations existing in civil society reinforce the trends of political awareness and deliberation. By using the same method of "pursuing in common the objects of common desires and . . . appl[ying] this new technique to the greatest number of purposes" (514), citizens in a free democracy are able to further entrench the ideals of participation in political affairs and collective decision-making. Unlike despotic subjects, who leave public affairs to the state and concentrate exclusively on their individual interest, "citizens who are bound to take part in public affairs must turn from the private interests and occasionally take a look at something other than themselves" (510).
Tocqueville sees the transition from an aristocratic order of involuntary, built-in ties to one in which individuals have no great obligation towards one another as having many potential dangers that can only be remedied through the creation of artificial associations in which people are trained to deliberate on the common good. In order that society does not fall into the trap of despotism, citizens must not be interested solely in civil society and self-interest, but must become accustomed to voluntary associations in which everyone plays a part in making collective decisions. Citizens must be trained to see the outside world as relevant to themselves and must become dedicated to the system of self-government if the system is to be maintained. Without such experience, individuals are likely to withdraw, ceding their right to self-govern and making despotism inevitable.
Go back to my main page.