Democracy in America: Theme Analysis
The Worldwide Democratic Revolution
Tocqueville repeats throughout his book what he declares in the Introduction: “the democracy which governs the American communities appears to be rapidly rising into power in Europe . . .a great democratic revolution is going on among us” (Intro, p. 3). The author admits many are not happy about this revolution, because they are attached to other forms of governance, as in France, where monarchy and aristocracy are still fighting against the new democratic impulses. Tocqueville himself has mixed feelings about democracy because he is an aristocrat, yet one thing he is certain of by reviewing history: “The gradual development of the principle of equality is . . . a providential fact . . . it is universal, it is lasting, it constantly eludes all human interference” (Intro, p. 6). He demonstrates, from the ancient to the modern world, how all the institutions--the church, government, and commerce--are constantly undergoing a democratizing process allowing more and more people to participate in governing their lives and to establish social equality. This kind of justice for the people seems to be the will of God, and so it is useless to resist such a divinely appointed historical force.
Tocqueville implies that Providence blesses those who try to live in a democratic state, as the Americans were blessed with the huge continent of North America to try their experiment: “Their ancestors gave them the love of equality and of freedom; but God himself gave them the means of remaining equal and free, by placing them upon a boundless continent” (Chpt. XVII, p. 291). People in a democracy are prosperous, because through majority rule, they are responsible for making themselves happy.
This impulse for equality and self-government is the process happening in Europe at the present time, and Tocqueville constantly contrasts America to what is going on in France, England, Holland, and Switzerland, and sometimes he brings in Mexico and Canada. He also compares and contrasts the ancient democracies in Greece and Rome to American democracy. His audience is not Americans but Europeans. He makes it clear there is no one standard form of democracy. He likes some of the American innovations such as the unique form of federalism, and worries about other things, like the tyranny of majority opinion. He feels he needs to go into the details for Europeans to reflect upon for themselves. This is his service to a world eager for democracy but perhaps unsure what are the advantages and pitfalls.
Tocqueville understands the fear of going blindly into a sudden rule by majority. Those aristocratic and hereditary forces that have kept European countries stable for centuries are eroding while the new democratic pressure is building, yet Europeans have not the same safety net of democratic habits and institutions Americans have to rely on. He points out that Mexico, for instance, tried to copy the American laws but failed, because the people have a different history. Tocqueville became one of the first to recognize the importance of this worldwide phenomenon of democracy and the need to study it scientifically. The enlightenment philosophers of the eighteenth century had led the way (Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau), but for them, it was still theory. For Tocqueville, democracy was a modern revolution here to stay.
America Is the Most Important Example of Democratic Government and Social Equality in the World
In France, says Tocqueville in a later Preface to the book, the people are struggling to institute democracy, but this problem “was solved by America more than sixty years ago,” and it remains “the most stable, of all the nations on earth” (Preface, p. cvi). Tocqueville wrote this Preface to a reprint of his book in 1848, the amazing year of European revolutions called “The Spring of Nations” that justified his initial predictions about democracy in 1835. That was the year when revolutionary and democratic upheavals all over Europe and South America shook the world, and traditional authority collapsed overnight, a phenomenon that has been recalled by many as they watch the “Arab Spring” in 2011.
Tocqueville comments: “While all the nations of Europe have been devastated by war or torn by civil discord, the American people alone in the civilized world have remained at peace” (Preface, p. cvii). Democracy may be associated with bloody revolution in Europe, but Tocqueville’s book is a testament to how the Americans established self-government and maintained it with stability and peace. He tells his readers that it is necessary to take America as an example, and that the world should “borrow from her the principles, rather than the details, of her laws” (Preface, p. xvii).
What are those principles? He says they are order, balance of powers, liberty, and respect for the right. In Europe, there are so many conflicting ideas and institutions left over from former days of monarchy that it is not easy to see what works or what does not. America, however, presents a nation that sprang up directly as a republic in a mature manner, with laws and records to study, so that one can understand exactly the influence of democracy on a people.
To worried Frenchmen, thinking democracy is the same as anarchy, Tocqueville relates the story of meeting another Frenchman who had become an American citizen. In France, the man was a notorious leveler and rebel, preaching democracy. In Europe, such men are violent and radical in their behavior. In America forty years later, the man is a wealthy landowner and quite conservative, religious, and an upholder of the law. The conclusion is that when people are given self-government and opportunity, they have vested interests in running the country in an orderly and peaceful way (Chapter XVII). Americans, therefore, are not theoreticians of democracy. They know the laws “by participating in the act of legislation” (Chpt. XVII, p. 318).
The Americans are not better than other people, but they have made “great and successful efforts to counteract these imperfections of human nature and to correct the natural defects of democracy. . . . although they were the first to make the experiment, they have succeeded in it” (Chpt. XVII, p. 325). The author looks forward to the future when “one hundred and fifty million men will be living in North America, equal in condition” (Chpt. XVIII, p. 434). This makes America the nation to watch as the model for others who would try democracy. He would no doubt be even more impressed by the actual 310 million Americans continuing the experiment today, though we cannot claim to have done it without wars.
Democracy Must Be Guided and the Majority Rule Checked
Democracy may be ultimately benign and sanctioned by God, but it is a wild natural force like wind or flood that must be controlled though laws and government. In a monarchy, there were the checks of the aristocratic groups on the king. Similarly, rule by majority needs to have checks on it, or else there will be a tyranny by group instead of by one person. Tocqueville finds the American founders were brilliant in their innovative techniques to first give power to the majority and then to put checks on it, so it would not get out of hand.
Tocqueville warns that one of the biggest dangers to democracy is the unlimited power of the majority. The two biggest problems are the legislature and public opinion. The legislature is easily swayed by the majority will, he says. That is why they are elected for brief terms. The other branches of government, the executive (president or governor), and the judiciary or court system, are checks on the laws made by the majority rule, but in 1835 these branches were still inferior to the legislature: “the authority exercised by the legislatures is supreme” (Chpt. XV, p. 257).
What is worse, he thinks, is “the moral authority of the majority” in America (Chpt. XV, p. 255), based on the idea that a collective will or idea cannot be wrong. Americans believe not only in majority rule but also in majority opinion. This is a dangerous situation, for it limits freedom of thought and expression: “I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion” (Chpt. XV, p. 263).
Once an election is over, people are silent, and there are too few organs of criticism, since the American press, he has complained, is not a medium of serious thought. The majority, Tocqueville insists, can be wrong and unjust: “A majority taken collectively is only an individual, whose opinions, and frequently, whose interests, are opposed to those of another individual, who is styled a minority” (Chpt. XV, p. 259). An historical example of this is Puritan Boston that made laws by majority vote that were excessively punitive and repressive. Many examples can be found of minorities in America that did not have rights or a voice.
No human government should have unlimited power. Americans have tried to institute correctives, he mentions, and these are worth studying. One is the legal profession, which exerts a conservative and thoughtful check on the hasty decisions of the majority. Judges not only decide cases according to the law but can also pronounce laws to be unconstitutional. The Federal Constitution is a blueprint of justice that has set up elaborate checks and protections for minorities. All laws are held up to that ideal. The jury system also allows citizens a chance to pronounce on the justice of laws. Local and state government are places where individuals have more power and can mitigate the direction of the national majority.
Tocqueville mentions that there should be a political science to study the various issues and options for a democracy to make sure it can maintain itself in justice. Despite all the legal forms, however, the most important ingredient is the manner of the people that provides the spirit of the law. Americans, he found, are from birth inculcated with the idea of equality. The Constitution may guarantee them political rights, but Americans also hold the idea in their hearts that there are “certain inalienable rights” for human beings.
Without this moral dimension to democracy, inherent in the spirit of the people, democracy is hard to maintain. Tocqueville credits the moral dimension of American democracy as coming from the religious beginning of the country in its Puritan legacy. The separation of church and state has not meant the demise of religion, he finds, but rather, it results in the cooperation of government and religion. Morality is thus the greatest and most effective restraint on the unlimited license of the majority, though it is the most intangible.