Part 2 of Volume One begins with Tocqueville briefly noting that up until this section, he has only bothered with explaining the theories and structures of the government and the social state of the American union. Part 2, he writes, will be concerned with filling these theories with the substance of the power behind its words. It is the ‘invisible hand’ of democratic function that Tocqueville seeks to explain here.
Chapter one is only about three paragraphs and takes up only half a page. He simply reiterates the general idea of democracy, writing that although the will of the people is manifested in their elected officials, it is this same will that can depose, remove, or reelect these officials should the will be violated. Being democratic in nature, this will remains dependent upon majority rule, and as such, they are organized according to political parties—no different from any other parliamentary form of representative government.
Tocqueville mentions that, in some instances, countries can become so large that their boundaries end up encompassing different peoples altogether, which then pluralizes the interests of the country to such a degree that national sovereignty is compromised and separate nations are formed. Periodically, this is accompanied by civil war, as it is rival and distinct peoples who are fighting, rather than separate factions. A political party is, then, “a gathering of men who, without sharing the bond of common birth, view certain points in a certain way” (279). The citizenry and political classes can hold distinct opinions on details and notions of the implementation of law while having a generally common consensus as to the principles of government. As such, distinct parties can thrive without serving to the detriment of the federal polity.
Parties come in various forms and in service of various ends, Tocqueville writes. He refers to them as “an evil inherent in free governments” while acknowledging that “they do not have the same character and the same instincts in all periods of time” (280). He differentiates between small parties and great ones, explaining how small parties tend to dominate the political regime during periods in which “the changes that take place in the political constitution and social state of peoples are so slow and so imperceptible, that men think they have arrived at a final state” (280). The individuals of such periods grow lax and more impulsive, ceasing to think of the greater inter-generational consequences of their political actions.
Small parties, he says, are typically dominated by the egos of their leaders, speak boldly or violently, but are generally devoid of what he calls political faith. Their actions and course is confused and uncertain. “Great parties,” Tocqueville says, “turn society upside down; small ones trouble it; the ones tear it apart and the others deprave it. Both have a common trait, however: to reach their ends, they hardly ever use means that conscience approves completely” (281).
Tocqueville continues on by describing the short history of the political parties in the United States up to that time. Upon the adoption of the second government, founded on the principles outlined in the Constitution, two parties became dominant. The first dubbed themselves the Federalists, who wanted to limit popular democracy and remain as close as possible to the founding documents as possible. The second: the Republicans, who, in Tocqueville’s words, “claimed to be the exclusive lover of liberty” (282). The Federalists remained a minority party even while they held the Presidency under John Adams, and after Jefferson’s election, they were pretty much destroyed as a party. Tocqueville regards this transition—from early Federalism to Jeffersonian Republicanism—to be “one of the most fortunate events that accompanied the birth of the great American union”; he writes:
“The Federalists struggled against the irresistible inclination of their century and country. Their theories, however excellent or flawed, had the fault of being inapplicable as a whole to the society that the Federalists wanted to govern; so what happened under Jefferson would have happened sooner or later. But at least their government let the new republic have time to get established and allowed it afterward to bear, without difficulty, the rapid development of the doctrines that they had fought.” (283-284)
While not outright scornful of the Federalist, slightly more centralized system, Tocqueville’s allegiance to Enlightenment principles of popular democracy are on full display once again. He goes on to remark how the key principles of the Federalist party were incorporated into the Jeffersonian Republicans fairly quickly; this happened in part because, as the Federalists disintegrated as a party, some of them crossed the aisle and begrudgingly became part of their once-opposition. This also happened because, as Tocqueville noted earlier, a fundamental respect and adherence to general governing principles across parties is necessary in the maintenance of any democratic system. As the principles advocated foremost by the Federalists lost the platform for their defense, the opposition had to incorporate them or risk destabilizing the entire early American experiment.
Amusingly, Tocqueville notes that the general placidity of the entire American polity is such that small parties are the only parties present in their system. He remarks at length:
“the United States swarms with small [parties], and public opinion splinters infinitely on questions of details. The pain that is taken there to create parties cannot be imagined; it is not an easy thing to do in our time. In the United States, there is no religious hatred, because religion is universally respected and no one sect is dominant; no class hatred, because the people are everything and no one still dares to struggle against them; finally there are no public miseries to exploit, because the material state of the country offers such an enormous scope to industry that leaving man to himself is enough for him to work wonders. But particular ambition must indeed succeed in creating parties, because it is difficult to throw someone who holds power out of office for the sole reason that you want to take his place. So all the skill of politicians consists of forming parties.” (285)
The sheer lack of necessity facilitates the creation of parties whose biggest disagreements come down to the minutiae of laws and legislation, as the people themselves are not so divided amongst one another, not so aggrieved by social stresses, and not so divisively rich or poor as to have significant problems around which large narratives can be written for their political system. Epic struggles in the political sphere are only possible when epic struggles either exist already within the social state of the nation or can be ginned up to such a degree that people believe that they do.
Tocqueville mentions that, at the base of the two political parties in the United States—and no matter what name or form those parties will take—there exists either the aristocratic or the democratic motivation. These opposing views will not be their obvious or stated goals, he remarks, nor even necessarily conscious ones. The fact is merely that the polity of the American republic is and will always be divided between “the two great parties that have divided men since free societies have existed” (286).
He concludes this chapter by briefly mentioning the status of wealthy individuals with relation to the political parties of the time, and in particular, what happens to the wealthy and pseudo-aristocratic class when the democratic party has managed to obtain an effective monopoly across the government. Although all men, and in particular the rich, will espouse and defend the democratic principles upon which the republic is founded, they will in general hold a great disdain for it. That class of person, wealthy and opulent in his pleasures, yet carrying a distinct reverence for the common and the plain, reveals the hollowness of the American pseudo-aristocracy.
Tocqueville begins Chapter Three with a short aside: he’s not that big a fan of the freedom of the press. The press, he explains, “modifies not only laws, but also mores” (289), and as such, the impact of such a force is of his chief concern in this chapter. He explains that if a middle ground could be found between the propagandistic state press of totalitarianism and the unlicensed free press of an anarchic group could be found, he’d prefer to stake it out. However, he continues, there is no part in the chain that is both logistically feasible and morally defensible between total press freedom and authoritarian control. “You began from the abuses of liberty,” he writes, “and I find you under the feet of a despot” (291).
The press, he writes of the America system, speaks with as much violence as their French contemporaries, yet for seemingly less reason. Despite being a country least likely to spill into bloodshed over political differences, he writes—some forty years before the Civil War, it’s worth remembering—the press predominantly “feeds on hate and envy; it speaks more to passions than to reason; it spreads falsehood and truth all jumbled together”; he notes that “liberty cannot live without it and order can hardly be maintained with it” (293).
And yet, in spite of this the American press is less powerful than that of the French. Tocqueville believes there are several reasons for this. The first is that the American press was founded very early on in its colonial history; Americans, effectively, have grown up with the press and its attacks on established figures for nearly the entirety of the culture’s existence. “The freedom to write,” he explains” is that much more to be feared, the newer it is” (294). As it’s not that new, it’s not much to be feared. In other words, Americans simply aren’t so gullible as to believe everything they read in the papers. Additionally, Tocqueville cites the sheer volume of commercial space given to advertisers in American newspapers in comparison to French ones, and the distinct lack of political discourse and letters in American papers versus their prevalence in the French counterparts.
Another factor that distinguishes the power of the American press is the distinct decentralized nature of it. French media was, at the time of Tocqueville, “concentrated in the same place and, so to speak, in the same hands, for organs of the press are very few in number” (295). By comparison, American printing presses were nearly as common as townships, and predominantly operated independently of one another. Since there are few regulations on the presses themselves, and no restrictions as to licenses or stamps for distribution, anyone can start a paper so long as they can make it affordable. He makes it clear how such a democratic approach to press freedom ensures that the market for journalistic employment is rather high; as a result, “in general journalists in the United States do not have a very high social position; their education is only rudimentary; and the turn of their ideas is often vulgar” (296). As this is the manner in which press freedom is serviced by the majority, so it becomes the rule:
“The spirit of the journalist, in France, is to discuss in a violent, but elevated and often eloquent way, the great interests of the State; if this is not always so, it is because every rule has its exceptions. The spirit of the journalist, in America, is to attack in a course way, unaffectedly and without art, the passions of those whom he addresses, to leave principles behind in order to grab men, to follow men in their private life, and to lay bare their weaknesses and their vices.” (297)
How shameful! In this, at least, America has changed relatively little, even if the dominating forces in the media spheres have centralized and formed conglomerates that would have been undreamed of even in Tocqueville’s France.
He finishes his look at the press by commenting on the relationship that censorship has to the swaying of public opinions. In countries where the regimes are strong and aligned against freedom of the press, it is more common to see martyrs made in the name of fair use of information and the distribution of truth or opinion. However, as the press is granted greater degrees of freedom, clearly, fewer such martyrs are to be found. The public ceases to care as much, and opinions are relegated into the background noise. Social change made manifest through the actions of the free press becomes at once significant yet simultaneously superficial and subject to immediate revision. Lasting impressions and clarity of truth have little place in the pages of a free press.
On that same note, Tocqueville mentions that due to the lack of official censorship, unspoken social guidelines and etiquette act to ban certain subjects from the public discourse to a degree even greater than the means of dictatorial censorship can. Self-censorship, when coupled with the faults mentioned above, lead toward the press becoming a mockery of itself even as it extols its own virtues. Examples of this sort of thing abound even into today’s world.
Chapter 4 – Of Political Association in the United States
Association, Tocqueville writes, is an important aspect of American life in every social stratum, and becomes noticeable even in the way that the children organize themselves for their own games. Tocqueville writes in the margin:
“Of all the countries in the world, America is where the government is least centralized. It is also the one that has taken greatest advantage of association. There is a correlation between these two things.” (302)
By association, he means only the coming together of persons within communities to solve various problems without the interjection of government agents. Tocqueville uses the example of patching roads or other public spaces as a crude example, but then explains the tariff concerns that plagued the early nineteenth century’s political sphere. In the common people’s attempts to make their grievances known to the national polity, several things took place. First, it was publicized in the newspapers, which were distributed across the nation. Next, local groups formed to choose representatives to go to Philadelphia in order to address the tariff problem before a national congregation. Upon the arrival of that congregation, the free association of people then became known as a convention, and the standard congressional model of presentation and legislation was adapted in order to facilitate the proceedings. The result was an address to the people, which stated that Congress had no right to pass a tariff in the first place, and that a lack of free trade was not in the interests of the American people. He neglects to mention what happened after these events, but for the purposes of his example, that really isn’t important.
Tocqueville does note that the dangers with free association are generally avoided by the Americans due to how their ability to associate predated their political system—a system which in fact owes its existence to such a structure in the first place. Allowing the formation and protection of associations independent of the recognized town, state, and federal polities ensures the maintenance of the social fabric independent of a government bureaucracy, while the American ethos itself prevents these associations from supplanting the governmental systems.
He also notes how the nature of democracy itself ensures that associations are typically fleeting and lack significant power in comparison to the lasting institutions of government. The strength of European associations is found through their use of universal suffrage, which constitutes a “moral power given to them by the support of the majority that they always claim to represent” (308). He writes:
“In countries where universal suffrage is allowed, there is never a doubtful majority, because no party can establish itself as the representative of those who did not vote.
Thus, in America, associations can never pretend to represent the majority; they only aim to convince it. They do not want to act, but to persuade; in that, above all, they are different from the political associations of Europe.” (308)
As expected of Tocqueville, his insight into the mechanisms of democracy anticipates the future of the American polity. He notes ominously that such freedom to associate pushes society into a state just short of anarchy, as it allows the formulation of groups that act independently of the governmental structures. And yet, “in countries where associations are free,” he writes, “secret societies are unknown. In America, there are agitators, but not conspirators” (309).
Chapter 5 – Of the Government of Democracy in America
Much of the fifth chapter covers a broad and very wide-ranging variety of topics divided up into numerous small sections. I have organized them here in three parts roughly according to their subjects.
Democratic Instincts and Their Influence
Tocqueville gives the topic of universal suffrage greater attention in this chapter, immediately explaining that the principle, as executed in America, leads to neither the sort of valor nor degeneracy that one could expect in Europe. He remarks that it is “with surprise to find out how common merit was among the governed and how uncommon it was among those governing”, and then he attempts to explain why he believes this is the case (315):
“It is impossible, no matter what you do, to raise the enlightenment of the people above a certain level. Whatever you do to make human learning more accessible, improve the methods of instruction and make knowledge more affordable, you will never be able to have men learn and develop their intelligence without devoting time to the task.” (315)
So the longer one spends studying the arts and humanities, the histories, and the philosophies of politics, the less time one has to actually govern, run his business, and maintain a stable home life. Tocqueville continues by noting how “democratic institutions develop the sentiment of envy in the human heart to a very high degree, not so much because they offer each person the means to become equal to others, but because these means constantly fail those who use them” (316). The manipulation of public opinion has a bigger place in democratic politics than in other forms of government, and the use of such manipulation is easily wielded by various human vices. It is therefore hardly a surprise when those who rise to the top of democratic electorates are those most adept at this manipulation and, presumably, those more susceptible to such vices.
Additionally, Tocqueville mentions how it is a distinctly democratic instinct in societies for the lower classes to be so intensely distrusting of the upper classes. Americans, he notes, while less harsh on this point than the French, still tend to avoid desiring upperclassmen in positions of political power for very long. He comments that Americans “have no hatred” for them, but “they feel little goodwill toward them and carefully keep them out of power; they do not fear great talents, but they appreciate them little” (316-317). This is all due to the influence of universal suffrage. Such a policy has benefits, Tocqueville writes, but ensuring that good decisions among the polity become matters of policy is not one of them.
From here, the topic shifts to how these democratic instincts have in-built corrections. He begins with the fact that when the State is endangered, “you often see people happily choose the citizens most appropriate to save them” (318). The cause of individuals to rise to occasions of hardship or to fall before them is repeated in the macroscopic scope of entire societies; the same pattern emerges. That said, of course, times in which societies are imperiled are generally rare. Tocqueville points out that even if “temporary events sometimes succeed in combating the passions of democracy, enlightenment and, above all, mores exercise a no less powerful and more enduring influence on its inclinations” (319). The social state, the culture, always exert the greatest influence on who will hold the offices of power, he explains, and then contrasts the legislatures of New England, the South, and the newly-settled Midwestern states as examples.
“When you enter the House chamber in Washington,” he continues, “you feel struck by the vulgar aspect of the great assembly” (320). Even the nation’s House of Representatives remains populated by the obscene, and yet, Tocqueville mentions, the Senate maintains its hold on decency and the upstanding mean of the society. He writes that the reason for this discrepancy is due to how the Senatorial elections are removed by a degree from the passions of universal suffrage. While Representatives are voted upon by the electorate directly, Senators are chosen from and voted upon by the state legislatures from which their power is derived. As a result, not only do Senatorial positions come with greater prestige, they tend also to attract men of greater status and dignity. “So the men elected in this way always represent exactly the governing majority of the nation;” Tocqueville writes, “but they represent only the elevated thoughts that circulate in its midst, the generous instincts that animated it, and not the small passions that often trouble it and the vices that dishonor it” (321).
Tocqueville shifts gears here to address the influence of democracy upon the electoral laws, officials, and magistrates of the American system. He repeats his earlier sentiment that that frequent elections add instability to the society that doesn’t exist in more authoritarian systems, and as a result, “on one hand, there is a chance of uneasiness for the State; on the other, a chance for revolution; the first system harms the goodness of government, the second threatens its existence” (322). America, obviously, has attempted to make use of the former rather than the latter. The possibility of sudden administrational or legislative change during an election remains an obstacle to laying long-term social plans at in the political institutions.
He continues with a very brief examination of public officials. “In the eyes of democracy,” he writes, “government is not a good, but a necessary evil”, and as a result, the cultural garb attached to public officials as such is relatively minor (324). The prestige of the office is not worn with either regality or high-mindedness as Lordship or aristocracy in the Old World. The office remains the key point on which respect hinges, not necessarily any singular ego who steps into that office.
Tocqueville also stresses here the importance of salaried positions in the public sphere. “I regard the complete absence of unpaid offices as one of the most visible signs of the absolute dominion that democracy exercises in America”, he writes, going on to explain how such offices imply that “each person has, not only the right, but also the possibility of rendering” the services of those offices (326).
This leads into his comments on the magisterial positions in American democracy. The power that the authorities wield in democratic States is, in Tocqueville’s words, “still greater than in despotic States” (328). Because the authority is held to an elected cycle, the electorate is more willing to let the authority keep degrees of freedom that wouldn’t normally be tolerated without mass dissent in more totalitarian societies. He continues:
“In these [despotic] States, the sovereign can punish in a moment all the misdeeds that he notices, but he cannot flatter himself that he notices all the misdeeds that he should punish. In democracies, on the contrary, the sovereign is simultaneously omnipotent and omnipresent. You see, therefore, that American officials are much freer within the circle of action that the law traces for them than any official in Europe. Often the Americans limit themselves to showing officials the end toward which they must aim, leaving them with the authority to choose the means.” (329)
Point the politician in the right direction and let him work, so the case seems to be. This should not sound all that dissimilar from the general American ethos, which is Tocqueville’s whole point. He contrasts this against the State of monarchical regimes, in which princes distrust their own magistrates, the people distrust their princes and the magistrates, and the magistrates, if given over to the electoral process, find ways of abolishing the princes and becoming dictators.
Democratic Administration and Expenses
“Men hold power only for an instant and then are lost in a crowd that, itself, changes face every day; as a result, the actions of society in America often leave less trace than the actions of a simple family.” (331)
With this, Tocqueville notes how poorly disposed to historicism the American experiment really is. American life is fueled by its day-to-day operations; Americans have, in general, little respect for the administrative organization that prevails in England or France. As Tocqueville sees it, America as a government sustains itself without much interest in posterity. He is quick to point out, however, that there is a countermeasure to this: democracy presupposes and—if it is to function—“a very civilized and learned society”; Tocqueville explains that “it is better suited to a people whose administrative education is already formed than to a people who are inexperienced novices in public affairs” (332). This explains why democratic systems, although at first glance a most rudimentary system of organization, often come about only after the reign of kings or tyrants, and also why they frequently don’t last very long. The system itself relies upon a social state that it rarely does anything to foster or maintain. Tocqueville even mentions how “democracy, pushed to its extreme limits, harms progress in the art of governing” (332).
From here, Tocqueville gets into the manners in which democracy impacts economics and, in particular, public expenditures. He comments on the fact that free societies will always have greater expenditures than despotic ones, writing that “despotism ruins men more by preventing them from being productive, than by taking the fruits of production away from them” (333), although it’s conceivable that despotism does both by equal measure in modern times. With this as a foundation, Tocqueville makes several insightful remarks on the relationship between class, lawmaking, and social welfare.
First he explains that there are generally three distinct classes of wealth in any given free society. There are the rich, the middle-class—whom he explains as having enough to live comfortably but lack considerable fortunes—and the lower class, or those who generally lack properties and “live particularly from the work provided to them by the first two classes” (334). When any one class is given control over the legislation of laws, he says, certain tendencies can be expected. Wealthy law-makers are less inclined to be careful with the public purse, as taxes that affect mildly the fortunes of the populous would little affect those with great wealth. The middle class, however, would restrain the use of the purse for exactly the same reason: the middle class feels taxation the most, and is more likely to restrain itself and live according to the comforts its already afforded. The lower class, however, are likely to legislate monetary policy from which only they can profit from—having no considerable taxable property in the first place, any public services they legislate into being will be paid for only by the classes above them on the wealth scale. “In other words,” Tocqueville remarks, “the government of democracy is the only one in which the one who votes the taxes can escape the obligation to pay them” (336).
The result of universal suffrage is, by its very nature, the latter form of monetary policy. Tocqueville notes how the “unfortunate influence that popular power” wields “made itself clear in certain democratic republics of antiquity, in which the public treasury was exhausted to help indignant citizens, or to give games and spectacles to the people” (337). The purse, when wielded by those unable or unwilling to contribute to it, is inevitably corrupted into a vessel of democracy’s destruction. He does offer some consolation, however: “[t]he profusions of democracy are, moreover, less to be feared the more people become property owners, because then, on the one hand, the people have less need for the money of the rich and, on the other hand, they encounter more difficulties establishing a tax that does not hit them” (337). In other words, keep the markets strong and lift the poverty level to such a height that even the poorest among the society possess taxable property, and the tax policy in a democratic system eventually sorts itself out.
His last bit on the topic of expenditures concerns the in-built preference to ameliorate the vessels of power in any given institution, and the manner in which money is particularly necessary for this end in democratic societies. This touches on the relationship between political and administrative centralization that was addressed in earlier segments, and the dangerous impulses present in the rampant growth of a bureaucratic State.
Tocqueville briefly addresses the topic of how public salaries are decided upon, which is an extension of the topic on dispensation of public moneys. The explains the general problem of making clear to a democratic people the importance of compensation for public officials and the difference in salary between the civil servant and the farmer from whose property the salary is funded. He makes note that “salaries seem in a way to decrease as the power of the officials grows greater”, referring to the greater responsibility incurred at higher offices offset by the seemingly diminishing return of compensation (341).
On the economic impulses of democracy, Tocqueville spares only a few words, and they tap into the same general ideas he has touched on already: the relationship between the political state and the social state of the nation. Economic policies—what the government has chosen to subsidize and what it has chosen to ignore—are based principally upon the laws, obviously, but they are indicative of that society’s culture. He explains:
“If Americans have never happened to spend the people’s money on public festivals, it is not only because, among them, the people vote the tax; it is because the people do not like to enjoy themselves.
If they reject ornament in their architecture and prize only material and real advantages, it is not only because they are a democratic nation, but also because they are a commercial people.” (344)
A free society guarantees the people’s will is made manifest through the government’s use or abuse of the public purse. With this in mind, Tocqueville then gets into some even briefer comments on tax revenue and a short section in which he attempts to compare the tax revenue of France with that of the United States. He concludes his sections on the administration and expenditures of democratic systems with the observation that the American democracy is both fairly uneconomical and expensive to maintain. The presence of such varying classes of officials, the varying backgrounds of magistrates, and the democratic order itself all exacerbates the generally use of money. “[A]nd I am not afraid to predict that,” Tocqueville concludes, “if great difficulties came one day to assail the peoples of the United States, you would see taxes among them rise as high as in most of the aristocracies or monarchies of Europe” (356). Indeed, we have already surpassed them.
The Capacity of Democracy to Govern
Tocqueville now sets his sights on the nature of corruption. Aristocratic systems naturally have fewer men involved in the direction of governance, and as such, these men can be bought more easily and their power more harmfully put to use. Democracies, however, have power distributed too widely across the government, too many people involved, for the buying out of politicians to be worthwhile. In the former case, “the officials are corrupted,” Tocqueville explains, while in the latter “the people themselves” (357).
The corruption of a democratic government exists at the tail end of the same causal chain which affects all other aspects of democracy; the social state of the people is always reflected in the state of the government and the policies it decides. As such, the more a democratic government falls into a state of corruption, the more it can be said that the corruption originated not from a handful of individuals in that government seeking to gain power, but rather from the very social fabric of the democratic order itself.
Aristocratic systems, Tocqueville believes, have countermeasures in place that prevent this sort of social upheaval. “In the corruption of those who gain power by chance,” he writes, “something crude and vulgar is disclosed that makes it contagious to the crowd; on the contrary, there reigns, even in the depravities of great lords, a certain aristocratic refinement, an air of grandeur that often prevents its spread” (358-359). The nuance of courtly life and politics elevates the entire affair, often to the point that seems absurd to the common man. However, the basic notions of the public purse, offices of power, and favoritism are easily graspable even by the man who toils in the fields.
This pessimism makes its way into the next section, where Tocqueville addresses a people’s tendency toward short-term goal indulgences rather than long-term ones, and how democracy in particular exacerbates such impulsiveness. He comments on how the laws, “appear favorable to those who, everywhere else, have the greatest interest in violating [them]”, specifically because they are made by the people themselves (364). In areas of the country were ‘enlightenment’ is less-spread out and the dangers of the frontier are more ever-present, law and order are, predictably, more rough-and-tumble. The laws are carried out in service to the immediate need, but with little regard to a lasting future. Especially the Spanish countries of South America, he comments briefly, are susceptible to rash impulsiveness to such a degree that they have been in varying states of revolution up to the time of his writing:
“The people who inhabit this beautiful half of a hemisphere seem obstinately bound to eviscerate themselves; nothing can divert them. Exhaustion makes them come to rest for an instant, and rest soon brings them back to new furies. When I consider them in this alternating state of miseries and crimes, I am tempted to believe that for them despotism would be a benefit.
But these two words will never be found united in my thought.” (366)
Tocqueville concludes chapter five with some statements on the democratic management of foreign policy. Presidents Washington and Jefferson, he believes, had the more influence on American foreign policy than any other two figures of the country’s short history. He cites Washington’s general sentiments favoring isolationism, or at the very least, detachment from European affairs and skepticism toward European influences foremost. Jefferson, similar, reiterated the Washingtonian spirit. The fundamental issue was this: “‘The Nation, which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave’”, Tocqueville quotes the first President, “‘It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection’” (368). Such sentiment, put most fully into practice by Jefferson, ensured that America would limit itself primarily to the affairs of its own continent and hemisphere, a strategy that also ensured that it had little to fear from foreign interests. It was simply too small, and its neighbors not powerful enough, to have much to fear.
That said, Tocqueville holds up little respect for democratic management of foreign affairs. Democracy is quite adequately suited to managing the day-to-day operations of a people, he explains, as it is exactly the sort of ground-up organization that makes day-to-day operations streamlined. Foreign policy, however, requires an understanding of logistics and a need for planning beyond the mere day-to-day operation. The impulsiveness, couple with the administrational decentralized nature, of democratic countries can obfuscate the interests of the people versus the interests of the nation. Peoples can form groups and majorities, and sometimes those groups will work to service the ends of foreign governments or external interests—and this almost always works to the detriment of the whole nation. Democracy, unorganized as it is, and based on a system of elections as it is, can fall prey to those interests.
Tocqueville goes on to illustrate how easily swayed public opinion can be by citing America’s reaction to the French Revolution:
“The inclination that leads democracy in policy matters to obey sentiments rather than reasoning, and to abandon a long developed plan for the satisfaction of a momentary passion, clearly revealed itself in America when the French Revolution broke out. The simplest insights of reason would suffice then, as today, to make the Americans understand that it was not in their interests to get engaged in the struggle that was going to cover Europe in blood, and from which the United States would suffer no harm.” (371)
Aristocracy, by contrast, maintains a much more rigid hold on foreign matters. Plans involving other nations, which naturally take longer to see to fruition than typical domestic policies, are not interrupted by the replacement of officials via the election process. Likewise, aristocracies are more limited in the number of men involved in decision-making as well as the backgrounds that they are from, which provides measure to their consensus. In comparison to the workings of democratic government, Tocqueville holds no reservation as to which is more convenient when dealing with the affairs of other sovereignties.
Chapter 6 – What Are the Real Advantages That American Society Gains from the Government of Democracy?
“Every time that the government of a people is the sincere and permanent expression of the will of the greatest number,” Tocqueville begins chapter six, “that government, whatever the forms, is democratic” (375-376). He speaks here not specifically of American democracy, but of the entire theory of the system. Defined as such, democracy thus can apply to monarchical systems, republics, confederacies, or most other forms of government that are not intrinsically totalitarian or administratively centralized. Although he does admit that the republican system is most suited to democracy, he writes that he does “not believe that it is a necessary consequence” (376).
That said, however, he also reiterates what he explained in the first part of the book: that American institutions are but one method in which democracy is made political, and that in writing this chapter, he does not intend to espouse such methods as necessarily the best. Because the social state of democracy comes in such various forms, he believes that there can be no one most optimal and measurable method in which democracy is carried out in service of its people.
Tendency of the Laws & Instincts of Executors
Legislation under democracies is, as Tocqueville points out, much less optimized than aristocratic legislation, although it reflects more fully the will of the people under democratic systems. He considers it “more useful to humanity” than the aristocratic alternative, but acknowledges that “its advantages end there” (378). Aristocratic legislation tends to push for laws that push wealth toward higher strata of society and seek to keep the classes distinct; aristocracy necessarily is a form of minority-rule rather than democracy’s alternative of majority-rule.
That said, however, aristocratic legislation generally leads to more stabilized societies; Tocqueville points out how “aristocracy is not subject to passing impulses; it has long-term plans that it knows how to develop until the favorable opportunity presents itself” whereas democracy’s laws “are nearly always defective or ill-timed” (378). The temperance of the aristocratic class is such that its fundamental nature is oriented toward leading the nation and its people.
Democracies, because they are less rigid and stable, are more capable of correcting legislative mistakes quickly and with minimal damage than aristocratic systems are. Similarly, elected officials have the ability to be quickly replaced in cases where the legislators themselves are causes of problems. As a result, Tocqueville notes that “if the democratic magistrate exercises power worse than another, he generally holds it for less time” (380).
In any case, the distinction between the aristocratic and democratic methods is clear not merely in their varying approaches to legislation, but also in the nature of those who hold the public offices. Democratically elected positions invariably end up predominantly populated by cruder persons for reasons Tocqueville outlined in earlier chapters, whereas the very purpose of an aristocratic class is to produce people undisposed to common vulgarity. As a result of this, in combination with the manner in which aristocratic governance values minority-rule, aristocratic societies can become conceivably greater than democratic ones, though while harboring even greater depths of misery at the same time. Tocqueville uses England as an example: “the greatest extremes of fortune are present together, and the miseries are found there that nearly equal its power and glory” (383). He continues by examining the democratic alternative:
“So there is, at the heart of democratic institutions, a hidden tendency that often makes men work toward the general prosperity, despite their vices or errors, while in aristocratic institutions a secret inclination is sometimes uncovered that, despite talents and virtues, carries them toward contributing to the miseries of their fellows. In this way, in aristocratic governments, public men can do evil without wanting to do so, and in democracies, they can produce good without thinking to do so.” (383)
His Enlightenment streak comes to the surface yet again as he elaborates on his assertions. The law, despite intended to bolster the civic wellbeing, all too often results in bolstering vice. In referring to this tendency, he asks, “is prosperity in the world the reward of error and folly; are miseries the recompense for skill and reason?” (384). The freedom of Man’s will, Tocqueville believes, limited by causes beyond his understanding and factors behind his control, seems too arbitrary to be legislated effectively by any one form of government.
Tocqueville continues from here into the topic of patriotism and public spirit. National passions as such “encourages great episodic efforts rather than continuity of efforts”, he writes; “[a]fter saving the State in time of crisis, it often leaves it to decline amid peace” (385). Monarchical regimes tend to foster a sort of natural patriotism, inasmuch as there is a definite leader and that leader’s strength becomes a source of national pride. Patriotism under republican governments, by contrast, Tocqueville considers more thoughtfully; such governments still draw patriotism from strength, but more strength of a whole people rather than the strength of a people as its manifested in the ruling monarch.
Patriotism is prone to its faults, however. Failures arise as the culture fragments, the government becomes weakened by an irregular or incohesive social state, and men revert to purely self-interested egoism. Tocqueville believes that it is only through the union of civic duty with civic pride that patriotism and functioning democratic government can survive. General public spirit has waned as peoples across the West have gotten more enlightened and sophisticated; as such, a direct object of political action must be tied to national pride. He writes that “the most powerful means, and perhaps the only one remaining to us, to interest men in the fate of their country, is to make them participate in its government” (387). Americans, having effectively accomplished this, seem to operate as though the State was an extension of their own homestead, caring for it as they would care for their own personal property. The American citizen, Tocqueville explains, “values his rights as a citizen as his rights as a proprietor, and he takes an interest in the State as in his cottage or in the field that his labors have made fruitful” (388). As a result, it is not necessarily the good that Americans value in their country, but rather the pride they have taken in their work for it.
Rights and the Respect for Law
Rights, Tocqueville asserts, are the foundation of any just society, and in fact, are the form that virtue takes when it becomes the object of political discourse. “There are no great men without virtue,” he writes, “without respect for rights, there is no great people” (389)
In order to explain the difference between American and European arguments over rights, Tocqueville uses the analogy of children who play with toys. As the children play together, they learn the importance of understanding their own toys; this understanding matures into an understanding of property rights in adults. In America, where everyone has a stake of property to defend, Tocqueville makes clear that there is no proletariat who has no concept of personal ownership. From the understanding of property rights, the whole spectrum of political rights becomes comprehensible; men of common cloth legislate in accordance with the same understanding of rights out of the mutual self-interest that their rights are respected inasmuch as they respect the rights of others. It’s important to note that, by this logic, as the responsibilities of private property are diminished in any stratum of society, the subsequent respect for the rights of others declines as well.
He caps off his brief mention on the topic of rights in democracies with this:
“The child inflicts death when he is unaware of the value of life; he takes property from others before knowing that someone can rob him of his. The common man, at the moment when he is granted political rights, finds himself, in relation to his rights, in the same position as the child vis-à-vis all of nature. In this case the celebrated phrase of Hobbes applies to him: Homo puer robustus.” (392)
The citizenry can enjoy their rights only insomuch as they understand how to use them, according to Tocqueville. Any society that loses sight of their rights and their purpose will be an unjust society no matter how legislated and regulated it tries to be.
Fittingly, his next topic concerns the respect for law in America. Because democracies guarantee the interests only of the majority, and not of the total polity, the understanding exists that the rule of law must be respected or the entire country collapses into anarchy. Even if a citizen’s interests are not one with the majority’s at a given time, there is high likelihood that his interests will correspond with the majority’s in the future. That said, those in a society with the least to lose are often the most powerful voices in a democratic State; the rich, with the interests of their wealth at stake, find themselves less powerful than in aristocratic regimes in Europe for the same reason. As a result, those with more wealth tend to be more inclined to respect the law—even in cases where they break it—than those who have nothing to lose.
The freer a society, Tocqueville writes, the more the interests of the people are oriented toward self-improvement. The betterment of the culture and society are not the yoke of an aristocratic elite alone, and as such, all civic men feel the importance of improving the social and political states. Progress, that Enlightenment demon, seems to haunt Tocqueville’s thoughts on the subject, even has he acknowledges the drawbacks of such thinking earlier in this very chapter.
That aside, he acknowledges the bustling social and political climate of the American polity. All citizens are engaged in work, and they are engaged not merely in the work of maintenance but in the work of improvement as well. This echoes downward into their very social habits and mores. “An American does not know how to converse, but he discusses;” he writes, “he does not discourse, but he holds forth. He always speaks to you as to an assembly; and if he happens by chance to get excited, he will say: Gentlemen, while addressing his interlocutor” (397).
Tocqueville ends this chapter by briefly addressing once more the various aspects of human nature that democracy brings out. It is not a system that is necessarily best oriented toward the elevation of Man toward his most virtuous standing, nor toward the creation of high art, glory, or long-term undertakings of massive scale and greatness.
“But if it seems useful to you to divert the intellectual and moral activity of man toward the necessities of material life, and to use it to produce wellbeing; if reason appears to you more profitable to men than genius; if your object is not to create heroic virtues, but peaceful habits; if you like to see vices more than crimes, and prefer to find fewer great actions, on the condition of encountering fewer cases of heinous crimes; if, instead of acting within the bosom of a brilliant society, it is enough for you to live in the midst of a prosperous society; if, finally, in your view, the principal object of a government is not to give the entire body of the nation the most strength or the most glory possible, but to provide for each of the individuals that make up that society the most wellbeing and to avoid the most misery; then equalize conditions and constitute the government of democracy.” (400)
And the times are changing, he writes, repeating his sentiments from his introduction. The democratization of the West was sweeping with furor in the wake of Enlightenment schooling. The future, Tocqueville believed, belonged to the throngs of people looking to improve their material lot in life, where religion had receded and traditional governance offered no consolation. Only in the body of the State would such a polity find meaning, he believed. To some degree, he seems to have been right. At least for so long as a democratic social ethos could distract its citizens from the metaphysical questions that it ultimately was not equipped to answer. Feeling that now, as our democratic institutions have been corrupted and the democratic social ethos of Tocqueville’s time has eroded to irresponsibility and vice, it seems that the West needs courage of the sort that only the grandeur of the ancient regimes could muster.