Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America

Alexis de Tocqueville democracy

Democracy in America: A philosophical adventure

Alexis de Tocqueville is one of the head of liberalism. During his trip to the United States, Tocqueville was able to describe the awakening democracy. His approach is totally original compar to a normative philosophy that prevailed in Classics (Montesquieu, Rousseau and the Greeks), Tocqueville rather use a descriptive and clinical approach.

The issue at the heart of the book Democracy in America is this: How can we protect the people from himself? In the first part of Democracy in America, Tocqueville considers the public more as a means of coercion of people by the people than as a guarantor of rationality and freedom. In the second part, the questioning moves to protect people from the despotic democratic state.

Democracy and the power source

American democracy, Tocqueville said, is based on the absoluteness of popular sovereignty. This is the source of legislative power, exercised through elected representatives and renewed frequently. Two key ideas are at the heart of democracy: equality and freedom. In a democracy, the pursuit of equality prevails over that of freedom. This dialectic of democratic principles creates the possibility of self-destruction of the entire democratic system.


The excesses of democracy

It is this potential risk inherent in any democracy, which explains the ambivalence of judgments, both enthusiasts and critics, de Tocqueville. It diagnoses the ills of democracy and attempts to discern, even within the existing system, the remedies that can stop them. The healing of these evils do not occur from the outside, but the trends already present in democracy. Tocqueville observed that the three main threats to the American system are: the tyranny of the majority, individualism and despotism state.

Tocquelle and The tyranny of the majority

Paradoxically, the tyranny of the majority comes from public space. Public opinion, the result of free discussion between citizens within the public space, is in fact the majority opinion. However, this majority, which could be described as rational and legitimate, has a coercive force on minority views and lead them to comply with the prevailing opinion. Thus was born of freedom, public opinion denies thereafter. This tyranny of the majority comes from the absolute sovereignty of the people, which gives him, he believes, “the right to do anything,” the belief in its omnipotence. Therefore, to ensure that minorities are not brought to heel, forced conformism and self-righteousness, we must erect a barrier to this omnipotence. This remedy against the first evil watching democracy is the political association. Tocqueville distinguishes the civil association, whose purpose is different. This second type relates to private affairs of individuals, including religious, commercial or legal, not a political cause. The political association, it has always relative to a public cause. It can be defined as the gathering of individuals around common public interest. In this framework can only express opinions repressed by the majority, the political association gives the scope to be the voice of him who is alone. It is the guarantee unlimited freedom of thought and expression, respect for the rights of citizenship for dissent: they prevent the stigmatization and rejection of views considered deviant and those who defend them. Contrary to despotism, tyranny, democracy is not physical in nature, but immaterial: it is the deviant “a foreigner”. Associations have therefore dedicated to “normalize” free thinkers. In addition, the need for its existence is that it can be oppressive, since it is still a minority, according to Tocqueville. In fact, an association that would become the majority ceases to be one. Besides being a principle of social and political change, they are also a principle of stability. Since they introduce, of course, factions within the society, but by allowing all opinions to find a place for expression, they prevent the organization of plots or conspiracies. In this, Tocqueville is in line with Kant, because it defends the principle of publicity. Another reason “Kantian” in this observer of American democracy: political associations promote the critical use of reason. Public opinion is the product of reflection, but “once [the majority] is irrevocably pronounced, everyone is silent,” while discussions continue within these institutions, making permanent political activity. They therefore express a struggle against the Democratic gregariousness and silence of reason.

However, political associations pose a danger, that of anarchy. Their proliferation may in fact cause an infinite partition of popular sovereignty, so that it would be impossible to legislate on the basis of a majority. But this danger is thwarted by their benefits. Political associations are therefore, in this respect, a force of resistance to oppression of the majority, not only against state power. Nevertheless, Tocqueville does not make them the major legislative body of democracy: if they “have the power to attack [the existing law] and to make advance what must exist,” they do not the power to legislate.


Democracy and individualism

This awakening of the spirit, made possible by political associations, is also a revival of “public spirit” of reason. The second evil which threatens democracy is indeed individualism. He calls this tendency of individuals born from the destruction of the hierarchy of links that united in the monarchical system, to lose interest in the great society and retreat to the limited company. This evil is of democratic origin, since equality “breaks the chain and severs every link of it.” So reclusive in their private sphere, citizens directly endanger democracy, one of whose principles is participation in power. Therefore, the associations, but not all types, sanctions, here too, the role of remedy a negative trend for democracy. Indeed, the proliferation civil associations is harmful because they divert public governance. Political associations, on the contrary, “pulling people out of themselves, struggling against the fragmentation of the group and allow them to participate in public life. Paradoxically, therefore democracy is through political associations, which can save individualism, while it was she who gave birth.

Democracy ruined by the Welfare State

Individualism, if not contained by political associations, in other words, if citizens do not fit together, arises inevitably bureaucratic despotism, which is the third and last possible harm democracy. Indeed, the destruction of old intermediate bodies, which were characteristic of monarchies, has left the individual alone and weak against the state. This has caused not only enhanced but also the extension of state power. Dominates both the private and public, the state became the “sole repairer of all miseries,” dealing with issues that previously applied only to individuals, such as health, employment and poverty. At that point the state is gradually turning into a guide and teacher who

Totaled more daily, next to, around, over each individual to assist, advise and oblige him.”

The corollary of this incursion of the paternalistic state, has an “immense and tutelary power” that destroys any possibility of joint action by individuals, is in a minority of people who lost the use of will and mind. Again, it is possible to consider that political associations are an effective bulwark against the abuse of state power. In fact, they restore an intermediary between individuals and isolated state, enabling the former to weigh and to oppose him. They reintroduce it in a double vertical power structure: the state does not “down” to more than just individuals, but they “climb” toward him. They mean so deconcentration of power and replace the old natural intermediary body, represented by the nobility in the monarchical system, only capable of withstanding the state providentialism.

Therefore, the analysis shows that Tocqueville political associations represent a unique solution to three problems: against individualism, against the despotism of the state and soft against the tyranny of the majority. They form a network-cons powers that sustain democracy. By the fact that “[affect] all the time” anarchy, they are dangerous for democracy, but at the same time they are allowing it to maintain and strengthen. Tocqueville establishes a dialectic between associations and democracy. The second allows the emergence of the first, by establishing a system of expanded freedoms, including freedom of association, expression and publication. But these first strengthen democracy, or rather they carry it out. Indeed, the freedoms that underpin principled democracy must be put into practice, “lived” by the citizens so that they become meaningful. This is precisely the role that is assumed to fulfill the political associations.

Cite this article as: Tim, "Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, May 4, 2012, " in Philosophy & Philosophers, May 4, 2012,

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