Tocqueville’s Uncanny Vision

Last week I had the privilege of leading my History of American Thought class at Baylor through Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. This is one of the most intriguing, and in some cases most chilling, analyses of the American republic ever written. Composed by the visiting French aristocrat in the 1830s, Democracy in America argued that America’s strength came from its religious heritage, its tradition of local participatory politics, and its many mediating institutions and civic associations, all standing between the individual and the government.

In the second of two volumes, Democracy in America became darker in outlook, suggesting that American democratic culture might contain the seeds of its own demise. One day, as Americans turned away from those mediating institutions, the national government might become despotic. This would not be a tyrannical despotism, however, but a kind of “guardian” despotism. Tocqueville wrote

I see a mob of people, all alike and equal, perpetually going around in circles in pursuit of the petty, common pleasures to satisfy their souls…Above them stands a powerful schoolmaster, whose whole responsibility is to guarantee their pleasure and watch over them. He is absolute, conscientious, methodical, all-knowing, and kind…his goal is to keep them in perpetual infancy; he wants citizens to enjoy themselves, as long as pleasure is all they think about. He will work hard on their behalf; but he wants to act alone, the ultimate arbiter; he will keep them safe, provide for their needs and ensure their comfort, conduct all business and direct all work, manage their inheritances, divide their property; why not remove the need for them to think at all, or deal with any of life’s problems?…

Having finally placed every individual under his control, shaping the individual to his will, the all-powerful ruler wraps his arms around the entire society; he covers it with a network of complex little rules, uniform and petty, from which even the most original minds and hearty souls cannot see their way clear.

How did Tocqueville see this in 1831, when the American government was so tiny? The only agency of the national government one was likely to encounter in daily life in 1831 was the post office. Yet Tocqueville somehow saw within American democracy a potential for decline, in which trivialization of American minds, centralization of national power, and the decay of the mediating institutions would slowly lead to paternalistic despotism.

Have we seen the complete fulfillment of Tocqueville’s uncanny vision? Perhaps not: church attendance remains strong in America in spite of apocalyptic warnings of its collapse. We still have a functioning free press, energized by new possibilities of the internet and blogosphere.

But observers across the political spectrum have also noted disturbing trends everywhere: massive decline in the traditional two-parent family; phenomenal increases in the surveillance state and scope of the executive branch; petty and complex little rules (sometimes “mandates”) of every kind flood out of Washington, D.C., taking no account of local nuances or the vital realities of Americans’ diverse circumstances and faiths.

If you’ve not yet read Tocqueville, may I suggest that you begin with an abridgment like the one I assigned to my class? Of course, full appreciation of his depth and subtlety will require the whole two volumes, but a taste of Tocqueville is better than nothing at all. I use the Bedford edition by the late Michael Kammen (from the same series in which I published my Great Awakening reader).

See also the ever-brilliant Wilfred McClay’s “The Tocquevillian Moment…And Ours.”

For the full-length version of Tocqueville, Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop’s edition is an excellent choice. Google Books and Kindle also have free public domain versions of 19c editions.

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  • PNG

    I think Toqueville was once required reading in American high schools – a friend who was 7 years older than me had had to read it. By the time I was in high school (class of 69) he was no longer mentioned, but when I read Democracy in America later as an adult, I was amazed at Toqueville’s insight, and how much of it was still true 150 years later. Every American, and anyone else who wants to understand us, should read him.

    • Thomas Kidd

      thanks – I totally agree.

  • DBonney

    I’ve never agreed much with Tocqueville’s infatuation with the idea that America’s democratic institutions were strengthened and supported by its religious heritage and institutions. Religious institutions are, at their core, antithetical to democratic ideals. A mind conditioned by religious authoritarianism makes it easier to accept creeping authoritarianism in its political institutions.

    What we seem to have been undone by is a force which Tocqueville discussed as an unlikely, but possible outcome of the American experiment with democracy; that is the establishment of an aristocracy of manufactures.

    “I am of opinion, upon the whole, that the manufacturing aristocracy which is growing up under our eyes is one of the harshest which ever existed in the world; but at the same time it is one of the most confined and least dangerous. Nevertheless the friends of democracy should keep their eyes anxiously fixed in this direction; for 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.” (Vol. II Chapter XX: That Aristocracy May Be Engendered By Manufactures, Henry Reeve edition)

    • John Turner

      I would suggest, by contrast, that religion has tremendous possibility to serve as an inoculation against political authoritarianism because of the very fact that churches often claim a separate jurisdiction apart from state control. Thus, they should in theory resist totalitarianism (a major reason why the Soviets after WWII took such pains to subject Eastern European churches to state control).

  • John C. Gardner

    I think this is a great post. It builds upon De Tocqueville to raise issues about the perspectives of American(and our culture as well as the viability of mediating institutions) thought from an incisive foreign observer. What other sources do you use for the course on American Thought that you mention above?

    • Thomas Kidd

      We use many different primary source selections, from John Winthrop to Abraham Lincoln, as well as longer source readings like Tocqueville, and a reader on the Dred Scott decision that gets into legal thought, and pro- and anti-slavery views.

  • Joel J. Miller

    Are you sure church attendance remains strong? Perhaps compared to Germany, but time-diary studies show the number much less than self-reported figures. See Mark Chaves’ American Religion.

    • Thomas Kidd

      I think the reports of declining attendance are usually overblown. For background see for instance Rodney Stark and Byron Johnson’s op-ed here http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424053111903480904576510692691734916

    • Marcus Aurelius

      While church attendance may remain strong, I’m not that certain that churchgoers do. Biblical illiteracy seems to be running rampant, and many church services are not much more than “feel-good” pep rallies. Gone are the days when the gospel of Jesus Christ was fearlessly and unashamedly preached from pulpits in America. Are there churches that still do? Certainly. But it is my observation and opinion that that number continues to dwindle. Apart from serious revival in this country, we are in serious trouble.


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