Tocqueville’s Lessons in Democracy

It seems appropriate that, due to the Iraq war, the world has been debating the nature of democracy 200 years after Alexis de Tocqueville’s birth. Tocqueville is justly famous for rejecting reactionary nostalgia and regarding democracy’s triumph as our destiny, while warning against the dangers that democracy holds for liberty. Should we still share his worries?

Tocqueville viewed democracy not only as a political regime, but, above all, as an intellectual regime that shapes a society’s customs in general, thereby giving it a sociological and psychological dimension. Democratic regimes, Tocqueville argued, determine our thoughts, desires, and passions. Just as there was Renaissance man and, in the twentieth century, homo sovieticus, “democratic man” is a form of human being.

For Tocqueville, democracy’s systemic effects could lead citizens to deprive themselves of reasoned thought. They could only pretend to judge events and values on their own; in reality, they would merely copy the rough and simplified opinions of the masses. Indeed, what Tocqueville called the hold of “social power” on opinion is probably strongest in democratic regimes – a view that foretells the growth of modern-day demagogy and media manipulation.

Tocqueville believed that there are no effective long-term constraints on this tendency. Neither local democracy nor small societies, neither governmental checks and balances nor civil rights, can prevent the decline of critical thought that democracy seems to cause. Schools have the power to be little more than enclaves from the corrosive strength of social influences on how the mind works. Similarly, while Tocqueville thought that pursuing virtue as the ancients did, or having a religious faith, could sometimes elevate the soul, both conflict with the democratic ideal if they become officially prescribed in public life.