The sum of all Tocqueville’s fears

Trevor Shelley
June 1, 2016
The French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville expressed great hope and admiration for the United States in his seminal 1835 study Democracy in America. In many ways the country went on to succeed beyond his wildest dreams as both a model for democracy and its greatest defender. But Tocqueville had a nightmare vision of America too, populated by statists and demagogues, competing for the votes of ignorant, irresponsible citizens. In the 2016 election campaign, writes Trevor Shelley, Tocqueville’s worst fears are being realized.

The sum of all Tocqueville’s fears

Trevor Shelley
June 1, 2016
The French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville expressed great hope and admiration for the United States in his seminal 1835 study Democracy in America. In many ways the country went on to succeed beyond his wildest dreams as both a model for democracy and its greatest defender. But Tocqueville had a nightmare vision of America too, populated by statists and demagogues, competing for the votes of ignorant, irresponsible citizens. In the 2016 election campaign, writes Trevor Shelley, Tocqueville’s worst fears are being realized.
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Nearly 200 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his famous work, Democracy in America, that electing the President of the United States can be considered “a period of national crisis.”  Tocqueville captures the experience as though he were writing today:

Long before the appointed moment arrives, the election becomes the greatest and so to speak sole business preoccupying minds. The factions at that time redouble their ardor; all the factitious passions that the imagination can create in a happy and tranquil country become agitated in broad daylight…As the election approaches, intrigues become more active, agitation more lively and more widespread. Citizens divide into several camps, each taking the name of its candidate. The entire nation falls into a feverish state; the election is then the daily text of public papers, the subject of particular conversation, the goal of all reasoning, the object of all thoughts, the sole interest of the present.

Plus ca change, one might say. But there is an important difference between contemporary America and the one Tocqueville visited in 1831, and it’s this: today the country more resembles the democracy he feared than the one he admired.

Tocqueville’s goal was to uncover “an image of democracy itself, of its penchants, its character, its prejudices, its passions”. America was young, brimming with energy and optimism, an ideal place to study “what we ought to hope or fear” from democracy. The French political philosopher expressed great hope and admiration for American democracy. Yet he also discerned its potential for dangerous dysfunction.  It is those observations that seem most prescient during this extraordinarily agitated American presidential election year.

We the right people

Chief among his fears for the future of American democracy was Tocqueville’s famous warning about the “tyranny of the majority”. In Volume 1 of his two-part opus, he writes that “It is of the very essence of democratic governments that the empire of the majority is absolute; for in democracies, outside the majority there is nothing that resists it.” As he argues, this “moral empire of the majority” rests on the idea that “there is more enlightenment and wisdom in many men united than in one alone”.

For Tocqueville equality was the core principle of modern democracies. And he understood how the will of the majority could trample equality for minorities. He admired institutional mechanisms such as the separation of powers and federalism the American Founders established to counter the tyranny of the majority, but he doubted that they would reliably check the influence of majoritarian thinking. “In America,” Tocqueville wrote, “the majority draws a formidable circle around thought…I do not know any country where, in general, less independence of mind and genuine freedom of discussion reign than in America.”

Tocqueville might have been describing the modern force of political correctness in American public discourse, particularly its stifling impact on freedom of thought, expression and inquiry in universities. Or the massive, erratic and rapid shifts in public attention and consensus, especially in the hothouse atmosphere of election campaigns. When the will of the majority is proclaimed, Tocqueville observed, “everyone becomes silent and friends and enemies alike then seem to hitch themselves to its wagon”.

Through the frantic 2016 primaries season and beyond, Donald Trump’s rhetoric has seemingly resided far outside the ordinary “circle around thought.” Indeed, his candidacy was initially viewed as not just a long shot, but a joke. Yet more than ten million registered Republicans subsequently voted for him, indicating a majority in the party have moved his way, including many in the GOP establishment and movement conservatives who once treated him as a pariah. Late May polls indicated he was also beginning to draw support from independents and even Democrats.

It has taken longer for majoritarian certainty to coalesce on the Democratic side, with the pesky Bernie Sanders refusing to let Hillary Clinton become her party’s presumptive presidential nominee. Contemporary Democrats generally rally around the progressive principles of fairness and inclusion, and differ mainly in how coercive the state should be in pursuing these objectives. Fear of Trump may soon become the central tenet of the Democratic majority, judging from the increasing shrillness of Clinton’s attacks on Trump as dangerously incompetent and an instigator of “bigotry and violence”.

Obviously, neither Trump nor Clinton are the first politicians to pander to the majority, real or imagined. Tocqueville noted the phenomenon in the U.S. president of his day, Andrew Jackson, a populist anti-establishment campaigner whom some have compared to Trump. “General Jackson is the slave of the majority: he follows it in its wishes, its desires, its half-uncovered instincts, or rather he divines it and runs to place himself at its head.”

Yet as much reason as there is to dread the tyranny of a Trump or Clinton majority, it would probably not be Tocqueville’s greatest fear if he were following the 2016 campaign trail.

Everyone’s to blame but me

As a member of the French aristocracy, he would likely be more distressed by the vast well of public anger aimed at the political establishment and economic elites. Among Democrats, class envy is simmering at temperatures not seen in decades. Stoked by enduring certainty that financial industry greed and incompetence caused the 2008 global economic crisis, it has been effectively exploited by both Sanders – the unapologetic socialist who calls capitalism a “rigged game” – and to a less Marxist extent by Clinton, who merely calls for “reshuffling the deck”.

On the Republican side, there is even more passion and less reason. The reactionary legions of “Trumpkins” (in columnist George Will’s disdainful nomenclature) not only despise almost everything the Democratic progressives stand for, but are almost equally hostile to the “establishment” of their own party.

Both sides are mad as hell at the “ruling class” atop both the government and corporate realms. The popular “passion for equality” Tocqueville identified today burns with enough intensity to scorch the oligarchs.

Tocqueville saw equality as the “mother idea” or “principle passion” in American democracy. The first generations of Americans, he said, had a “great advantage”: as there was no ancien regime in the New World, “they were born equal instead of becoming so”.

That was then. To the extent there were discrepancies in wealth, Americans tolerated it because it seemed all had equal opportunity to obtain wealth. In America, observed Tocqueville, “most of the rich men were formerly poor”.

But the passion for equality never rests. Indeed, as equality increases, the slightest inequalities become ever more offensive – envy rises in step with the entrenchment of privileged classes. Wrote Tocqueville: “Democratic peoples love equality at all times, but in certain periods, they press the passion they feel for it to delirium.”

Tocqueville also thought democratic peoples have “a natural taste for liberty” and “see themselves parted from it only with sorrow”. But their love of freedom paled in comparison to their lust for equality, for which “they have an ardent, insatiable, eternal, invincible passion; they want equality in freedom, and, if they cannot get it, they still want it in slavery. They will tolerate poverty, enslavement, barbarism, but they will not tolerate aristocracy”. Viewed from this perspective, the improbable successes of the Trump and Sanders campaigns start to make sense.

Tocqueville probably could have predicted the rise of organized labour and the welfare state in the early to mid-20th century as an equality-seeking response to the rise of a U.S. industrial oligarchy. Harder to anticipate was the subsequent collapse of American manufacturing due to globalization and technology, the resulting working class dislocation, the arrival of the knowledge economy, and today’s whole new structural division between the haves and have nots.

The newly dispossessed on the left blame business, on the right, government. Both sides yearn for grand answers from above and look to the state for solutions to their personal economic and social problems. Even more ominously, some on both sides see the state as an instrument for seeking revenge against the real and imagined authors of their personal, community, and national misfortunes. Trump and Sanders explicitly cater to these demands, and Clinton has been drawn in the same direction.

Tocqueville discerned how democratic peoples opted for greater administrative centralization over time, and it worried him. Indeed, his greatest fear, limned in Volume II of Democracy in America, was that it would lead to a sort of democratic despotism, which he termed “soft despotism”.

A statist in every despot

The Trump-Hitler comparisons from some of the more agitated precincts on the left are hyperbolic at best and delusional at worst, but even some on the right see at least a minor despot in the making. Trump’s promise is not to make government smaller, but to wield its power to “make American great again” by such means as building a giant wall to stop illegal Mexican immigration, banning Muslim immigrants, and wrapping a protectionist blanket around the U.S. economy. Lower taxes and the protection of individual freedoms make but rare appearances in his speeches (in fact he has advocated higher taxes for the rich), and they all but drowned out by his unabashedly statist promises such as devaluing the U.S. dollar to increase domestic exports and using unlimited torture to attain national security objectives.

Clinton, a self-styled “progressive who gets things done”, promises that her government will “be a champion for everyday Americans”. Among many other statist initiatives, she would increase public support for college tuition, kindergarten and child care, spend bigger on infrastructure, raise the minimum wage, expand gun control, and introduce Canadian-style single-payer socialized healthcare.

A protester wears a blindfold and holds a copy of the U.S. Constitution during a protest outside the New York State Republican Gala in New York, U.S., on Thursday, April 14, 2016. Michael Nagle / Bloomberg
A protester wears a blindfold and holds a copy of the U.S. Constitution during a protest outside the New York State Republican Gala in New York, U.S., on Thursday, April 14, 2016. Michael Nagle / Bloomberg

In short, the centre of political gravity in the United States has moved decidedly towards bigger government in the 2016 election campaign. In Tocqueville’s words, it’s because an extreme form of “individualism” has taken hold, a “sentiment disposing each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of those like him and to withdraw to one side with his family and friends, so that…he willingly abandons society at large to itself”. Acknowledging that it is “never effortless for men to tear themselves away from their particular affairs to occupy themselves with common affairs”, he worried that Americans would eventually weary of this effort and abandon the care of public affairs “to the sole visible and permanent representative of collective interests, which is the state”.

Tocqueville foresaw the despair that flows from abdication of personal and social responsibility to the state. In these circumstances, he writes, the individual “naturally turns his regard to the immense being that rises alone in the midst of universal debasement”. Needs and desires constantly lead people back toward the state, and in the end each views it as “the unique and necessary support for individual weakness”.

The state meanwhile becomes populated with what Tocqueville labels “schoolmasters” – an apt word to describe the career politicians and bureaucrats dedicated to social and economic interventionism. While other forms of state tyranny “weighed enormously on some, but…did not extend over many”, Tocqueville imagined democratic despotism would be “more extensive and milder”, and would “degrade men without tormenting them”;

I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men revolving on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls.  Each, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others…Above these an immense tutelary power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate…It willingly works for their happiness…it provides for their security, foresees and secures their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances; can it not take away from them entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living?

One could hardly find a better description of the administrative state expanding into all spheres of life, intending to help and solve the problems of all. In the 2016 election year, it is possible to imagine either the Trump or Clinton campaigns crafting a slogan out of a promise to relieve Americans of “the trouble of thinking and the pain of living”.


Trevor Shelley completed his PhD in political philosophy at Louisiana State University. A resident of Calgary, his latest work, Globalization and Liberalism: An Essay on Montesquieu, Tocqueville, and Manent, will be published this year by St. Augustine Press.

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