ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE WAS a French thinker and philosopher who lived from 1805 to 1859, and was greatly influenced by Montesquieu. He wrote Democracy in America, which actually combines two volumes—the first written in 1835 and the second written in 1840—based on his travels around America. Whereas Locke and Montesquieu, among others, provided the essential intellectual guidance to America’s Founders and Framers, Tocqueville’s insightful observations about democracy, and particularly the American Republic, several decades after its establishment, are prescient predictions about both the strengths of the American character as well as the allure and peril of what I broadly and repeatedly describe as utopianism.
The social condition of the Americans is eminently democratic; this was its character at the foundation of the colonies, and it is still more strongly marked at the present day.”1 He observed,
Tocqueville explained, however, that the danger threatening yet motivating most societies is the miscomprehension of equality, resulting in their descent into centralized tyranny.
Rather than embracing equality as a condition of natural law and inalienable rights, which underlie a free and diverse society, equality is misapplied politically in the form of radical egalitarianism and to promote equal social and economic outcomes.
But liberty is not the chief and constant object of their desires; equality is their idol: they make rapid and sudden efforts to obtain liberty and, if they miss their aim, resign themselves to their disappointment; but nothing can satisfy them without equality, and they would rather perish than lose it.…” (I, 53–54)
But the strength of the sovereignty of the American people, Tocqueville argued, helps arrest the usual and historic rise of tyranny.
While rightly decrying the despotism of radical egalitarianism, Tocqueville also recognized that the American economic system—with its voluntary commercial interactions and the individual’s right to acquire and retain property—creates more wealth and opportunity for more people than any other system.
Tocqueville observed that in America, the vast majority of people are neither poor nor rich, they desire but are not obsessed with becoming rich, and they are loyal to a stable yet free system in which they are able to benefit and have a financial stake.
Not only are the men of democracies not naturally desirous of revolutions, but they are afraid of them. All revolutions more or less threaten the tenure of property; but most of those who live in democratic countries are possessed of property; not only do they possess property, but they live in the condition where men set the greatest store upon their property” (II, 252–53). In essence, the pursuit and acquisition of private property is crucial to the maintenance
the civil society.
“I think, then, that the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything that ever before existed in the world; our contemporaries will find no prototype of it in their memories. I seek in vain for an expression that will accurately convey the whole of the idea I have formed of it; the old words despotism and tyranny are inappropriate: the thing itself is new, and since I cannot name, I must attempt to define it” (II, 318). Actually, it may be different or novel in the particulars of its evolution and form, but the species is generally known. It is utopianism.
With the people denuded of spirit and exceptionality, dependent on the government for their welfare, the democracy gradually transitions into a powerful administrative state.
Tocqueville went on to portray the amorphousness and insatiableness of the administrative state, as it corrals, prods, and directs the individual at will in nearly all aspects of life, where existence becomes bleak and dark. “After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd”
Tocqueville observed that of all societies likely to effectively resist the soft tyranny that overtakes democracies, America would be that society.
Still, Tocqueville knew that the governing despotism of which he wrote, and which can accurately and broadly be characterized as utopianism, is, for free men, living in civil societies, a perpetual and existential threat—even in America.
In the end, he wondered if any democracy could withstand it.