I had planned on reading Toqueville’s celebrated Democracy in America when I retire, but I think I’ll read it now. Despite the fact that it was written in 1835, it remains relevant and engaging to this day.
French sociologist and political theorist, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), traveled to the United States in 1831 to study its prisons. He returned with a wealth of broader observations that he codified in “Democracy in America” (1835), one of the most influential books of the 19th century. With its trenchant observations on equality and individualism, Tocqueville’s work remains a valuable explanation of America to Europeans and to Americans themselves.
From Sing-Sing Prison to the Michigan woods, from New Orleans to the White House, Tocqueville traveled for nine months by steamboat, by stagecoach, on horseback and in canoes, visiting America’s penitentiaries and quite a bit in between. In Pennsylvania, Tocqueville spent a week interviewing every prisoner in the Eastern State Penitentiary. In Washington, D.C., he called on President Andrew Jackson and exchanged pleasantries.
Tocqueville was impressed by much of what he saw in American life, admiring the stability of its economy and wondering at the popularity of its churches. He also noted the irony of the freedom-loving nation’s mistreatment of Native Americans and its embrace of slavery.
As “Democracy in America” reveals, Tocqueville believed that equality was the great political and social idea of his era, and he thought that the United States offered the most advanced example of equality in action. He admired American individualism but warned that a society of individuals lacked the intermediate social structures—such as those provided by traditional hierarchies—to mediate relations with the state. The result could be a democratic “tyranny of the majority” in which individual rights were compromised. (e.g. the dismantlement of Roe v. Wade!)
His observations were prescient –
Tocqueville’s penetrating analysis sought to understand the peculiar nature of American political life. He tried to understand why the United States was so different from Europe in the last throes of aristocracy. In contrast to the aristocratic ethic, the United States was a society where hard work and money-making was the dominant ethic, where the common man enjoyed a level of dignity which was unprecedented, where commoners never deferred to elites and where what he described as crass individualism and market capitalism had taken root to an extraordinary degree.
Juliet in Paris: Wouldn’t it be fascinating to witness a discussion between Tocqueville and, say, Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk? They could discuss the inequality of the U.S. tax code. Why do America’s richest pay the least in taxes?
Tocqueville warned that modern democracy may be adept at inventing new forms of tyranny because radical equality could lead to the materialism of an expanding bourgeoisie and to the selfishness of individualism. Tocqueville worried that if despotism were to take root in a modern democracy, it would be a much more dangerous version than the oppression under the Roman emperors or tyrants of the past who could only exert a pernicious influence on a small group of people at a time.
Democracy in America remains widely read and even more widely quoted by politicians, philosophers, historians and anyone seeking to understand the American character.