12 - A New Political Science for a New World Tocqueville on...

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September 12, 2007 A New Political Science for a New World: Tocqueville on the Historical and Social Origins of American Democracy Good morning. My lecture today is the first of three lectures on Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America . Today’s lecture examines the historical context in which Democracy in America was written and introduces Tocqueville’s influential account of the nature of American democracy and democracy as such. The second lecture will examine in greater detail Tocqueville’s seminal discussion of what he regards as one of the two chief dangers in modern mass democracy - majority tyranny - and examine the role of civil associations (what we today call civil society) in combating the threat of majority tyranny. The final lecture on Tocqueville will examine his account of the other great danger facing modern mass democracies like the United States. This is the danger of what Tocqueville called “individualism,” by which he meant the tendency of citizens in a democracy to withdraw from public life and become politically apathetic. An important consequence of this withdrawal from and indifference to public affairs is the development of “soft despotism,” a gradual and almost imperceptible erosion of individual rights and responsibilities in favor of an all-encompassing “nanny state.” We will examine the social and political roots of this phenomenon and explore the role of religion and what Tocqueville called “self-interest rightly understood” in combating it. In turning from the Federalist Papers to Tocqueville’s Democracy in America , we move from the self- understanding of the American founders to an examination of American social and political life by a sympathetic if often critical foreign observer. Not surprisingly, Tocqueville’s account of both the origin and character of American democracy differs in significant respects from the views of the founders. In particular, Tocqueville calls into question the proud claim, which Hamilton makes in Federalist 1, that the United States is unique in being the only country founded on “reflection and choice” rather than “accident and force.” Where Hamilton and Madison look to developments in modern political science (such as the doctrines of separation of powers, representation, and the extended republic) as the decisive factor in shaping the American regime, Tocqueville looks to the role of social and historical forces in making possible the relative success and the partial failures of the American political experiment. Of course, this distinction should not be pressed too hard. Hamilton and Madison were both well-versed in political history and Tocqueville had read widely in modern political theory. But, unlike the Federalists, Tocqueville ascribes far greater importance to preexisting social and historical forces than to the deliberate intentions of political actors in explaining the nature of American democracy.
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September 12, 2007 In turning from the Federalists, we shift our chronological perspective as well. The first volume of
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12 - A New Political Science for a New World Tocqueville on...

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