Democracy in America | Study Guide

Alexis de Tocqueville

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Democracy in America | Main Ideas


Equality of Conditions and Political Equality

Alexis de Tocqueville declares that political equality, pervasive in America, provides the strong foundation for democracy, a system of government in which sovereignty resides with the people and decisions are made by majority rule. This system strikingly contrasts with aristocracy, in which political power is concentrated in a small class of nobility. The United States had the good fortune to be founded by well-educated settlers from the middle class who enjoyed equality and democracy from the beginning. Unlike the French Revolution, the American Revolution was not fought to topple an aristocracy but to gain independence from Great Britain. Tocqueville regards the advance of equality of conditions as an inevitable, universal trend. Thus, he hopes his analysis of democracy will have the practical effect of revealing the hopes and fears inherent in this form of government.

Mobility and Change

Rapid change is one of the hallmarks of the American spirit. In addition to equality, westward expansion, land speculation, social mobility, individualism, a talent for innovation, and a ceaseless quest for material well-being are all aspects of this theme. In a psychologically penetrating analysis, Tocqueville discusses the expression and causes of American "restiveness" (inquiétude in French)—unease or absence of calm. Of the Americans, he writes, "They encounter good fortune nearly everywhere, but not happiness."

Women in America

Tocqueville praises the role of women in American democracy, commenting on the strong links between women and religion. He regards both women and religion as anchors for the "mores" (habits of the heart or traditional norms and customs) that strengthen democratic government. In contrast to France, where marriage is the outcome of a negotiated contract between families, American women exercise a high degree of choice before they are married. Tocqueville's praise of the American system, however, coexists with his approval of stereotyped gender roles, and he does not challenge the exclusion of women from suffrage (the right to vote).

Tyranny of the Majority and Mild Despotism

Throughout his work, Tocqueville is acutely sensitive to the dangers that arise from excesses in the democratic system. He quotes both James Madison and Thomas Jefferson on this issue. For Tocqueville, the most effective restraints on the potential tyranny of the majority in America are decentralized authority, voluntary associations, lawyers, juries, and the court system—although he admits that there is no guarantee that such a tyranny can be altogether avoided.

A related but more insidious threat to democratic freedom is mild despotism. According to Tocqueville, this arises when the people surrender their independence and free will to an increasingly centralized and authoritarian government. Here Tocqueville views Americans' materialism and preoccupation with well-being as endangering authentic democracy. Almost without realizing it, citizens may yield their free will to an "immense tutelary power," provided they remain prosperous and comfortable.

Self-Interest, Well Understood

One of the most important sections of Democracy in America is Volume 2, Part 2, Chapter 8, where Tocqueville expounds his doctrine of "self-interest well understood." He traces the roots of this concept back to the essayist and philosopher Michel de Montaigne (1533–92), one of the leading figures of the French Renaissance. Self-interest is not to be confused with selfishness. Instead, it is an outlook that properly calibrates the relative weight of individualism versus group cooperation. For Tocqueville, America exhibits a pervasive and remarkably productive acceptance of this doctrine, shared by the poor and the rich alike.
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