Literature Study GuidesDemocracy In AmericaVol 2 Part 4 Chapters 1 8 Summary

Democracy in America | Study Guide

Alexis de Tocqueville

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Democracy in America | Vol. 2, Part 4, Chapters 1–8 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 1: Equality Normally Gives Men the Taste for Free Institutions

Equality gives men the taste for independence and alienates them from authority. Nevertheless, Alexis de Tocqueville does not consider it likely that democracies will degenerate into anarchy. He sees instead a more likely path to servitude.

Chapter 2: That the Ideas of Democratic Peoples in the Matter of Government Are Naturally Favorable to the Concentration of Powers

In centuries of equality, according to Tocqueville, secondary powers, placed between sovereign and subjects, are retained only with difficulty. Likewise, the idea of uniform legislation, applicable to all and having "the right to do everything" prevails. Such ideas are gaining a foothold in Europe, especially in France.

Chapter 3: That the Sentiments of Democratic People Are in Accord with Their Ideas to Bring Them to Concentrate Power

In this chapter, Tocqueville argues that centralization of power is habitual in democracies and it is likely to increase unless held back. He attributes this to the weakness and distraction of individuals, which contributes to their willingness to cede power to the central state.

Chapter 4: On Some Particular and Accidental Causes That Serve to Bring a Democratic People to Centralize Power or Turn It Away from That

Tocqueville structures this chapter around a comparison and contrast of America with Europe. In America, freedom is old, while equality is comparatively new; in Europe, the contrary is true. Extreme centralization of political power, in Tocqueville's view, weakens society. Tocqueville's central claim in the chapter is that fear of disorder may induce a democratic people to yield more and more of its rights to the central government, acting on the assumption that the government is the sole power strong enough to ensure tranquility.

Chapter 5: That among European Nations of Our Day Sovereign Power Increases Although Sovereigns Are Less Stable

In this chapter, Tocqueville discusses a wide range of topics. He points out that European countries have experienced a number of revolutions in recent years. The tendency toward centralization of power is increasing in Europe. The European continent has also to deal with the Industrial Revolution and its consequences, which in turn affect government. Increased need for public works and increased instability have led to expansion of governmental powers. The instability of the times leaves Tocqueville apprehensive about the growth of sovereign power.

Chapter 6: What Kind of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear

Tocqueville now turns to consider an insidious threat to democracy: the gradual, unobtrusive decline of people's independent thought. Beguiled by a government that attends to every aspect of their well-being, people in a democracy may cede their free will to an "immense tutelary power." This is the danger of "mild despotism." Such a condition is despotic because the people surrender their freedom; it is mild because those who are enslaved are not conscious of any deprivation.

Chapter 7: Continuation of the Preceding Chapters

In this chapter, Tocqueville continues to explore the dynamics he discerns in political conflict and compromise. If there can be a possibility of reconstructing aristocratic society in the present age, it is nonetheless incumbent on people living in a democratic era to guard against despotism. Tocqueville believes that associations, a free press, and the judicial power of the court system constitute three important safeguards against despotism. He urges more attention and respect to "forms" or social conventions, which have the effect of moderating extreme behavior. Everything was different in former societies, he says, so "henceforth one must speak of new remedies for new ills." Tocqueville summarizes his goals for democracy as follows: to fix limits for social power; to guarantee individual rights; and to safeguard and sustain the individual. Tocqueville concludes the chapter by exhorting his readers to hold a salutary fear, but not a soft and idle terror, for the future.

Chapter 8: General View of the Subject

Tocqueville's final chapter has the character of a farewell address. The world is changing, he says, and a new society is only just now "being born." No one can predict with certainty exactly what this society will be like, but some of its principal features may be discerned. Almost all extremes are becoming "milder and softer"; the bonds of race and class are loosening, while the human bond grows tighter. Tocqueville himself confesses that he feels "full of fears and full of hopes." Rejecting fatalism as a "false and cowardly" doctrine, he closes by affirming human free will. Nations must determine for themselves where equality will lead them: "to servitude or freedom, to enlightenment or barbarism, to prosperity or misery."

Analysis

Part 4 focuses on the influence of democratic ideas on political society. In this final group of chapters, Tocqueville adopts an unusually personal tone. He also makes numerous references to contemporary Europe, rather than devoting most of his attention to America.

At first sight, Tocqueville's considerable attention to despotism in Part 4 may seem puzzling, since readers might evaluate despotism as the polar opposite of democracy. But Tocqueville deftly demonstrates the potential relationship of these two forms of government. At the beginning of Chapter 7, he states directly: "Despotism ... appears to me particularly to be dreaded in democratic ages."

Tocqueville claims that democracies, in which individualism flourishes, are often extremely hostile to individual rights. This is another of the paradoxes that demonstrate the subtlety and penetration of Tocqueville's analysis.

As Tocqueville explains in Chapter 6, the type of despotism he has in mind should be distinguished from the "tyranny of the majority." It is a "mild despotism"—caused ultimately by the people's dereliction of their independence and free thought in exchange for the abundant well-being that a strong, centralized government ensures for them. One commentator has compared Tocqueville's analysis of mild despotism to the 20th-century works of the British writer George Orwell (1903–50), who dramatized the insidious takeover of individual will by totalitarian regimes.

Tocqueville would have been familiar with the "enlightened despotism" of 18th-century European monarchs such as Frederick the Great (Prussia), Catherine II (Russia), and Joseph II (Austria). In these regimes, traditional absolute monarchy was blended in diverse ways with educational reforms, religious toleration, freedom of speech, and property rights. Yet the success of such regimes was controversial in their day and remains so in ours. Judging by his sketch of mild despotism in Democracy in America, Tocqueville would not have been favorable to them.

Tocqueville also places centralized power under suspicion in Chapter 4, when he remarks that "a very disordered love for order" may prompt citizens in a democracy to surrender their rights to the government in times of upheaval. Such a sacrifice of rights for tranquility, in effect, runs the risk of aiding and abetting despotism.

In his final chapter, Tocqueville echoes the beginning of Volume 1 when he highlights equality once again and when he speaks of his "fears and hopes." Appropriately, he points out that in a world of constant change, it is extremely difficult to predict the future. But he maintains a firm belief in the free will of individuals and in the human ability, within a vast circle or framework, to shape destiny. Humanity is endowed with free will, and depending on the exercise of choice, the consequences of equality will unfold.

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