Tocqueville’s Time

A political-scientist colleague observed to me recently that since the 2012 Presidential election there has been a spate of interest on various blogs in the nineteenth-century French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville.  It is, he suggested, a “Tocqueville moment,” and he’s right.  The perception seems to be that Tocqueville provides an interpretive framework for understanding the vast expansion of American government, the Obama election victory, and where things may be headed.  I’ve even crashed the Tocqueville party myself.  For example, in a post penned in the early morning hours of election night 2012, I wrote:

Reasons for this were anticipated long ago by that most prescient of nineteenth-century observers–Alexis de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America.  Among the great threats to American democracy identified by Tocqueville was the technocratic state intent on meeting the material needs of the electorate.  Such big-government impulses operate on the basis of materialism—the soul destroying assumption that human beings and their needs are simply material.  In such a context God is effectively replaced in the minds of many by the state.  Furthermore, Tocqueville also noted that this big-government state is intolerant of other sources of authority, and so it seeks to undermine associational groups, such as the church, which might compete with it for the allegiance of citizens.  Thus we can only expect more threats along the lines of Obamacare to the religious liberty of people of faith.

To be sure, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, first published in French in 1835 and 1840, has long provided a wealth of insight into the dynamic relationship of American democracy, culture, and religion for tweedy sociologists like Robert Bellah (the title of whose Habits of the Heart comes from Tocqueville) and Robert Wuthnow of Princeton.  Moreover, political theorists such as Harvard’s Harvey Mansfield have drawn deeply from the Tocquevillian well.  Mansfield, who with his late wife Delba Winthrop translated the University of Chicago Press edition of Democracy in America (2000) and who authored the extraordinarily helpful and insightful (if somewhat dense) Tocqueville: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2010), has clearly influenced my own reading of Tocqueville, and he was the well-deserving subject of a recent Hudson Institute conference on his influence and oeuvre.

But why is Tocqueville significant today?  Here are three areas where I think his influence is important.

First, there is Tocqueville’s focus on the importance of mediating structures like the churches and voluntary groups in American society.  Such groups or “associations,” according to Tocqueville, stand between government and the individual and allow groups of individuals to speak with a more united voice and power to government.  Thus they serve as an important hedge against tyranny. As Tocqueville himself puts it: “It is clear that if each citizen, as he becomes individually weaker and consequently more incapable of persevering his freedom, does not learn the art of uniting with those like him to defend it, tyranny will necessarily grow with equality” (Democracy in America [2000], p, 489).   In short, atomistic individualism is a problem for democratic society in that it opens the path to tyranny.

Second, there is his concern for the “mores,” or “habits of the heart,” that help to sustain democratic institutions and promote social stability.  According to Tocqueville, it is organized religion especially that instills basic conceptions of morality such as respect for marriage and honesty, and it is the transcendent mores implicit in Christianity that place limits on revolutionary or utopian dreams that would overthrow or subvert democratic institutions.   Note, however, that while Tocqueville clearly thought that forms of Christianity particularly conducive to democracy had been established in America (see Democracy in America [2000], pp. 275-76), his was certainly no invidiously sectarian vision.  He was concerned with the practical, functional impact of Christianity and religion in general rather than privileging a particular denomination or religious group.

Here we must also note Tocqueville’s important conception of “self-interest well understood.”  He knew that democracy works on the principle of self-interest, but he also recognized that the category of “self-interest” could be wrongly construed in terms of the immediate physical gratification of the individual, and that such a limited understanding was ultimately good for neither the nation nor the individuals that comprise it.  The social virtues inculcated by religion such as honesty, moderation, self-sacrifice, and deference to authority are, in that sense, matters of “self-interest well understood” (see Democracy in America [2000], pp. 500-506).

Third, there are Tocqueville’s prescient suggestions as to how things might later go wrong in America.  As Mansfield succinctly puts it, Tocqueville realized that the “greatest danger to democracy comes out of democracy” (Very Short Introduction, p. 57).  As society becomes more complex and people become less able to take care of their own needs the goals of political process will tend to become more and more focused on immediate material and physical needs and the size and scope of government will grow.  Of such a government, focused as it is on the meeting of physical needs and on achieving material equality, Tocqueville says that “not only would it oppress men, but in the long run it would rob each of them of several of the attributes of humanity” (Democracy in America [2000], p. 666!).

Here Tocqueville anticipates the materialistic reduction of the understanding of human need to the physical and the accompanying denial of the transcendent and spiritual that is so characteristic of the secular welfare state today.  As Tocqueville puts it, “Democracy favors the taste for material enjoyments.  This taste, if it becomes excessive, soon disposes men to believe that all is nothing but matter; and materialism in its turn serves to carry them toward these enjoyments with an insane ardor.  Such is the fatal circle into which democratic nations are propelled.  It is good for them to see the peril and restrain themselves” (Democracy in America [2000], p. 519).

Tocqueville surmised that democracy could well degenerate into a form of “milder” despotism, one that would “degrade men without tormenting them.”  Such despotism would, for the most part, use methods of coercion other than violence, but it would be all-encompassing.  Tocqueville writes: “It willingly works for their happiness, but it wants to be the unique agent and sole arbiter of that; it provides for their security, foresees and secures their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principle affairs, directs their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances; can it not take away from them entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living?” (Democracy in America [2000], pp. 662-663).

In an almost uncanny way Tocqueville anticipated the emergence of the modern democratic welfare state, but I’m not so sure about the “mildness” of this emerging statist despotism in the American context.  While much of Western Europe seems to have followed the storyline that Tocqueville laid out, America historically has been much less easily domesticated.  A nation as politically and culturally polarized as America is today could well see something far more Orwellian emerge, a despotism much less mild than Tocqueville prophesied.