Léon Noël, Alexis de Tocqueville (1848). Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
This talk was presented at the New School forum “American Democracy in Crisis: Perspectives from Tocqueville, Douglass, Wells, Dewey, and Arendt” on October 13, 2022.
I first read Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America as a college freshman. I started reading it more closely and maturely when I embarked on my study of the politics of American culture and the culture of American politics, which eventually led to the publication of my book The Cynical Society. Then, for many years, I taught a course on Tocqueville’s book and his topic at Eugene Lang College, often as a freshman seminar. These three readings are the grounds for this presentation.
As a freshman, in 1967, I read the book, in an American history course, as it is most often admired and cited. It’s intriguing how many of Tocqueville’s observations about the strengths and weaknesses of the American political system and social order have endured: the workings of the federal system, the separation of powers, the promise, perils, and consequences of individualism, the potential dangers of the tyranny of the majority, and much more.
Yet there were also passages I found perplexing, and still do. Tocqueville considered race and racism in America through a racist lens. His analyses of gender relations and the powerful character of American (democratic) women are inventive, but so patriarchal that they are difficult to comprehend. And while, it is intriguing that he saw the likelihood of class conflict in America—in his terms, “the aristocracy of manufacturers”—he sees disaster on the horizon, not a promise for social transformation, as was also the case in his view of the races and their prospects.
On the central problems of race, gender and sexuality, and class, Tocqueville is not the best of guides in considering today’s crisis of democracy in America. Nonetheless, I still think that Tocqueville has much to offer in understanding America and the present crisis in our democracy.
He perceived major tensions knitted into the fabric of the political and social order of the United States. His analysis and judgment about the outcome of these tensions were historically specific. But they do, nonetheless, provide critical insight into the crisis of democracy in our times, the starting point of my work on The Cynical Society.
To anticipate my conclusion: Tocqueville’s investigation of the dangers and remedies of the tyranny of the majority illuminates the dangers of a new tyranny of a minority, and his investigation of democratic culture explains its populist and anti-intellectual features, and suggests the potential to overcome these features.
Moving toward this conclusion, I propose we consider major themes of Volumes 1 and 2 of his classic work, informed by an overview of his general sensibility.
Tocqueville was profoundly ambivalent about democracy. He was a nineteenth-century aristocrat who presciently saw an inevitable democratic future that others didn’t recognize. On the one hand, he thought democracy was inevitable, an unfolding “providential force” that can be shaped for better or for worse, but can’t be stopped. On the other hand, he was deeply concerned about cultural judgments and distinctions that democracy, as a shared civic culture, overwhelms: the unique creative accomplishments, the refinement and excellence, the public virtues to which he was attached.
Tocqueville appreciated the ingenuity of the American experiment. He understood that democracy is not just a system of governance with strengths and weaknesses. He understood how this system was built on a social infrastructure, a product of fortune and design, constituted by social equality and individualism.
He illuminated the connection between equality, individualism, and democracy, and the problems these connections posed. In voluntary associations, “individualism properly understood,” a broad-minded, enlightened individualism, the separation of powers, federalism, and much else, he saw the grounds upon which the ideals of freedom and equality could be balanced.
But he also presented dramatic accounts of the undersides of democracy, the aspects of democracy that inherited political thought recognized as necessary outcomes of democratic rule: “the tyranny of the majority” and what he explained as “the despotism democracies have to fear most,” the despotism that would be later described as the product of mass consumer society. He then shows how he believes American safeguards protect against these undersides.
He thought that American individualism was of a specific variety, in which the calculation of individual interest included consideration of the broader public interest. He understood federalism and the system of checks and balances would temper the concentration of centralized power. He believed that robust civil associations, positioned between a potentially too powerful state and weak individuals, would protect the citizenry. And he thought that widely available newspapers— “the media,” we would say—would support the development of civil and political associations, and the overall pluralism of the society and the decentralization of power.
Yet I believe we’re in a radically different situation now. I think that aspects of the very protections against the tyranny of the majority and democratic despotism that Tocqueville detected seem to be supporting a new tyranny, a tyranny of an anti-intellectual minority.
Voluntary associations, federalism, the judiciary, and the media, are part of the problem, not the solution. Voluntary associations of a new sort, converted into highly motivated special interest groups, such as the NRA, have dominated policy-making. Federalism has given the citizens of small, rural states, often with political perspectives not responding to the crises of our times, much more power than those from large, more urban ones. The judiciary, most dramatically the Supreme Court, is now assaulting the rights of woman, African Americans, democratic advances in the expansion of full citizenship, the voting rights law, and reproductive rights, as it supports the dominant powers of corporations and the super-rich. And the media regime is radicalizing the minority powers, turning cultural and political pluralism into political tribalism, in which the prospect of a civil war is actively imagined by right wing populists, inspired, and provoked by a former president of the United States.
While the first volume of Democracy in America offered an analysis of American political institutions and social arrangements, the second volume is more focused on American—i.e. democratic—political culture: what it does well, what it does poorly, and the dangers it poses.
Tocqueville’s investigation of America culture is based on his most fundamental proposition: America is a society that is egalitarian. At my first reading, this was a proposition that still seemed to make some sense. But since then, this is a more and more difficult to accept. Rising inequality is recognized as a major global problem that is most acute in the U.S., with the rich getting ever richer, especially the super-rich, leaving the rest of us in the dust, especially those without higher education or specialized skills. Social mobility is nothing like what Tocqueville described and most Americans imagine. Realizing the so-called American dream is very far from the lived experience of most Americans.
Yet the Americans’ “habits of the heart,” as Tocqueville put it, are still democratic. I worked to convince my students of this years ago, though I realize my argument is becoming harder to sustain.
The contrast between the lived and imagined reality is perversely expressed in the notion that Donald Trump is a blue-collar billionaire. More seriously, most Americans describe themselves as middle class, even though the wage and wealth differences of those who define themselves as such is immense, from those who must work themselves hard to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves, to those who do so grandly. Although we are not, we imagine ourselves as equals.
We assume that we are all equal and that our opinions are equal as well. Tocqueville got to the core of this in the opening of Volume 2, starting with his most ironic observation:
America is . . . the one country in the world where the precepts of Descartes are least studied and best followed . . . Americans do not read Descartes’s works because their social state turns them away from speculative studies, and they follow his maxims because of the same social state naturally disposes their minds to adopt them.
With this ethos, Americans, as democrats, view inherited and contemporary cultural authority with suspicion. They are radical skeptics, if not confirmed cynics. Expert and refined knowledge and insight must prove themselves. Since we are all equal, no person’s opinion or judgement is inherently superior to others. The most popular opinion can easily substitute for informed opinion. So-called common sense overrules expertise. Experts in the arts and sciences, including medicine, are viewed with suspicion, especially when their assertions are not immediately apparent, hidden in knowledge about microscopic organisms that are not readily apparent. Established grounds for judgment, legitimized with peer review, degrees, and certificates, are not readily accepted. And since Americans imagine that we are all equal, quantity substitutes for quality.
Think about Trump’s suggestion that we use Lysol spray to combat COVID. Think not only of the suspicion of public health authorities, but also of legal experts on the workings of the Constitution, and the idea that the news sources adhering to the highest journalistic standards are no better than blogs, podcasts, and tweets that denounce them. And if everyone you know agrees with you on this or that matter, you know you are right, and “they” are wrong.
In sum, Tocqueville in his analysis of American arts and sciences in the early nineteenth century revealed the way American anti-intellectualism of the twentieth and twenty-first century is a basic characteristic of the American way of life. And this, I believe, has empowered looming dangers of the tyranny of a minority that we are now experiencing.
Tocqueville’s greatest accomplishment, in my judgment, is not that he presciently foresaw the future or that he somehow unlocked the key to the American (democratic) genius, as I was taught as a college freshman. Rather, I believe that he illuminated key tensions in American democratic life. The long-recognized tense relationship between democracy and tyranny, and the more recently recognized tension between democracy and the despotism of an anti-intellectual populist segment of a polarized society. Tocqueville’s gift to us is the illumination of tensions inherent to American democracy. Sometimes this led him to mistaken conclusions, such as in his observations about race, class, and gender.
In promising ways, his conclusions about American democratic culture also were mistaken. Thus, he explained why American literature, given its move toward popularization, was inferior to British literature exactly when American literary brilliance was emerging: Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Dickenson, Whitman, et al. These literary giants drew upon the democratic to develop a uniquely American art. In the graphic and performing arts such accomplishments also developed. Tocqueville did not understand that the tensions between the ideals of refined culture and an egalitarian ethos, could lead to new innovative, excellent culture. That this innovation could make critical contributions to the world of arts and sciences, as well as to the development of democracy. Like Theodor Adorno, the power of jazz would have escaped Tocqueville. He would not anticipate Hemingway is my guess, and even more so Roth, Ellison, and Morrison. Yet, such creativity is the promising result of the tensions he highlighted.
I think the outcomes of these tensions are revealing new looming dangers, the rise of a tyranny of the minority, empowered by anti-intellectualism. But that the tensions persist, and that there have been and will be creative responses to them, suggests that the crisis in democracy of our present moment has promise, as well as perils.
Jeffrey C. Goldfarb is Professor Emeritus and Senior Fellow of the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies at The New School. He is the founder of Public Seminar.