The Political Thought of Alexis de Tocqueville
Weitz Center for Creativity, Room 226 and 229
Tocqueville began his study of democracy in the United States by calling attention to the nation's "point of departure." Democracy, equality of social condition, was the most basic fact shaping political and social relations in the New World. Tocqueville's context - a world of political instability, intellectual contestation, spiritual rupture, class antagonism, and the nascence of the nation-state - established the relevant framework for his lifelong study of the democratic social condition. Democracy in America was only the initial work on this project. The book appeared in 1835. His career as a member of the Chamber of Deputies brought reports of abolition, colonialism, and international political economy. His greatest work on the democratic revolution, L'Ancien Regime et la Révolution, was unfinished at his death.
As one attached to an aristocratic tradition, yet drawn into the tide of democratic social change, Tocqueville considered himself to be in a unique position to evaluate the "new science of politics" at work in a world made new by the democratic revolution. In the American example, Tocqueville sought "the very image of democracy." By depicting American practices accurately, he would portray democracy's character, throwing into relief its thoughts, prejudices, and passions. "America," he wrote to John Stuart Mill in reference to Democracy, "was only my frame, démocratie the subject." America was a laboratory of democratic equality. Through a portrait of this democratic social condition, Tocqueville intended to raise succeeding generations' aspirations and heighten their sense of the dangers to liberty of new species of tyranny: an "empire" of opinion, the new social power; a soft despotism that removed all the cares of living in trade for liberty; and majority tyranny, which even republican government might fail to check.
Tocqueville's quest was highly personal; two of his grandparents were killed in the Terror following the French Revolution and his parents escaped the guillotine in a last minute reprieve. In Tocqueville's view, the post-revolutionary governments of the early nineteenth century fueled the least laudatory aspects of democratic social change: excessive materialism and individualism. He predicted the rise of a despotic, totalizing state for any democracy whose citizens failed to learn the "art and science of association." His work in the archives in Touraine on the course leading the French Revolution to morph into the Terror reinforced his concern that the unquenchable thirst for "well-being," demand for uniformity, and tendency toward conformity would eclipse a people's passion for liberty.
In POSC 352 we considered Tocqueville's hopes and misgivings about democracy. We compared the colonial enterprises of Tocqueville's Algerian mission with contemporary imperialist projects and analyzed current social movements in terms of his portrayal of conditions of social equality the mentality of individualism, the unexpected democratic emphasis on uniformity and conformity, and an excessive drive for material well-being. We asked how far a Tocquevillian Analytics takes us in understanding his world and ours.