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What Went Wrong with Democracy in America?

Ask Tocqueville.

Portrait of Alexis de Tocqueville.
Portrait of de Tocqueville by Theodore Chasseriau (Public domain)

By David A. Palmer, in association with Joseph McCormick.

Alexis de Tocqueville’s book On Democracy in America, published in 1835, has long been the classic study on the values and institutions that define democratic societies. Almost two centuries later, it gives us deep insights into the crisis of democracy in America today.

Tocqueville identified the dangers that would, if left unchecked, undermine the democratic foundations of American culture. The conversion of slavery into other forms of racism; the rise of a corporate aristocracy; the role of warfare in the centralization of state power and control; the erosion of civic participation in a culture of materialistic individualism — all of these were flagged by the French writer as potential trends that could facilitate the nation’s slide into “democratic despotism.”

More than that, he wrote at length about the “habits of the heart” — the moral dispositions and cultural habits, and the forms of community participation and cooperation, that are the true foundations of democratic life. He wrote about the role of religion in nurturing these habits and dispositions and argued that religious partisanship and politicization causes it to lose its positive influence on society. Tocqueville’s analysis provides clues to both the diagnosis and the cure to the malady of democracy today, in America and elsewhere.

Tocqueville (1805–1859), a French politician of aristocratic lineage, wrote his book after a nine-month trip around the United States in 1831. His goal was to understand the implications of the broad trend of societies evolving in the direction of democracy. This was happening in Europe in the mid 19th century, as most European countries transitioned from “aristocracy” to “democracy”. America was the society most advanced in that process. Since it had been democratic ever since the arrival of the first European colonists in the 17th century, never having experienced aristocracy, America presented for Tocqueville a case of “pure” democracy.

On the other hand, European societies were evolving from aristocracy to democracy through state centralization and revolution. Although Tocqueville considered the evolution towards democracy to be a long-term and inexorable trend, he also considered that the most likely end-point of this evolution is despotism. His purpose is thus to identify the factors that contribute to a healthy democracy and prevent its slide into despotism.

Tocqueville defines “democracy” in a different way than is understood today. Contemporary American-style liberal democracy, defined by its partisan electoral politics and oppositional social movements, does not figure in Tocqueville’s account. This is because, in the 1830s, in Tocqueville’s discussion, political parties didn’t seem to play an important role, and there weren’t any social movements. In fact, he describes political parties as an “inherent evil” of free governments. Furthermore, he discusses democracy more as a social condition and spends at least as much time discussing “democratic mores” — the moral habits and dispositions of democratic culture — than political institutions per se.

The 1945 edition of the book, published by Knopf. Order on Amazon

Equality and Freedom

There are two major components to Tocqueville’s conception of democracy: equality and political freedom. Of the two, equality is the essential characteristic of democracy, since, for Tocqueville, political freedom can also exist in aristocratic countries, and he considers that democracy has a tendency to evolve into despotism. In fact, he predicts that democratic (egalitarian) societies are likely to evolve into “democratic despotism”. Thus, there are two types of democracies: free democracies, and despotic democracies.

Tocqueville’s stress on egalitarianism is in contrast to the lack of equality that is characteristic of aristocratic societies. Equality here refers to equality of status and rights. In an aristocratic society, people are divided into distinct classes, castes and subgroups, and have no chance to advance beyond their ascribed social status. A commoner can never aspire to be an aristocrat. Aristocrats are guaranteed to always retain their dominant position.

In a democratic society, social mobility is the norm; people can aspire to improve their living conditions; they can compare themselves to those above them and try to reach their state through their efforts. Those with better conditions are also not guaranteed to maintain such conditions, so they also need to work hard to maintain their state. Thus there is constant circulation within society, as people make strenuous efforts to improve their condition; people change professions, rise and fall, migrate to new places in search of new opportunities, and so on. There is endless social mixing that has a homogenizing effect on society. For Tocqueville, this is the essential democratic condition.

Equality gradually makes people have more sympathy for others; the culture becomes softer and less cruel. People have empathy for the generality of other people because they feel that they have something in common with them; they can relate to their sufferings. In contrast, aristocrats who can be lyrical in their expressions of love and duty to their own kind can be incredibly cruel and heartless to commoners. The same applies in America in peoples’ attitudes to slaves, noted Tocqueville.

What about freedom? Freedom, for Tocqueville, seems to imply the peoples’ liberty to live their lives as they wish and to participate in the affairs of government. This is the democracy that existed from the moment of the first colonies: although the first settlements were nominally under British sovereignty, in practice, the new communities were isolated from each other and were entirely self-governing, and they had left aristocracy behind them when they sailed away from Britain.

Not only did elected local councils administer most affairs in the colonies, but many administrative officers were directly elected; thus there was little hierarchy between officials who, being directly elected, were independent of each other. Political power was highly dispersed and distributed between officials and councils at different levels from the county to the state and Federation. Each of these centers of power was independent of each other, and none of them had a high level of control.

Painting by George Caleb Bingham, “The County Election,” 1854, via Reynolda House Museum of American Art.
George Caleb Bingham, “The County Election,” 1854, via Reynolda House Museum of American Art.

Thus, the political freedom of American democracy was characterized by highly diffuse and decentralized power and a high level of participation of people in discussing local affairs. It was not defined by political parties, ideologies, lobby groups, election campaigns, protests, social movements, and the like.

The two critical flaws of American democracy

Tocqueville points to two critical limitations to American democracy. The first is slavery, which was still practiced in the American south in the 1830s, and was a system comparable to aristocracy, with similar consequences. Tocqueville accurately predicted that the liquidation of slavery would lead the white minority in the South to attempt to perpetuate a racist social system in order to preserve their aristocratic privileges.

Second is what we would, today, call the rise of a capitalist class. With the expansion of industry, Tocqueville notes, equality is diminished because workers become hyper-specialized in one task only and even their bodies become shaped like their tasks. Meanwhile, the industrialists become generalists who specialize in managing entire industries — they become a new aristocracy.

Not only does it become almost impossible to cross the class divide, but unlike traditional aristocrats who had a moral obligation to take care of the commoners on their land, industrialists have no sense of obligation toward their workers; so it becomes an even worse form of aristocracy. Here, Tocqueville correctly predicted the rise of the capitalist class, even before Marx.

The situation has become even worse than he anticipated: in his observation, the rich stay away from public affairs because excessive wealth is a political liability in the egalitarian ethic of democracies. Thus the rich stay in the shadows, and leave the public arena to the common people. Nowadays, not only has the industrial aristocracy learned how to manipulate the partisan arena from the shadows, but at its current scale of consolidation and institutional control it no longer even tries to stay in the shadows.

A 19th-century print shows captives being brought on board a slave ship on Africa’s west coast.
A 19th-century print shows captives being brought on board a slave ship on Africa’s west coast.

Democratic despotism

In addition to these limitations on American democracy, Tocqueville also predicted that democracies, by their very egalitarian nature, have an inexorable tendency to evolve into despotism. In America, the conditions for the rise of despotism are contained in the centralization and expansion of the state in conditions of war, and the rise of materialism and individualism that lead people to focus on their private needs and neglect to participate in public affairs.

The tendency toward despotism is most pronounced in Europe, owing to its different history. In Europe, equality preceded political freedom: it was monarchies that began to build strong states in their struggles against the feudal aristocracy. During this process, the aristocracy was weakened and equality was enhanced by the king. A centralizing state prefers a population of equal citizens rather than strongly organized aristocratic power centers that are more capable of resisting the state.

When revolutions took place in Europe, the people fought and overthrew both the aristocracy and the royal sovereign. When the people took power, they continued the process of centralizing the state under popular sovereignty, using the strong state to protect the equality of its citizens. With its democratic legitimacy, the state could legitimately expand its reach into ever more domains of life, in the name of promoting the well-being of the people.

Tocqueville analyses the factors that lead to more or less despotism in democracy. Religious values and an associational fabric restrict the rise of despotism, while materialism, individualism and military engagement lead to increased despotism.

In aristocratic societies, people have few chances to significantly change their material conditions, and they are part of a tight web of mutual obligations to their extended families, lords, vassals, servants, serfs, masters and the sovereign. In democracies, on the other hand, not only is it possible for people to struggle to improve their material condition, they are required to do so. And they can only rely on themselves since they don’t have the strong reciprocal ties of mutual assistance of feudal/aristocratic society. Thus, everybody is engaged in a struggle for material survival and improvement.

Material desires were not considered proper form in aristocratic society: nobles had enough wealth and poor people had to learn to accept their poverty; even though both might want to acquire more wealth, they would not publicly admit it. But in democracies, the pursuit of wealth through hard work is a perfectly legitimate and praiseworthy moral norm.

Thus, Tocqueville worries that people will become “individualistic”, meaning that they will turn inward, to their own families and close friends, and focus on their material pursuits, and not be concerned with participating in community and public affairs. They will also crave stable social conditions in which they can continue to protect and improve their lives, and fear new ideas and disruptive novelty.

Here, Tocqueville describes what later occurred with the rise of conservative European bourgeois culture, or of the American suburban culture. Tocqueville fears that these populations, turning inward and ignoring society, will allow an increasingly powerful state to handle more and more affairs. He laments the irony that in democratic despotism, the state treats people like children unable to make common-sense judgments, and yet the same people are given the power to elect their despotic government, and then believe that the despotic government works for them. Voters dislike the individuals whom they elect to govern them, but they all consider that these leaders should do even more for them.

Tocqueville considers that, if a choice were necessary, the opposite would be preferable: for people to have considerable power and participation in their own lives and local communities, even if there were no freedom at the level of the central state. Because, attached to this local freedom and participation, people restrict the expansion of the despotic state, and become more motivated to participate at the national level, having become aware of the connections between local issues and national ones.

The culture of associations

Indeed, Tocqueville’s main concern is the excessive centralization of power in democratic regimes. The main counterforce to this tendency, and to the tendency of individualism, is the lively culture of associations. Tocqueville noticed the incredible diversity and activity of associations in the United States. People associate for everything from “futile” to “serious”, from “particular” to “general” purposes. Tocqueville calls this “the art of pursuing in common the object of common desires”, which should be applied to “the greatest number of objects”. This is of the essence in democracies.

In aristocracies, aristocrats are empowered by their strong networks of mutual obligation, which allow them to easily mobilize the resources needed to accomplish things. But in democracies, people are isolated individuals who cannot draw on such resources. Thus they need to create associations, which can bring together large numbers of people to pursue their common goals. Such associations, especially powerful professional and business and cultural associations — in a sense, interest groups — are the necessary substitute for aristocratic power centers.

Mural in U.S. Capitol featuring NAWSA leaders Anna Howard Shaw and Carrie Chapman Catt at a 1917 suffrage parade, by Allyn Co
Mural in U.S. Capitol featuring NAWSA leaders Anna Howard Shaw and Carrie Chapman Catt at a 1917 suffrage parade, by Allyn Cox

There is also a mutual influence between civil and political associations. Civil associations give people the experience of participation in collective affairs; those skills can then translate into political associations. But, notes Tocqueville, it tends to work the other way around: to have influence, civil associations need to be large. It’s very hard to mobilize people around such civil associations. People even have a tendency to distrust such associations. But it’s easy to mobilize large numbers of people around political causes. So it’s through mobilization in political associations that people acquire the skills to organize, which are then translated into civil associations.

Thus, although civil and political associations are different, there’s a lot of mutual influence between them. Through these observations, we can understand why American civil society has become increasingly partisan and politicized, with politicized social movements becoming the lens through which civil society is understood and valorized.

Religion, liberty and virtue

The other key foundation of freedom is religion. Tocqueville stresses the central role of religion in American democratic culture. John Winthrop, one of the founders of the Massachusetts colony, made a distinction between two kinds of liberty: the liberty that we share with animals, and the civil and moral liberty to do fearlessly what is good and just. The liberty that the colony would protect was of the second kind. Thus the liberty that is the foundation of American democracy is not the unrestrained freedom of our lower impulses, but the unrestrained freedom to express the higher virtues of our spiritual nature.

It’s thanks to the inner foundation of religious morality and virtue, by which the people could discipline themselves, exercise self-restraint, and release the higher aspirations of the human spirit, that the political system could guarantee the liberty of the people. While the people recognize in themselves the source of political power, they recognize that above the political world are universal principles buttressed by religion, of humanity, justice, and reason. Given the tendency of people in democratic societies to become absorbed in their materialist strivings, it is essential for religion to have deep roots in these societies, to counter this tendency and “give people lofty ideals and the taste for spiritual goods.”

Jennie A. Brownscombe’s ‘The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth’ (1914).
Jennie A. Brownscombe’s ‘The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth’ (1914). Wikimedia Commons

Tocqueville notes that religion takes a new form in democratic societies. The Americans have a “philosophical method” which we would now call “pragmatism”: to not blindly follow habits, opinions, prejudices, or tradition; to investigate reasons for oneself; to remember the purpose without being tied to the means, and to aim for substance rather than form.

This ethic can be linked to the greater circulation and mobility of people, who are not embedded for their whole lives within a single, often complex traditional culture, and meet with many people from different origins in their lives, who have different habits and customs. These attitudes are translated into religion, which acquires the following characteristics:

  • It becomes this-worldly in orientation, restraining worldly desires and ambitions rather than rejecting them
  • It has less institutional authority
  • It simplifies outward forms
  • It emphasizes the core rather than the outward aspects
  • It emphasizes that all are equal under God.

Tocqueville noted the intense level of religiosity of Americans, which contrasted with the declining religiosity of Europe. This disproved the notion widespread in Europe, that religion would decline with the general advancement of societies. Tocqueville explains the discrepancy by the fact that American religious leaders and churches were strictly non-partisan; they stayed away from political parties and refused any alliance or collaboration with political forces. As a result, they preserved their integrity and maintained their attractiveness for the hearts of people, who have a natural disposition to seek faith and hope.

In Europe, churches had allied themselves with political powers and their worldly interests; this, said Tocqueville, is the cause of the decline of Christianity there. “When it allies itself with a political force, religion increases its power over some but loses the hope of reigning over all. (…) Religion thus cannot partake in the material power of the rulers, without taking onto itself part of the hatred that they provoke.”

Democratic mores

Finally, Tocqueville stresses that the foundation of democracy is mores, and mores rely on religion. Tocqueville defines mores as the “habits of the heart” — the prevalent ideas, opinions, and habits of the mind of the people, “the entire moral and intellectual state of a people”. He also notes the high status and role of women in America, higher than anywhere else. Even though they are largely confined to the home, they have true equality and influence, he observed. Women are the ones who hold the religion, and it is to the “superiority of its women” that he attributes “the singular prosperity and the growing strength of this people”.

Mores, states Tocqueville, are more important than laws or favorable geographic conditions for the maintenance of democracy. With the weakening of traditional culture and its particularistic ties that can resist tyranny, there would be no obstacle to tyranny. Thus, new mores are required to prevent tyranny. This is the duty that Tocqueville poses for the leaders of society: how to educate democracy, how to revive its beliefs, purify its mores, regulate its movements, make it more rational and mature, and adapt it to the conditions, times, and places.

Tocqueville and the current crisis of American democracy

Democracy, then, for Tocqueville, is not simply a set of legal and constitutional procedures, or a political system. It’s a moral habit and disposition that needs to be cultivated among the people. From Tocqueville’s prognosis, written in the golden era of American democracy, we can diagnose the following factors in its decline, which raise as many questions about the cure.

Today, the meaning of democracy has been reduced to legal and procedural forms, and strategies and tactics of power struggle between competing and opposing groups. We see this in electoral contests, lobbying and media campaigns, partisan conflict, and legal battles. While we often hear lamentations on the decline of democracy, they are typically followed by exhortations for even greater investment in procedural contests. Meanwhile, the moral and intellectual foundations of collective discourse and action continue to decline precipitously.

Yet Tocqueville reminds us that the foundation of democracy is its mores — the moral dispositions and intellectual capacities that are required for people to work together to collectively manage their affairs. Nowadays, there is little effort to understand the mores at the root of democracy, to adapt them to the times, and to cultivate these mores among society.

What are the virtues, attitudes and dispositions that are conducive to the enhanced concern, fellowship, cooperation and mutual action between citizens? How can they be nurtured? Do the current modes of public discourse and participation rely on these virtues and dispositions, or do they undermine them? If partisanship is an “inherent evil”, should it be the governing principle of public life? What forms of community life and what types of institutional participation can strengthen democratic virtues and dispositions?

Democratic mores, claimed Tocqueville, find their source in religion, which restrains the promptings of our lower nature and frees our higher aspirations. But today, religion lacks the legitimacy to play that role: standards of civil solidarity have expanded beyond what most religious communities have historically been capable of.

The democratic mores of the early churches did not extend to all: from the moment the American colonies were founded, by sacralizing the exclusion and oppression of Blacks and Indians, they failed to establish a true spiritual covenant of democratic solidarity. Religious communities are today, the most racially segregated spaces in American society. If religion is essential for building the moral foundation of a democratic community, it must unreservedly proclaim and put into practice the full membership and participation of all races and ethnic groups.

Tocqueville further stressed that the positive influence of religion depends on its being separate from partisan politics. But now, religion has become increasingly partisan and politicized, losing its capacity to establish the foundations of solidarity on which democratic mores can be built. Following Tocqueville, establishing healthy democratic mores requires religion to keep strictly apart from political power and partisan politics.

Given the state of religion in America today, it seems difficult to imagine religion meeting these requirements. Clearly, a new conception of religion will be needed — or, outside the current religious framework, new ways to think about and put into practice the spiritual foundations of a democratic community.

What would these spiritual foundations consist of? How can communities establish sacred foundations, nurture spiritual virtues, and build solidarity without excluding specific populations? How can the religious heritage of America be honored while transcending its divisions? What are the non-religious contributions to democratic mores?

As predicted by Tocqueville, American democracy has fallen into a pattern of civil disengagement by people who focus on their own lives and that of their small circle. Associational life and local engagement have declined. Participation in local affairs, which is the foundation of democratic participation, has diminished.

Furthermore, as observed by Tocqueville, the culture of civil society associations is influenced by that of political associations. Civil society has become increasingly partisan, politicized, and characterized by the games of political influence, lobbying, and culture war machinery. While these campaigns have helped to mobilize participation at the grassroots, over the long term the result has been to divide the citizenship into mutually antagonistic political tribes for whom political ideology, rather than democratic mores, seeps into everyday social interactions.

The question, then, is how to nurture an associational life that is a living space for learning democratic mores and putting them into practice. How can such an associational life enhance the capacity for universal participation? How can a spirit and practice of cooperation in small-scale, local contexts be scaled up to regional, national and global levels, instead of divisive national conflicts reverberating downward into local life and upward into international relations?

As predicted by Tocqueville, American participation in international wars has led to the constant expansion of the federal state and its powers. Building and maintaining a massive military has become one of the core purposes and expenses of the American state and drives much of its economy. As the leading economic superpower, American interests span the globe and are deeply intertwined with the interests of other countries. But the burden of protecting these interests exacts a deep toll on American society and democracy.

A robust system of global collective security would reduce the need for endless military interventions and increasingly unaffordable military buildups. How can the de-militarization of the world be achieved? How can institutions of global governance protect the security of all nations? How can they align with and support democratic mores at the local level? How can global coordination be enhanced while building on and strengthening local capacity?

As noted by Tocqueville, two forms of debilitating “aristocracy” undermine democratic equality, but without the aristocratic sense of reciprocal obligation: the deep racism derived from the legacy of slavery and conquest of Indians; and the rise of a corporate elite.

The state combines features of democracy (using state power and resources to equalize the population) and aristocracy (using state power and resources to protect corporate interests). The partisan divide appears to pit the advocates of equalizing democratic despotism (the pro-government left) against the advocates of freedom from the state (the anti-government right) but in fact, both sides favor a strong government. They simply seek to use the state to defend different interests and classes. With reduced mobility between these classes, and the division of the people into two distinct and antagonistic populations, the existence of “democracy” in the Tocquevillian sense can be questioned.

The perpetuation of a racial aristocracy and the strengthening of an economic aristocracy are thus the critical obstacles to re-constituting democracy. Regarding the economic aristocracy, what are the state-guaranteed legal aristocratic privileges by which corporations and the corporate elite exercise direct and indirect control over the process of government? How can these privileges be eliminated? How can the extremes of economic inequality be reduced?

But beyond that, there will always be some measure of economic inequality: as discussed by Tocqueville, absolute equality equates with absolute despotism. It’s reasonable and inevitable for individuals and businesses to bring profit to themselves through their efforts, their initiatives, their risks, their collaborations, and their innovations. There will thus always be an economic aristocracy. The question, then, is how new meaning can be given to aristocracy. Tocqueville noted that traditional aristocracy was defined by moral obligation: the nobleman was obliged to help and protect those who worked for him. This obligation was the root of aristocratic legitimacy. How can aristocracy be redefined in the current world? An open aristocracy defined by moral character and merit and not by birth or inheritance, whose identity is defined not by social privilege but by moral purpose and service? How can democratic mores draw out this kind of nobility, and how can the leaders of society be embodiments and promoters of such mores?

Regarding racial aristocracy, the legal elimination of racial privilege is necessary but insufficient. Beyond the denunciations and identity politics that amplify racial conflict and mutual resentment, what changes in mores can overcome deeply held sentiments of superiority and victimhood?

Could a new conception of nobility help us here too? Let us reset the encounter between races, nations, and ethnic groups — not as the subjugation of one over another, or the resistance of one against another, but into a covenant between noble peoples living together. Each people has its noble qualities, which it has carried and developed through the generations, embodied by its heroes and heroines, its women and men of wisdom, its good people and its beloved ones.

Strengthened by their inner nobility, each people respects itself, deserves respect and respects others, and contributes its collective knowledge, capacities, and efforts to serve the common home that all peoples share together. Each people grow in their nobility by learning from each other. What kind of democratic mores would enhance the capacity to honor, to learn from, and to practice the wisdom and contributions of all races and ethnic groups?

At the same time, such a deep recognition of the inner nobility of each race and ethnic group can only spring from a strong sense of a common human identity, transcending all differences of color, race, nationality, gender, or class. Such a deep identity cannot be a mere rhetorical construct but needs to be understood at a profound spiritual level, and put into practice. How can our spiritual, religious, and philosophical culture strengthen our commitment to the oneness of humanity, motivating us to care for all humans, and to walk hand in hand, as equals in nobility, with those of all races and backgrounds to re-constitute our democracy?

The diagnosis we pose, and the questions we ask in the search for healing, take us far from the well-worn laments and polemics of most of the public debate today. Some of the directions we point to might seem utterly unrealistic. Each of the points we raise can give rise to numerous questions and debates. But is it realistic to continue along the current path?

Among those who see a problem, we are asked to choose between those, on the left and on the right, who would undermine, resist or blow up the system, and those, in the center, who hope to preserve the system, even as it totters and stumbles from one crisis to the next, each time less capable of rising up again.

It’s time to open up a wide-ranging conversation that goes beyond our favored shibboleths. Let us free our minds to imagine what democratic mores could be like, and begin by putting them into practice in the spaces that we live in. In a coming series of essays, Re-constitution will continue to explore these questions.

Re-constitution co-author David A. Palmer read Tocqueville in his academic research on civil society. Read more here, in his book chapter on Religion, Spiritual Principles and Civil Society.

Re-constitution co-author Joseph McCormick discovered Tocqueville while off the grid in a cabin in the Appalachian mountains and decided to set off to retrace his steps on a journey through America’s political and spiritual landscape. Join him on the journey here, in his essay In Search of the Soul of Democracy in America.

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