History’s Long Road to Tyranny: Tocqueville and the End of Equality

Devon, PA. I have just finished teaching Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America with my freshmen students.  In a way I have not witnessed before, they were compelled by his account of American culture and society, and they saw in his words what so many before them have: a prophetic element that commands attention.  We concluded our study with a discussion of the following choice paragraphs from the concluding pages of the book.  Their prescience strikes me as so great, that I thought I would share them with our readers to provide grist for reflection.

Accounts of Tocqueville vary, so, in preface, let me provide an abstract of my own.  Tocqueville came to America, having witnessed the combined success and failure of democratic revolutions in France and much of Europe.  The revolutions had succeeded in shaking the established order of absolute monarchy and a residual aristocratic culture (these were distinct, independent features of European society), and they had succeeded in establishing a principle of equality that made any reversion to the old order seem impossible, and the continued spread of equality into every aspect of human life to seem inevitable.  Because of this successful demolishment and establishment, modern Europe seemed plagued by uncertainty and listless regarding its fortunes.

A belief in equality had ripped old customs and creeds from the people’s hearts, but it had neither provided new substance to replace the old nor a clear suggestion as to how equal social conditions could lead to a flourishing society.  Tocqueville saw that America was in many respects an egalitarian society, but it had experienced neither the trauma of cultural or social revolution nor the wrenching psychological and philosophical transformations of one.  To the extent that American society worked, how did it work?  What were the elements that allowed it to appear so dynamic and humming, while the new states of Europe swayed moribund, back-and-forth between the old order and the new?

Equality seemed the inevitable course of history, observed Tocqueville.  Indeed, the one certainly that seemed in place prior to the writing of Democracy, and which informs the shape of the book, is that the ever-increasing spread of equality into every precinct of human life was fated.  Whatever goods might come with the spread of equality, its chief evil was the implanting of “individualism” in the heart of man.  The individualist looks out on the spectacle of his fellow citizens and concludes that he has no stake or part in that undifferentiated mass.  All men are equal, so let each man contend for himself.  He consequently turns inward, not on himself alone, but on a select group of his nearest family relations and a few friends; these are his only society, because such relations are the only ones that continue to appear natural and meaningful.  Because citizens in democratic countries are weak and, to the extent they are weak, unfree, the spirit of individualism makes such citizens ripe for despotism.  Indeed, jealous of their equality and largely unattached to those with whom they share it, they will tend to give up their particular liberties to a centralized state.  If they cannot be wholly equal and wholly free, they would rather be equal in slavery.  If they cannot rule themselves, they will suffer nothing but the State to do so.

Americans, from the earliest days of New England society, had cherished equality while avoiding the grave evil of individualism.  Tocqueville’s account of how they did so may be his most famous set of observations.  First of all, Americans embrace with cool practicality and warm affection the life of the nuclear family; the small family consisting of only parents and children was a novelity in the Nineteenth Century, but Americans had made it an efficiently functioning unit that held together chiefly through affective bonds and which trained children for adulthood early — for hard work and careful decision making.  American girls were more jaded and cautious than their naive but romantic European counterparts; American boys were enterprising industrialists with a keen sense of the flux of social and economic fortunes almost from the time they left grade school.  The nuclear family does not specifically counter the effects of individualism, but rather accepts them and finds a familial form that can survive the great ebb and flow of economic fortunes absent the stability of land and broader social attachments to neighborhood, village, and province.

Four other American practices more directly counter the evil of individualism.

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