A CONVERSATION WITH ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE, pt. II

I recently had the opportunity to speak to a group of senior math majors at Wheaton College about what it means to study history Christianly. I had fifteen minutes to tackle this small, simple question (ha!), and so rather than drench them with a flood of details, I focused on two basic goals: to challenge their understanding of what history is and present them with a radically different alternative.

Toward that end I began by inviting them to do a word association with me. “What words immediately come into your minds when I say the word history?” I asked them. Their responses were almost exactly what I had expected. First came wars, followed by kings, dates, facts, memorization, and then finally the descriptor that most were probably thinking but were too polite to share: boring. Welcome to my world.

I wince at such responses but I can’t say that I blame them. As a culture, we tend to think of history as simply a body of knowledge to be mastered—sort of like multiplication tables, but with less practical value. At the bottom of such a view is a fundamental misunderstanding that equates history with the past. And so I proceeded to introduce these young mathematicians to C. S. Lewis’s marvelous comparison of history to a thundering, deafening waterfall of “billions upon billions” of individual human moments, “any one of them too complex to grasp in its entirety, and the aggregate beyond imagination.” Once we really feel the weight of this truth, it becomes obvious that history can’t be equivalent to the past.

Alright, then what is it? History is not the past but the effort to make sense of that vast, almost infinite expanse—to analyze, interpret, and partially reconstruct it. We undertake this project not for the sake of the past itself, but rather to see the present more clearly and meet the future more wisely. One of the ways that we do this, as I mentioned last time, is to think of history as a “conversation with the dead,” an opportunity to enter into dialogue with those who have gone before us as part of a quest for a heart of wisdom.

Tocqueville posed for this portrait around 1850, nearly two decades after his American odyssey.

Tocqueville posed for this portrait around 1850, nearly two decades after his American odyssey.

One of the conversation partners I want my students to get to know is Alexis de Tocqueville, the French aristocrat who visited the United States in 1831 and 1832 and recorded his reflections in a two-volume classic, Democracy in America. As promised, in this post I want to give you a taste of what Tocqueville had to say about how the democratic culture that he observed was shaping the politics and society of the young United States. Democracy in America is a long, complicated, multifaceted work, and I don’t pretend for a moment to offer a comprehensive assessment. What follows is like those tiny samples at Costco—it’s meant to whet your appetite, not fill you up.

It is probably best to think of Tocqueville as a sympathetic critic of American democracy. He believed that democracy represented the wave of the future, and he found much in American democracy to learn from and admire. And yet, as he explained in his introduction to volume II (released five years after volume I), he believed that “many people are ready to advertise the new benefits which democracy promises to mankind, but that few are prepared to point out the distant perils with which it threatens them.” For that reason, he acknowledged, “My attention has been directed principally against those dangers.”

Chief among those dangers, Tocqueville believed, was the possibility of a loss of liberty due to the “tyranny of the majority.” In the very first sentence of volume I, Tocqueville related that “no novelty in the United States struck me more vividly during my stay there than the equality of conditions.” And both reinforcing and benefiting from that comparative equality was an unparalleled extent of popular political power. “The people rule in the American political realm as God rules the universe,” Tocqueville marveled. “The people are the end-all and be-all; everything is derived from and absorbed by the people.”

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville's classic, published in 1838.

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville’s classic, published in 1838.

One of Tocqueville’s great strengths was his even-handedness, so he was quick to acknowledge that the democratic culture he encountered offered important advantages. Compared to the more aristocratic systems that still dominated Europe, America’s democratic system produced laws that were more broadly aimed at promoting the general welfare. The extensive granting of the vote to white males also had the effect of increasing patriotism. This was because “the most powerful way . . . in which to interest men in their country’s fate is to make them take a share in its government.”

The resulting veneration of country impressed Tocqueville but also irritated him. “Nothing is more annoying in the ordinary intercourse of life than this irritable patriotism of the Americans,” he wrote. “A foreigner will gladly agree to praise much in their country, but he would like to be allowed to criticize something, and that he is absolutely refused.”

Partially offsetting these advantages of democratic government were a variety of less attractive features. One of these was the enormous power of the majority over popular opinion. In a pronouncement that typically shocks my students, Tocqueville contended that freedom of opinion was more restricted in the United States than in the monarchies of Europe. Or as he put it most baldly, “freedom of opinion does not exist in America.”

It was not that Americans were physically restricted from speaking their mind, much less intimidated by the threat of imprisonment or torture. Indeed, they were technically free to say anything that they pleased. The problem, Tocqueville believed, was that in America the decision of the majority had assumed an unassailable moral authority. Once the people had clearly made up their mind on an issue, the individual who dared to challenge their verdict would become, figuratively speaking, an outcast. The message was clear: anyone who wanted to influence political life needed to praise the wisdom and virtue of the people’s decision. As Tocqueville put it, in America “the majority lives in the perpetual utterance of self-applause.”

This trait directly affected the quality of American politicians, and not for the better, in Tocqueville’s opinion. To make his point, the Frenchman developed an elaborate metaphor drawn from the world of European monarchy. If the people reigned supreme in the United States, Tocqueville reasoned, then they are analogous to the monarch. Politicians, in turn, he likened to “courtiers,” the term for aristocrats who lived at the king’s court, dined at the king’s table, and told the king whatever he wanted to hear.

"County Election," by George Caleb Bingham, 1852

“County Election,” by George Caleb Bingham, 1852

Admittedly, American politicians did not address the electorate by saying “Sire” or “Your Majesty,” Tocqueville conceded, but that was a “distinction without a difference. They are forever talking of the natural intelligence of the people whom they serve,” and by “sacrificing their opinions they prostitute themselves.” Understanding that it is political suicide to tell the people that what they want they cannot have, these American “courtiers,” in Tocqueville’s view, fawned and flattered shamelessly. Adulation will always follow power, he reasoned. If the number of truly distinguished statesmen had plummeted since the time of the American founding—and Tocqueville believed that it had—the ever increasing power of the majority was to blame.

What concerned Tocqueville most, however, was the possibility that the majority might use its power to tyrannize the politically vulnerable. When Tocqueville spoke of tyranny, he meant not simply absolute power—which he often referred to as despotism—but rather the exercise of power that resulted in oppression or injustice. “In my opinion, the main evil of the present democratic institutions of the United States does not arise . . . from their weakness, but from their strength,” he reflected. “I am not so much alarmed at the excessive liberty which reigns in that country as at the inadequate securities which one finds there against tyranny.”

As a Christian, what strikes me most is the understanding of human nature that underlies Tocqueville’s commentary on democratic institutions. Because of our fallen natures, unlimited power is always “in itself a bad and dangerous thing,” whether it is wielded by the one or the many. As Tocqueville reasoned,

A majority taken collectively is only an individual, whose opinions, and frequently whose interests, are opposed to those of another individual, who is styled a minority. If it be admitted that a man possessing absolute power may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should not a majority be liable to the same reproach? Men do not change their characters by uniting with one another, nor does their patience in the presence of obstacles increase with their strength.

2 responses to “A CONVERSATION WITH ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE, pt. II

  1. Pingback: “WHAT SORT OF DESPOTISM DEMOCRATIC NATIONS HAVE TO FEAR” | Faith and History

  2. Jack Be Nimble

    It is just eerie reading Tocqueville’s comments about American democracy and seeing it play out in reality on a daily basis. How did we come to believe that simply numbers counted for so much; that a majority has the ability to discern the proper course of action while the minority does not? I knew there was a reason why I do not select my reading from the best seller lists; why the art we find so interesting today was almost invariably trashed by the majority living during the artist’s lifetime. Why is popularity so vastly overrated? Think of the things that the so-called majority (aided by the media) want to coerce the minority to support – same-sex marriage, abortion, excessive government spending, the privatization of religious faith, etc.
    Could it be that the way we have traditionally taught history to Ameica’s youth has contributed to this mindlessness? Could teaching historical thinking processes wean students away from the idea that the majority is always right? Perhaps they might see that truth is not determined by a popular vote but by earnest searching and sound habits of mind. Or is the concept of truth itself a victim of the majority’s mindset?

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