Last week I attended a wonderful presentation here at Wheaton by my friend and colleague Bryan McGraw. In addition to being a connoisseur of southern barbecue, Dr. McGraw is also a first-rate political philosopher. In the course of his presentation, McGraw highlighted an extended passage from one of my favorite writers from the nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville, and I was so struck by its relevance during this election season that I wanted to pass it along.
As many of you will know, Alexis de Tocqueville was a French aristocrat who traveled to the United States during the height of the period of Jacksonian democracy. In 1831, at the age of twenty-six, Tocqueville was commissioned by the French government, in tandem with another young aristocratic Frenchman, Gustave de Beaumont, to travel to the U.S. to investigate and report on the American penitentiary system. Tocqueville and Beaumont spent nine months exploring the country, traveling by stagecoach, steamboat, and on horseback from the urban northeast to the edge of the western frontier and back again.
Upon returning to France, Tocqueville and Beaumont filed their report on penitentiaries, and then Tocqueville began to pen a much broader set of reflections on American politics, American institutions, American culture, and the American people. The result, Democracy in America, remains one of the most remarkable commentaries ever penned on the interrelationship of liberty, equality, religion, and popular government. I would be surprised to learn that any of this year’s leading presidential aspirants has ever read it.
A sympathetic critic of American democracy, Tocqueville wrote partly to praise but also partly to warn. Quick to highlight the “benefits which democracy promises to mankind,” he also purposed to “point out the distant perils with which it threatens them.” Chief among the latter was the potential for tyranny. As Tocqueville observed, “I noticed during my stay in the United States that a democratic society similar to that found there could lay itself peculiarly open to the establishment of a despotism.”
So how might this come about? Tocqueville believed that there were certain attributes of the popular democratic mindset in the United States that would gradually facilitate the centralization of governmental power. In the extended passage below (from volume II, part 4, chapter 6), Tocqueville shows how the individualist, materialistic ethos that he encountered among Americans might encourage the inexorable growth of government. Read it and see what you think.
I am trying to imagine under what novel features despotism may appear in the world. In the first place, I see an innumerable multitude of men, alike and equal, constantly circling around in pursuit of the petty and banal pleasures with which they glut their souls. Each one of them, withdrawn into himself, is almost unaware of the fate of the rest. Mankind, for him, consists in his children and his personal friends. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, they are near enough, but he does not notice them. He touches them but feels nothing. He exists in and for himself, and though he still may have a family, one can at least say that he has not got a fatherland.
Over this kind of men stands an immense, protective power which is alone responsible for securing their enjoyment and watching over their fate. That power is absolute, thoughtful of detail, orderly, provident, and gentle. It would resemble paternal authority if, fatherlike, it tried to prepare its charges for a man’s life, but on the contrary, it only tries to keep them in perpetual childhood. It likes to see the citizens enjoy themselves, provided that they think of nothing but enjoyment. It gladly works for their happiness but wants to be sole agent and judge of it. It provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, makes rules for their testaments, and divides their inheritances. Why should it not entirely relieve them from the trouble of thinking and all the cares of living? . . .
Having thus taken each citizen in turn in its powerful grasp and shaped him to its will, government then extends its embrace to include the whole of society. It covers the whole of social life with a network of petty, complicated rules that are both minute and uniform, through which even men of the greatest originality and the most vigorous temperament cannot force their heads above the crowd. It does not break men’s will, but softens, bends, and guides it; it seldom enjoins, but often inhibits, action; it does not destroy anything, but prevents much being born; it is not at all tyrannical, but it hinders, restrains, enervates, stifles, and stultifies so much that in the end each nation is no more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as its shepherd.