The Magazine

Tocqueville's Democracy

Mansfield and Winthrop produce the best edition of the best book on America

Oct 23, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 06 • By DANIEL J. MAHONEY
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From Montesquieu, Tocqueville learned a distinctively modern form of prudence, one that rejected both the classical quest for the best regime and the early modern reliance on abstract principles derived from a prepolitical state of nature. But Tocqueville saw the need to go beyond Montesquieu's liberalism. Montesquieu was the philosopher of commerce, who believed that the free exchange of goods and ideas would humanize manners and morals. He was confident that commerce, in conjunction with the separation of powers, would be sufficient to guarantee human freedom in the modern world. Tocqueville, by contrast, feared that the mildness introduced by excessive material well-being would contribute to the enervation of the human spirit and give rise to a new despotism. For all of his admiration for Montesquieu, Tocqueville believed that a "new political science is needed for a world altogether new."

The "conservative" Tocqueville rejected the "radical" Rousseau's extreme formulation of egalitarian principles as well as his nostalgia for the ancient city. But Tocqueville nonetheless had great admiration for the author of The Social Contract, for he learned from Rousseau the inadequacy of the one-sided emphasis on self-interest in modern political thought.

Tocqueville's debt to Pascal is perhaps the most fundamental. From the seemingly non-political Pascal, the very political Tocqueville learned spiritual depth and confirmation of his own experience of the fundamental "restiveness" of the human soul. Tocqueville's description of the restlessness of the Americans in the midst of their well-being, of the unhappiness that accompanies the "pursuit of happiness," seems to be "a page torn from the Pensees of Pascal" (to quote Pierre Manent's felicitous formulation).

The second volume of Democracy in America even contains eloquent Pascalian reflections on the greatness and misery of man. But Tocqueville could not rest content with a Christian critique of human pride. He saw Pascal, the critic of human pride, as himself a representative of human greatness, of the "ardent, haughty, and disinterested love of the true." And he feared human greatness in all domains would have difficulty finding a place in the new democratic dispensation. But Tocqueville, unlike Pascal, also found greatness in politics. He believed political liberty allowed human beings to escape their misery and isolation and find a kind of nobility in civic endeavors.

As Mansfield and Winthrop suggest, Tocqueville's deepest insight was into the self-radicalizing propensities of democracy. Democracies always strive to become "more democratic." For Tocqueville, democracy was more than a political regime. It was nothing less than a new order of humanity. Its founding principle was the sovereignty of the people: the application of individual and collective consent to every aspect of human life. Tocqueville saw that democracy "democratizes" aspects of life such as the family, religion, and the intellectual life -- which were once considered to be "natural" and hence, in crucial respects, beyond politics.

Tocqueville is rightly regarded as a prudent defender of liberal or constitutional democracy. But he is also a sharp critic of the fundamental assumptions underlying modern political theory. That theory begins "by positing autonomous individuals living in a state of nature" who leave the state of nature, enter civil society, and agree to its conventional laws, customs, and moral rules. But Tocqueville's analysis reveals how the notion of human autonomy not only persists in democratic civil society, but begins to transform human hearts and minds on an unprecedented scale. Democratic man increasingly inhabits a "state of nature" within civil society, undirected by any governing moral or intellectual authority. He affirms his autonomy and denies the legitimacy of tradition as well as of intellectual and religious authority. But he soon finds that the burden of groundless choice is too much to bear. Democratic man begins to rely on increasingly abstract "general ideas," as well as to take his bearing from "public opinion," since one is able to defer to common opinions without recognizing the superiority of anyone in particular. Mass conformity is deeply rooted in the psychology of democratic man.

Not knowing what or how to choose, democratic man succumbs to individualism or apathetic withdrawal from public responsibilities. He becomes vulnerable to "mild despotism" and willingly accepts the supposedly benevolent commands of experts and administrators who promise to relieve him from the burdens of too much choice (Tocqueville anticipated Philip Rieff's "triumph of the therapeutic" by over a hundred years).