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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Democratic philosophers, for their part, preach a "pantheism" that denies the uniqueness of man, conflating the human with what is above it and below it. And "democratic historians," Tocqueville suggests, increasingly deny the possibility of individual choice and attribute everything that happens to grand social, economic, and historical forces. Modernity begins with man's excessive self-assertion and ends with his self-enslavement. Tocqueville captures this paradox better than any other student of modern politics and philosophy, and thus his work is worthy of our continued reflection.

Does this mean that democracy is its own worst enemy? Tocqueville seems to suggest as much. But Mansfield and Winthrop show that, for Tocqueville, the remedies for the illnesses promoted by modern political theory can be found, at least to some extent, in democratic practice. It is not a question of rejecting democracy but of refusing the "democratic dogma" that speaks in its name. Such "schools of freedom" as the township, the judiciary, and associations provide practical illustrations of the limits of individual autonomy and the human need for reliance on others. Even the morally inadequate doctrine of "self-interest well understood" can enlarge human hearts by teaching men that it is in their interest to collaborate with others. Religion and family may be continually transformed by democracy but they are permanent and salutary reminders of the limits of individual independence and thus important "parts of self-government."

Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop's splendid edition of Democracy in America reminds us that American practice can be better than the modern theory that informs it -- both because practice need not be fully transformed by theory and because "practice tends to correct theory." Thus Tocqueville is both liberating and sobering. He allows us to appreciate that America is more than a modern regime and therefore not destined to succumb to either mild despotism or moral nihilism. Yet he also warns us that democratic intellectuals will not accept the legitimacy of beliefs and practices that are not in accord with the "logic" of democratic consent and individual autonomy.

A current example is the recent assault on the Boy Scouts for their refusal to acquiesce to the moral legitimacy of homosexuality. The Boy Scouts, we are now sternly told by self-appointed spokesmen for democracy, are enemies of freedom and equality. Tocqueville's work allows us to see that the "culture wars" are not simply a product of 1960s radicalism. They are rooted, rather, in the permanent tension between theory and practice at the heart of American democracy -- a tension that no one has better elucidated than Alexis de Tocqueville.