In remembrance of "Democracy in America"
Updated: Jul 22
The château where Alexis de Tocqueville wrote his seminal work
This is the way I would like to imagine the scene: with two glasses of local Janières wine (a favorite of Henri IV) and a reputed local goat's cheese by the name of Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine. Sitting outside under the mellow autumn sun, you and I have a conversation about France and America as two kindred spirits. Your role is that of a chatelain, the new owner of the château pictured here, and I am the one who introduced you to it.
Almost two hundred years ago, in the very same place, a similar conversation would likely have been heard between Alexis de Tocqueville and his host, Gustave de Beaumont.
It was here that Tocqueville wrote the four volumes entitled "Democracy in America" that would make his name known to every American student of political science. Tocqueville played an important role along my own life's journey, at a time when I discovered France with the same ravenous curiosity that Tocqueville discovered America. My interest in this particular château (for sale) is very much entangled with my admiration for Tocqueville. This is my opportunity to tell you about both.
My first years in France were as unsettling as they were exciting. Like any immigrant, I underwent culture shock. This shock was all the more shocking because I had left behind the greatest nation in the world for one that was nothing more than a glorified third-world country, according to my Republican aunt. Well, all who know a thing or two about me know that I came to France with love in mind rather than money (this being the subject of EXQUISITE: Facets of my France.)
Disoriented as I was by innumerable cultural clichés and identity indoctrination, I found my way back to rationality thanks to Alexis de Tocqueville. It was he who helped me understand what the America that I left behind was all about. He dismantled the myths and the patriotic propaganda that had constituted my American frame of reference, whether I wanted to admit it at the time or not. He more effectively instilled in me an admiration for America than any flag-waving American could ever do.
The American Republic was only 50 years old when Alexis de Tocqueville made his great journey with the intent of demonstrating its significance for European regimes. Although he celebrated what he considered to be mankind’s ineluctable evolution toward more democratic and egalitarian societies, he also clearly identified the paradoxes and latent dangers of American democracy.
Americans generally hold Tocqueville in high esteem because of his many eloquent tributes to their country. The same Americans seem to have ignored his large body of critical observations. Until now, we Americans have upheld a quasi-religious faith in our nation’s providential (if not messianic) mission. But in this third decade of the 21st century, there is a growing sense that American democracy is coming undone at the seams.
It’s a good time to look back on the seeds that produced the tree that produced the fruit. Alexis de Tocqueville, better than perhaps any other identified those seeds.
The tyranny of the majority
One of Tocqueville's first observations when traveling in America was the extent to which “all minds seemed to be made from the same mold.” (I, p.386)
Where monarchs could suppress public contestation, democracies exert a more subtle yet potent control over people’s thoughts: the invisible fist of the moral majority. As Tocqueville wrote:
“In America, the majority formidably enclose free thought. The writers, journalists, and philosophers who manage to break free will be subject to censorship and pillory.” (ibid)
Perhaps even more chilling, he went on to write:
“No longer a master says : you shall think like me or you shall perish. Rather, it will be said: you are free to think and speak as you like. Your life and your material belongings will remain, but as of this day, you will be unto others as a stranger.[...] When you seek out your neighbors, they will flee from you as if you were unclean.” (I, p.382)
A potentially more radical form of inequality
From within a society where men were proclaimed equal, unlike the aristocratic societies from which they came, a new form of aristocracy was taking form. The industrial revolution and the division of labor set the stage for overlords and workers, with the former constantly expanding their scope, and the latter reduced to repetitive tasks. As time advances, the two “classes” become less and less alike (and less and less equal).
“One seems born to give orders, and another to take orders. Is this not also an aristocracy?” inquires Tocqueville.
He could never of course have imagined the extent to which unprecedented inequality could be created through new technologies.
The fatal outcome of individualism and the pursuit of productivity
Even at a time marked by bloody revolutions, Tocqueville was not worried about future revolutions in America. Rather, he dreaded the end of all revolutions as individuals sought above all else to preserve the stability of their private interests. As men became absorbed in constant business and business, mankind’s forward march would start to turn around in circles, going nowhere.
Look at what we have become. There is a new Iphone version every year, but how is human potential being furthered on a broad scale? And do we even have any common notion of what human potential means beyond economic prosperity?
“What can one expect from a man who has dedicated 20 years to putting heads on needles?”
inquired Tocqueville, in direct reference to Adam Smith’s doctrine of labor division. (Tome II, p.222)
American democracy marked the end of a certain form of despotism, imposed by the monarchy and aristocracy, thus making the citizens of the new republic far more equal, with political power now in their hands as voting citizens. Yet, Tocquevillle foresaw how a new, potentially more invasive and enduring power could emerge through the State.
“How might a new despotism arise in the world? I see before me a countless crowd of men who are equal and the same, and who tirelessly busy themselves with insignificant comforts and pleasures with which they try in vain to fill their souls.” (II, p.434)
There is a form of political power that emerges in response to the desires of the people. This new government–a soft dictatorship–takes form in a welfare state or any other State with pervasive powers. As Tocqueville writes:
“[Such a State] does not break men’s wills but softens them for bending. It is not tyrannical; rather, it obstructs, confines, extinguishes, and dumbs. In the end, it reduces society to a flock of timid and industrious citizens, over whom the government becomes the great benevolent shepherd.`` (II, p.435)
Tocqueville was an aristocrat, but in no way opposed to democracy or an egalitarian society, both of which he saw as inexorable. He was clairvoyant and understood that democracy would not guarantee freedom. We can pay tribute to Tocqueville for having preceded George Orwell by a hundred years, long before 20th-century totalitarianism took form.
In the end, regardless of the form of government, each man is sovereign who sees himself/herself as such. Likewise, and regardless of the form of government, all those who aspire to be ruled over will find their master.
Has Alexis de Tocqueville ever been more relevant than in the year 2021?
Now, about the Château
The Château de la Borde, where Alexis de Tocqueville wrote his famous work “Democracy in America”, is no longer for sale as of June 2023.
- Download the presentation below
- See video and virtual tour here.