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Democracy in America

DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA

DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA, by Alexis de Tocqueville. The most influential study of the United States ever written, Democracy in America owes its enduring significance to the complexity of Tocqueville's analysis. This child of aristocracy was "a liberal of a new kind" (Tocqueville to Eugène Stoffels, July 24, 1836, in The Tocqueville Reader, p. 153): despite his personal passion for freedom and individual distinction, he conceded that equality and democracy were God's ideals for the future. In the United States, which he visited in 1831–1832, Tocqueville saw how liberty could be channeled by widespread participation in public life to prevent a potentially volatile "tyranny of the majority" from spilling over into anarchy or despotism. In the widely read and highly praised first volume of Democracy in America (1835), Tocqueville showed how boisterous local associations and a decentralized political system moderated the fractiousness of democratic life. In the second volume (1840), which reflects his growing anxiety about a new industrial feudalism (from a trip to Great Britain) and a stagnant mass culture anesthetized by prosperity (from developments in his native France), Tocqueville ventured a more abstract and ambitious meditation on the consequences of equality for freedom.

Differences of tone and emphasis marked the two volumes of Democracy in America, and interpreters' differing analyses of Tocqueville have reflected their own passions and perspectives. His first American reviewers, post-Federalists and proto-Whigs who were also among his most important informants, praised him because he took American democracy seriously (unusual for a European visitor) and because he emphasized—as these Americans did—the importance of distinguishing between the corrosive egoism of individualists on the make and the democratic virtue of "self interest rightly understood." Only through experiences such as serving on juries or participating in voluntary associations, Tocqueville argued, did Americans learn to cooperate with eachother, to see things from other points of view, and to internalize the crucial ethic of "reciprocal obligation" (Democracy, p. 572).

From the Civil War through World War II, Democracy in America slipped into relative obscurity as conflict eclipsed cooperation as the most striking feature of American life. In the late 1930s, against the chiaroscuro of fascism and communism, American democracy again shimmered with promise; Tocqueville assumed the stature of sage that he has enjoyed ever since. If centralization and conformity bred totalitarianism, Tocqueville showed how America managed to avoid such perils. If Jefferson's Enlightenment rationalism and Marx's revolutionary positivism seemed too simple for a chastened age, Tocqueville provided—as did Max Weber—a more subtle, multi-dimensional alternative. If Dwight Eisenhower was the first President to quote Tocqueville, all of his successors have followed his lead because Democracy in America offered wisdom for everyone. Since the 1960s right and left alike have adopted Tocqueville as a sober prophet, who saw the hollowness of material prosperity either detached from tradition and authority (for conservatives) or detached from the promise of participatory democracy (for the communitarian left). But only readers alert to Tocqueville's delicate balancing of freedom and equality, of cultural stability and innovation, will avoid jamming him awkwardly into contemporary categories and see him, as he saw himself, perched between the old regime of privilege and the problematic future of egalitarian democracy.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Schleifer, James T. The Making of Tocqueville's "Democracy in America." Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000.

Siedentrop, Larry. Tocqueville. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Edited by J. P. Mayer, translated by George Lawrence. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969.

Zunz, Olivier, and Alan S. Kahan, The Tocqueville Reader: A Life in Letters and Politics. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, Ltd., 2002.

James T.Kloppenberg

See alsoIndividualism ; Liberty, Concept of .

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