Democracy in America

views updated


The work that remains to this day the most profound and prescient account of democratic culture in the United States was written not by a native son born and bred in the ways of democracy but by a French aristocrat—a sympathetic outsider—named Alexis Charles Henri Maurice Clérel de Tocqueville (1805–1859). Tocqueville first conceived the idea for his great De la Democratie en Amerique (commonly translated as Democracy in America) during an eighteenth-month sojourn to the United States in 1831–1832. The purpose of Tocqueville's trip, which he undertook in the company of a close friend, Gustave de Beaumont, was to study the federal prison system, a project that led the two researchers as far west as Green Bay (now in the state of Wisconsin), as far north as Quebec, Canada, and as far south as New Orleans. The results of this research were published in France in 1833, at which time Tocqueville had also begun to work on Democracy in America. The first volume of Democracy in America was published in 1835 to significant acclaim both in France and abroad; the second volume, which completed the work, appeared five years later in 1840. (The first English translations of the volumes were published in 1835 and 1840 by Henry C. Reeve.) Tocqueville's masterwork deftly combines an exacting empirical analysis of democratic institutions in America (both local and federal) with a visionary "phenomenology" of the characteristic habits and sentiments underpinning democratic life. In his celebratory review of 1840, the great English social and political philosopher John Stuart Mill praised Tocqueville's work as the "first philosophical book ever written on Democracy . . . the essential doctrines of which it is not likely that any future speculations will subvert" (p. 156). For Mill, Tocqueville's Democracy in America signals "a new era in the scientific study of politics" (p. 156).


Tocqueville experienced the advent of modern democracy as a profoundly religious phenomenon. "Everywhere," writes Tocqueville, "the various incidents in the lives of peoples are seen to turn to the profit of democracy . . . as blind instruments in the hands of God" (p. 6). Tocqueville confesses to writing Democracy in America under "pressure of a sort of religious terror" (p. 6) induced by the dizzying pace of democratic development in Europe and North America. To oppose democracy is to "struggle against God himself" (p. 7), and yet, like the biblical Jacob, Tocqueville proves himself a subtle wrestler, at once obedient and defiant. Democracy is "already strong enough that it cannot be suspended," but "not yet rapid enough to despair of directing it" (p. 7). The aim of Tocqueville's work is to remind those nations inflamed by the divine spirit of democracy that its fate resides in the ideas and actions of human beings. A healthy democracy must be willing "to regulate its movements, to substitute little by little the science of affairs for its inexperience, and knowledge of its true interests for its blind instincts" (p. 7). Tocqueville is often severe with democracy, but always in the manner of a nurturing friend who understands the improving influence of spirited criticism. In Tocqueville's words, "it is because I [am] not an adversary of democracy that I [wish] to be sincere with it" (p. 400). Tocqueville's account of the promise and peril of democratic culture in the United States reminds us that true friends of democracy refuse to flatter its weaknesses.


What distinguishes democracy for Tocqueville is the "equality of conditions" (p. 6) fostered by America's political, legal, commercial, and educational institutions. Equality of conditions promotes freedom primarily defined as economic opportunity, which promises to all citizens (regardless of social standing) equal access to the circumstances and means for achieving security, prosperity, and general well-being. Whereas class boundaries in aristocratic societies are "very distinct and immobile" (p. 483), the equality of conditions that prevail in democracies allows an unprecedented degree of movement and interaction between kinds and classes of people. Tocqueville frequently remarks the astonishing tempo of American life, the "continual movement" inspired by the promise and possibility that "reigns in the heart of a democratic society" (p. 403).


Equality of conditions, in bringing citizens from all walks of life into closer relation, would appear to encourage consensus and community. However, Tocqueville feels that as freedom of opportunity increases, the "bond of human affections is extended and loosened" (p. 483). As social identities and attachments are broken apart by economic mobility, there emerges a large population of restless individuals who, having procured "enough enlightenment and goods to be able to be self-sufficient," develop the damaging "habit of always considering themselves in isolation" (p. 484). Tocqueville calls this peculiar feature of American democracy "individualism," which inclines toward (but is not the same as) selfishness. Whereas selfishness expresses "a passionate and exaggerated love of self that brings man to relate everything to himself alone," individualism is "a reflective and peaceable sentiment that disposes each citizen to . . . withdraw to one side with his family and friends" (p. 482). As a form of regard limited to the interests of those who are immediately present—one's family and friends—individualism seriously inhibits the formation of a genuinely civic or public consciousness. Individualism results from the turbulence of a democratic culture in which the tempo of movement and change is so accelerated that the "fabric of time is torn at every moment and the trace of generations is effaced" (p. 483). Equality of conditions, precisely in expanding freedom of opportunity, gently makes "each man forget his ancestors . . . and threatens finally to confine him wholly in the solitude of his own heart" (p. 484).


The individualism encouraged by equality of conditions is animated by a distinctive passion or love. Tocqueville remarks that of "all the passions that equality gives birth to or favors, there is one . . . that it sets in the hearts of all men at the same time: the love of well-being" (p. 422). This passion develops in the American environment as an obsessive desire to accumulate material wealth. "The taste for material enjoyments," Tocqueville writes, "must be considered the first source of this secret restiveness revealed in the actions of Americans and of the inconstancy of which they give daily examples" (p. 512). The extraordinary pace of American democracy is driven by a restive population of individuals who define freedom "possessively" as economic consumption. Such persons conceive well-being not as a condition of spiritual or contemplative repose but as the ceaseless pursuit of material goods aimed at "satisfying the least needs of the body" (p. 506). Americans "dream constantly of the [material] goods they do not have" (p. 511) and pass rapidly from desire to desire, possession to possession. Tocqueville speaks of the American who constructs a home for retirement and then "sells it while the roof is being laid," who "embraces a profession and quits it. He settles in a place from which he departs soon after." In this way, Americans pursue their vague desires "here and there within the vast limits of the United States" (p. 512).

This agitated quest for material well-being may look and feel like freedom, but for Tocqueville it expresses the tyranny of an anxiety peculiar to the middle-class disposition of American democracy: an excessive fear of mortality and death. "He who has confined his heart solely to the search for the goods of this world," Tocqueville observes, "is always in a hurry. . . . In addition to the goods that he possesses, at each instant he imagines a thousand others that death will prevent him from enjoying if he does not hasten" (p. 512). Equality of conditions arouses in all persons empowering sentiments of hope, prosperity, and happiness, but the boundlessness of these sentiments induces a sharp sense of mortality that both inflames and frustrates desire. This torment maintains the democratic soul in a condition of "unceasing trepidation" that compels the individual to "change his designs and his place at every moment" (p. 512).


Tocqueville's description of the desperate materialism that drives American democracy concludes with a pointed warning: an excessive passion for material pleasures "soon disposes men to believe that all is nothing but matter" (p. 519). America threatens to evolve a culture driven solely by frantic and fantastic efforts to improve "the goods of the body" (p. 521) with little regard for the needs and care of the mind and soul. In fact, American democracy encourages a practical "body-centered" ethos that increasingly denies any distinction or difference between intellectual or spiritual desires and pleasures of the flesh. Tocqueville's provocative claim that no country in the world is "less occupied with philosophy than the United States" (p. 403) accentuates the aggressive materialism of a democratic culture that refuses to honor the vita contemplativa or "life of the mind" as a valuable human endeavor. The restive pursuit of material well-being emphasizes speed, efficiency, and execution as distinguishing marks of prestige and success. The example of America convinces Tocqueville that "there is nothing less fit for meditation than the interior of a democratic society," for "where does one find the calm necessary to the profound combinations of the intellect?" (p. 434). Where equality of conditions is defined first and foremost as freedom of economic opportunity, an "excessive value" is assigned to "rapid sparks and superficial conceptions" (p. 435) tailored to material concerns of time saving and cost cutting. "For minds so disposed," says Tocqueville, "every new method that leads to wealth by a shorter path . . . every discovery that facilitates pleasures and augments them seems to be the most magnificent effort of human intelligence" (p. 436).


In general, Tocqueville finds little tolerance in America for the mind's "profound, slow work" (p. 435) and very few individuals who risk cultivating a genuinely impractical, unworldly passion for contemplation. The "transcendent lights of the human mind" waver uncertainly in the glare of America's "unparalleled energy toward application" (p. 437). Tocqueville would not be surprised that American culture would later give rise to a philosophic method called "pragmatism" that values mind according to its efficacy as an instrument for achieving practical results.

As mind and imagination in America are oriented almost exclusively toward practical power, so the "taste for the useful predominates over the love of the beautiful" (p. 439). To the degree that Americans admire beauty they wish it to be useful, as when a sailor remarks to Tocqueville that the "art of navigation makes such rapid progress daily that the most beautiful ship would soon become almost useless if its existence were prolonged beyond a few years" (p. 428). What we today call "planned obsolescence" was readily apparent to Tocqueville, who noted that in order to satisfy the ceaseless demand for material goods, American artisans were compelled "to make many imperfect things very rapidly" (p. 441). These same artisans also refined the modern art of advertising in ascribing to their products "brilliant qualities that they do not have" (p. 441). Even the development of language in America reflects an "industrial taste"(p. 435) that readily substitutes the terminology of commerce for the language of philosophy and religion. In the United States, there would appear to be "no power on earth that can prevent the growing equality of conditions from bringing the human spirit toward searching for the useful and from disposing each citizen to shrink within himself" (p. 503).


What is the condition of the fine arts in a democratic culture that channels the "principal effort of the soul" (pp. 458–459) ever more insistently toward the material, the worldly, the human? For Tocqueville, a democracy that identifies human success with material well-being threatens to extend the commercial spirit into all modes of human activity, including architecture, music, painting, and poetry. The fine arts in America are never free of the democratic pressure to be relevant or useful, a predicament (and tragedy) superbly illustrated in Nathaniel Hawthorne's story "The Artist of the Beautiful." Tocqueville observes that the fine arts turn irresistibly from depictions of the soul to representations of the body, from "sentiments and ideas" to "motions and sensations" (p. 442). This indulgence of the material and physical finds confirmation in the American enthusiasm for theater, which Tocqueville considers the taste "most natural to democratic peoples" (p. 467). "Most of those who attend the acting on the stage," Tocqueville continues, "do not seek pleasures of the mind, but lively emotions of the heart. They do not expect to find a work of literature but a spectacle" (pp. 467–468). Spectators in democratic societies, subdued by the "practical, contested, and monotonous" routines of commerce, develop a compensatory need (satisfied by theater) for "lively and rapid emotions, sudden clarity, brilliant truths or errors" (p. 448). The public taste for titillating spectacle influences dramatic style, which becomes at once more sentimental and more aggressive, "overloaded, and soft, and almost always bold and vehement" (p. 449). A theater that caters to this taste aims "to astonish rather than to please" (p. 449). Tocqueville's censure of the democratic taste for theater seems even more relevant today when we consider the spectacles of extremity and excess routinely dramatized (to much acclaim!) in television and film.


Tocqueville's observation on the state of poetry in democracies is remarkable for anticipating the emergence of an American poet whose verse Tocqueville never read. The visionary quality of Tocqueville's exposition of democratic culture is nowhere more evident than in his divination of Walt Whitman (1819–1892), whose great song of democracy, Leaves of Grass, would not appear until 1855.

Tocqueville begins his discussion of poetry by confessing his own attachment to an aristocratic or "Platonic" conception of the poetic as the "search for and depiction of the ideal," the aim of which is to "adorn" the real or true so as to "offer a superior image to the mind" (p. 458). On this view, which seeks to "maintain the human mind in faith" (p. 459), poetry is a movement of transcendence or "going beyond" that illuminates the human in relation to eternal ideals of nature or the divine. The equality of conditions obtaining in democracies, however, weakens the sense of transcendence or "taste for the ideal" (p. 458) that sustains poetry in aristocratic cultures. The secular disposition of democratic societies "brings the imagination of poets back to earth and confines them to the visible and real world" (p. 459). Democracy seems to Tocqueville to move inexorably toward anthropocentrism (human-centeredness), turning the mind skeptically "away from all that is external to man to fix it only on man" (p. 460). Equality, therefore, "in establishing itself on the earth, dries up most of the old sources of poetry" (p. 460). What, then, are the new or fresh sources of poetry in the American democracy?

Tocqueville remarks two characteristics of the American people which, combined in the figure of Walt Whitman, express a distinctly American poetic vision. First, although Americans are enthusiastic admirers of nature "they only become really animated at the sight of themselves" (p. 460); indeed, nature mirrors the glory of American democracy. Secondly, Americans "scarcely worry about what has been, but they willingly dream of what will be. . . . Democracy, which closes the past to poetry, opens the future to it" (p. 460). The American democratic vision expresses a profound self-absorption, but not in the sense of a fixed or complacent worship of the past or present. On the contrary, this vision opens always toward the horizon, casting forward the ideal of an ever-progressing democratic future.

The practical form of this ideal (utility is always sovereign in America!) is an aggressive "expansionist" effort of cultivation and settlement. The eyes of the American people, writes Tocqueville, are filled with visions of themselves advancing across the wilderness, "draining swamps, straightening rivers, peopling the solitude, and subduing nature" (p. 461). Ultimately it is the nation itself, the expansion of American democracy into geographic space, that provides a fresh source of stimulation for poetry. As Whitman triumphantly proclaims in the 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass, the "United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem. . . . Here at last is something in the doings of man that corresponds with the broadcast doings of the day and night. Here is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations" (p. 5). The poet equal to the task of representing America's magnitude, Whitman writes, "incarnates its geography and natural life and rivers and lakes. . . . When the long Atlantic coast stretches longer and the Pacific coast stretches longer he easily stretches with them north or south. He spans between them also from east to west and reflects what is between them" (p. 7). Whitman certainly admires nature, but his highest admiration is reserved for his own prowess in what might be called poetic calisthenics.

Tocqueville's descriptions illuminate the complex character of a democratic people whose devout materialism and skeptical worldliness erodes, but does not extinguish, religious faith: "equality does not shake religions, it simplifies them" (p. 459). The simplifying effect of equality is a gentle compulsion to transfer religious sentiment to the image of democracy as possessing divine or transcendent value. Significantly, this sublime image of democracy promotes in the culture at large a strong emphasis on unity and homogeneity at the expense of individuality. In light of the abstract glow of the democratic ideal, the American people "form nothing more than a vast democracy of which each citizen is a people" (p. 461).

In a passage that vividly foreshadows the temper of Whitman's famous poem "Song of Myself," Tocqueville (writing in the first person) reveals the primary source of poetry in America: "I have no need to travel through heaven and earth to discover a marvelous object full of contrasts, of infinite greatness and pettiness. . . . I have only to consider myself" (p. 462). Tocqueville's uncanny approximation of one of Whitman's best-known phrases—"I contain multitudes"—is linked to an important irony. The self imagined in Tocqueville's passage (and exulted in Whitman's poetry) appears concrete and definite, but in truth it is thoroughly formal or abstract, not so much substance as pure potentiality. The grave danger here is that amorphous sentiments of an impersonal democratic self impose an "idea of unity" that, "although it destroys human individuality . . . will have secret charms for men who live in democracy" (p. 426). Tocqueville's name for this seductive charm is "pantheism," an immoderate sentiment of equality that opposes division and singularity and thus the liberty of discrete individuals. Is it possible that the allure of Whitman's poetry lies precisely in its pantheistic vision of nature equalized in the poet's (to borrow Tocqueville's phrase) "immense being" (p. 426)? Tocqueville sees in pantheism a fatal attraction that must be resisted in order to preserve a healthy tension in democratic life between equality and liberty; indeed, "all who remain enamored of the genuine greatness of man should unite and do combat against it" (p. 426). It would seem, then, that a healthy democratic culture must be prepared to wage war against the alluring influence of its greatest poet.


Tocqueville argues that at the heart of American democracy lies a great tension of opposing sentiments. Equality of conditions promotes rapid secularization, implanting in Americans an almost "instinctive incredulity about the supernatural" (p. 408). However, Americans remain a fundamentally religious people. "It is religion that gave birth to the Anglo-American societies," Tocqueville recalls, and "one must never forget this; in the United States religion is therefore intermingled with all national habits" (pp. 405–406). Although the feverish pursuit of material wealth inclines Americans very much "toward the earth," the persistence among them of religious sentiment inspires "passing, distracted glances toward Heaven" (p. 430). Tocqueville observes the importance placed on the weekly Sabbath, at which time the "industrial life of the nation seems suspended" and "the soul finally comes back into possession of itself" (p. 517). At such moments, the American "steals away from himself . . . into an ideal world in which all is great, pure, eternal" (p. 517).

In a culture where individuals habitually seek the quickest practical route to power and wealth it is necessary, Tocqueville asserts, to "detain the human mind in theory" (p. 438) if we wish to preserve our "most sublime faculties" (p. 519). The threatened atrophy of these faculties requires all persons concerned with the health of democracy to cultivate "a taste for the infinite, a sentiment of greatness, and a love of immaterial pleasures" (p. 519). These saving sentiments of transcendence need not be attached to any particular religious tradition or orthodoxy, since there is no religion in the world "that does not place man's desires beyond and above earthly goods" (p. 419). Where democracy has cultivated an excessive love of material pleasures, the supreme importance of religion or spiritualism lies in opposing materialism. The persistence of religious sentiment in America proves that satisfaction of material pleasures is never adequate to the extent of human desire: "the human heart is vaster than one supposes; it can at once contain a taste for the goods of the earth and a love of those of Heaven" (p. 520).


Tocqueville suggests that a healthy democratic culture will nurture in the souls of its citizens a vital awareness of the tension between the limited (and limiting) goods of this world and the transcending sentiments of an "exalted and almost fierce spiritualism" (p. 510). Preserving this tension secures the integrity of religion's polemical effort to "purify, regulate, and restrain the too ardent and too exclusive taste for well-being" (p. 422). Tocqueville fears, however, that the stability of this crucial tension is threatened by a mild democratic ethos that "does not corrupt souls, but softens them and in the end quietly loosens all their tensions" (p. 509). The implication here is that if the decisive tension between materialism and spiritualism, commerce and religion, is allowed to perish—if defenders of this tension disappear—then religion will lose its principal critical function. In such circumstances, religious sentiment will be thoroughly domesticated, annexed to the practical, and harnessed to material ambition as its accomplice and servant. Tocqueville foresees the cynicism and hypocrisy of public officials who exploit the eased tension between material well-being and religious sentiment by flattering the "dogma of the immortality of the soul . . . every day as if they themselves believed it" (p. 521).

The root cause of this softening of tension lies in the fundamental democratic principle of equality. The opposition between materialism and spiritualism preserves a hierarchy of value (typical of aristocratic societies) that assigns superior dignity to a life of contemplative leisure as opposed to a life consumed by labor and business. Such hierarchical determinations of value deeply offend the democratic ideal of equality. Tocqueville notes the "immortal hatred, more and more afire, which animates democratic peoples against the slightest privileges" (p. 645). Democratic sentiment yearns for a fluid condition free of decisive commitments and tensions, and thus free of the moral burden of discriminating between higher and lower, noble and base. The loosening of such moral distinctions, symptomatic of the dissolving tension between materialism and spiritualism, portends a culture of listless tolerance "where nothing seems any longer to be forbidden or permitted, or honest or shameful, or true or false" (p. 12). Most importantly, Tocqueville discerns in this general loosening of tensions and distinctions the collapse of those particularities that "preserve for the individual the little independence, force, and originality that remain to him" (p. 672). Equality of conditions exerts upon individuals an intense pressure to abandon principled commitments for a ceaseless process of self-revision that honors equality by avoiding settled judgments. For Tocqueville, such a culture brings to view an "innumerable crowd composed of similar beings, in which nothing is elevated and nothing lowered" (p. 674). Tocqueville confides that this "universal uniformity" is what most "saddens and chills me" (p. 674) as it leaves democracy vulnerable to a soft tyranny of the majority. Democracy marks for Tocqueville the providential trend of modern history, but the issue of democracy remains very much in our hands: "Nations of our day cannot have it that conditions within them are not equal; but it depends on them whether equality leads them to servitude or freedom, to enlightenment or barbarism, to prosperity or misery" (p. 676).

See alsoDemocracy; Individualism and Community; Leaves of Grass


Primary Works

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. 1835, 1840. Edited and translated by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. 1855. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Secondary Works

Bellah, Robert N., et al. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Jardin, Andre. Tocqueville: A Biography. Translated by Lydia Davis with Robert Hemenway. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988.

Lawler, Peter Augustine, ed. Tocqueville's Political Science: Classic Essays. New York: Garland, 1992.

Lerner, Max. Tocqueville and American Civilization. New York: Harper and Row, 1969.

Lively, Jack. The Social and Political Thought of Alexis de Tocqueville. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962.

Manent, Pierre. Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy. Translated by John Waggoner. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996.

Mill, John Stuart. "De Tocqueville on Democracy in America [II]." In Essays on Politics And Society, vol. 18 of Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, edited by J. M. Robson, pp. 153–204. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977.

Mitchell, Joshua. The Fragility of Freedom: Tocqueville onReligion, Democracy, and the American Future. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Schleifer, James T. The Making of Tocqueville's Democracy inAmerica. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980.

Siedentop, L. A. Tocqueville. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Wolin, Sheldon S. Tocqueville between Two Worlds. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001.

David K. Heckerl

About this article

Democracy in America

Updated About content Print Article