Democracy in America

Democracy in America Summary and Analysis of Vol. II, Part 2, Chapters 1-20

Volume II, Part II: Influence of Democracy on the Sentiments of the Americans

Chapter 1: Why Democratic Nations Show a More Ardent and Enduring Love for Equality Than for Liberty

People in democratic nations love equality much more than liberty. The most perfect form of equality requires complete freedom. Yet imperfect equality can allow for great despotism. Equality is so deeply ingrained in laws, social conditions, mores, habits and opinions that destroying it would be extremely difficult. Political liberty, on the other hand, is easily lost. In addition, the dangers of liberty are immediate and easy to see, but the dangers of equality are subtle and visible only in the long run. Conversely, the benefits of liberty can only be seen over time and exercising liberty requires sacrifice, while the advantages of equality are felt immediately and easy to obtain. In most modern nations, equality preceded liberty, and it is a more deep-seated passion. As a result, democratic peoples want equality even if it means losing liberty.

Chapter 2: Of Individualism in Democracies

In times of equality people tend to be individualistic, disposing each citizen to isolate himself and limit his interests to a small circle of relatives and friends. This individualism is dangerous to society because it eventually merges into egoism, which "sterilizes the seed of every virtue."

Chapter 3: How Individualism is More Pronounced at the End of a Democratic Revolution Than at Any Other Time

When people have just attained independence they have "a presumptuous confidence in their strength" and do not think they will ever need the help of others. Thus they care for nobody but themselves.

Chapter 4: How the Americans Combat the Effects of Individualism by Free Institutions

Because despots have every interest in keeping people isolated, the individualism resulting from equality makes despotism a great danger to democracy. Exercising freedom through participation in public affairs is therefore extremely important, because it gives people a personal interest in thinking about others in society. Local self-government forces the people to act together and feel their dependence on one another.

Chapter 5: On the Use Which the Americans Make of Associations in Civil Life

Americans are continually forming associations of every type. Since citizens in democratic societies are independent and weak, they need to form associations in order to have some influence. It is extremely salutary to democratic life that citizens need to form numerous associations, because it combats individualism and circulates new thoughts and ideas. Associations take the place of powerful individuals whom equality of conditions have eliminated.

Chapter 6: On the Connection Between Associations and Newspapers

Newspapers enable the cooperation of a large number of people by allowing thousands of readers to see the same thoughts and ideas. There is a reciprocal relationship between newspapers and associations: newspapers aid the formation of associations, and associations produce newspapers as a means of communication. In addition, the less centralized the governmental administration is, the more newspapers there will be, and vice versa. The reason is that local administrators need to be informed about the state of public affairs.

Chapter 7: Relationships Between Civil and Political Assocations

Political and civil associations are strongly related in that civil associations prepare the way for political ones, while politics engenders a taste for association and teaches the art of association. Politics also draws together people of different social circles, and political associations act "as great free schools to which all citizens come to be taught the general theory of association." While the unlimited right of political association can be very dangerous, as stated in Volume One, associations also are highly beneficial and limiting them‹though it may be necessary‹will cause harm to society.

Chapter 8: How the Americans Combat Individualism by the Doctrine of Self-Interest Properly Understood

While Americans generally do not speak of the abstract beauty of virtue, they recognize its usefulness and realize that "by serving his fellows man serves himself and that doing good is to his private advantage." While the doctrine of self-interest properly understood does not lead to great virtue, it does establish virtuous habits. Because this doctrine is not always entirely self-evident, it is necessary to educate people about it.

Chapter 9: How the Americans Apply the Doctrine of Self-Interest Properly Understood to Religion

Religions teach men that being good is in their self-interest because they will be rewarded in the afterlife. While self-interest is not the only driving force behind religious people, it is the main way in which religions gain popularity. Therefore this doctrine in no way opposes religion but actually supports it.

Chapter 10: The Taste for Physical Comfort in America

Everyone in America is preoccupied with physical well-being and comfort, because all either think that they can attain more comforts or are afraid of losing the comforts they have. "Love of comfort has become the dominant national taste."

Chapter 11: Particular Effects of the Love of Physical Pleasures in Democratic Times

In democratic countries the love of pleasures never leads to great excesses as it does in aristocratic ones, because people are generally concerned with petty aims and the indulgence of small wants. People do not allow themselves to go after greatly disordered pleasures because their sense of morality restrains them, but they allow themselves to be completely dominated by love of permitted comforts.

Chapter 12: Why Some Americans Display Enthusiastic Forms of Spirituality

The soul has a natural desire for the infinite and immortal, and the pleasures of the senses can never completely numb or pacify it. As a result, there are occasions of great religious fervor when they break out of the confines of searching for material pleasures.

Chapter 13: Why the Americans Are Often So Restless in the Midst of Their Prosperity

Americans cleave to their material prosperity with a feverish anxiousness, making them restless in their desire to enjoy as many pleasures as possible in a limited time. A result of this insatiable drive for comfort is that Americans are generally unable to sustain an enduring effort towards one goal, because they are so accustomed to instant gratification.

Equality is another cause of this restlessness. Equality can never be complete, because there are always inequalities of talent and intelligence. Yet the more equal conditions become, the more noticeable and irritating the slightest inequalities become, and the more insatiable the longing for equality becomes as well. This insatiable longing is the cause of general anxiousness and uneasiness.

Chapter 14: How in America the Taste for Physical Pleasures is Combined With Love for Freedom and Attention to Public Affairs

The taste for physical pleasures can lead people to be industrious, form associations and exercise their political freedom. Yet because the greed for pleasure can also make people forget about the connection between private wealth and general prosperity, people may disdain the exercise of their political rights. In such a climate of political indifference, a despot or a small faction could easily come to power as long as he guarantees good order and material prosperity. Americans have not fallen into this state because they regard freedom "as the best tool and the firmest guarantee for their prosperity."

Chapter 15: How Religious Beliefs Turn the Thoughts of Americans Toward Spiritual Things

Religion is a great aid to Americans because it leads them from time to time to forget about their petty passions and think about the eternal. Because in democracies people's natural instincts are for material prosperity, there is a danger that they may forget about the more sublime aspects of existence. It is therefore extremely important to cultivate a taste for the infinite and a love of spiritual pleasures. Materialism is dangerous for all nations, but particularly for democracies, because materialism strengthens the already excessive drive for material pleasures. Religion is a great antidote to materialism because it teaches people that soul is immortal. One should therefore guard religion carefully in a democratic society. While it would not be good for religious ministers to take part in politics or for the state to mandate a religion, the state somehow needs to support religion. The only possible way seems to be for government leaders to teach religious morality through their own example.

Chapter 16: How Excessive Love of Prosperity Can Do Harm to It

Whatever elevates the soul also enables it to succeed in physical or practical endeavors. If one complete ignores the soul, one may lose the ability to enjoy or acquire physical pleasures.

Chapter 17: Why in Ages of Equality and Skepticism It Is Important to Set Distant Goals for Human Endeavor

The social instability inherent in democracy combined with a skeptical outlook on life which questions the possibility of great lasting achievements can lead people to limit their endeavors to ephemeral and petty aims. Philosophers and legislators must, in such a case, strive to help people look more to the future and establish long-term goals.

Chapter 18: Why Americans Consider All Honest Callings Honorable

Because in democratic societies there is no hereditary wealth, everyone needs to work for a living and therefore every honest profession is seen as honorable.

Chapter 19: What Gives Almost All Americans a Preference for Industrial Callings

Agriculture requires persevering effort before yielding a profit, and therefore democratic people prefer industrial callings.

Chapter 20: How an Aristocracy May Be Created by Industry

With the increase of the division of labor, workmen's abilities become much more limited because the simple and repetitive nature of their work. The masters, on the other hand, continually expand and exercise their intelligence. In this way an aristocracy is formed. However, the situation is very different from traditional aristocracies because the rich do not have a strong bond linking them together; nor is there a reciprocal bond of duty between the master and workmen as there was between the aristocrat and peasant.

Analysis

In this part of the book Tocqueville provides a more in-depth philosophical analysis of the precarious balance between equality and freedom, which is the central concern of his work.

Ideally, equality and freedom are perfectly compatible. Tocqueville asserts that "man cannot be absolutely equal without being entirely free." To better illustrate this point, Tocqueville imagines a somewhat utopian political scenario where equality and freedom would blend perfectly: "Let us suppose that all the citizens take a part in the government and that each of them has an equal right to do so. Then, no man is different from his fellows, and nobody can wield tyrannical power; men will be perfectly free because they are entirely equal, and they will be perfectly equal because they are entirely free." Therefore, equality and freedom are not inherently contradictory‹in fact they are complementary. Yet the equality Tocqueville describes is not sameness; rather, it is equality of rights. Tocqueville himself does not make this distinction explicitly in his writings, yet one can infer it by his use of the word equality in both a negative and positive sense. In the negative sense, equality seems to be synonymous with uniformity, while in the positive it means equal liberties. Perhaps the problem is precisely that most people fail to make this distinction, or do not appreciate its importance. For the negative aspect of equality is most often found where there is no liberty, such as under a despotic government. At the same time, however, a desire for equal liberties can also be satisfied under a despotic government, in which there are equal liberties because there are no liberties at all. The challenge, therefore, comes back to maintaining the desire for liberty for its own sake.

In the end, Tocqueville considers freedom to be a noble desire that has an almost mystical character about it and which is very difficult to sustain. Tocqueville believes that freedom attracts men because of "its intrinsic glamour, a fascination it has in itself. . . . For only in countries where it reigns can a man speak, live, and breathe freely, owing obedience to no authority save God and the laws of the land. The man who asks of freedom any more than itself is born to be a slave" (The Old Regime and the French Revolution). The problem with freedom is that precisely because it is so lofty and its benefits so intangible, Tocqueville is afraid that it will be overcome by the desire for equality, which is both more easily attained and more visible. He expresses this concern most explicitly when he states that "only perceptive and clearsighted men see the dangers with which equality threatens us," but "the ills which liberty brings may be immediate." Conversely, "the good things that freedom brings are seen only as time passes," while "the advantages of equality are felt immediately." Among democratic peoples especially, there is a great danger of losing liberty. Tocqueville writes that "their passion for equality is ardent, insatiable, eternal, and invincible. They want equality in freedom, and if they cannot have that, they still want it in slavery."

Because it is so easy to lose sight of the benefits of liberty, Tocqueville believes that the formation of institutions that work to foster people's sense of liberty is crucial in any society. Tocqueville lauds the propensity of Americans to form associations and write newspapers because he realizes that they help people to realize their dependence on their fellow citizens and take an interest in public affairs. Considering the tendencies of democratic peoples to become individualistic, one can see how crucial it is to have institutions and civic duties which force people to look beyond their own interests and think about the problems of the community.

Another means of combating the individualism and political apathy born of equality is through local liberties. In America, on the other hand, the lawgivers gave "each part of the land its own political life so that there should be an infinite number of occasions for the citizens to act together and so that every day they should feel that they depended on one another." In this way, "the Americans have used liberty to combat the individualism born of equality, and they have won."

Tocqueville argues that local liberties are much more important than political rights in deciding the general affairs of the whole country, because a person "has little understanding of the way in which the fate of the state can influence his own lot," while minor questions of local interest have an obvious visible effect on his everyday life (511). As a result, people will be much more effectively drawn together and more likely to exercise their liberty if they are given control of minor local affairs. Most importantly, "free institutions and the political rights enjoyed there provide a thousand continual reminders to every citizen that he lives in society."

Here one can see yet another feature of the complementarity between liberty and equality. While a certain amount of equality is necessary for genuine liberty, liberty is necessary to guard against the negative side-effects of equality. As Tocqueville asserts, "there is only one effective remedy against the evils which equality may cause, and that is political liberty." Yet this dynamic between equality and liberty could be problematic. In America, where the institutions that safeguard freedom are already in place, there is no difficulty and the only action necessary is to ensure the security and prominence of them. In a country like France in the nineteenth century, however, the problem is much more serious. For while only liberty can mitigate the negative effects of equality, those negative effects themselves act as obstacles to liberty. For such a situation, Tocqueville seems to offer little hope. The only possible course of action may be an attempt to demonstrate the dangers of equality and the benefits of liberty to the people and particularly the leaders of the country, persuading them to enact reforms, as Tocqueville himself is trying to do in his writings.

Overall, Tocqueville's conception of the relationship between freedom and equality is far from simple. On the one hand, it is clear that Tocqueville sees the growing equality of conditions as a danger to liberty. The passion for equality, more deeply-rooted, longstanding, and ardent than the desire for liberty, can lead people even to accept despotism. On the other hand, lack of equality, especially unequal rights, is a detriment to freedom; freedom is dependent on equality and vice versa. Yet with increasing equality as the prevailing and‹in Tocqueville's view‹inevitable force in history, the difficulty which deserves primary focus is that of fostering and preserving liberty.