Democracy in America

Democracy in America Summary and Analysis of Vol. II, Part 4, Chapters 1-8

Chapter 1: Equality Naturally Gives Men the Taste for Free Institutions

Equality makes people love independence, but it can also lead them to servitude.

Chapter 2: Why the Ideas of Democratic Peoples About Government Naturally Favor the Concentration of Political Power

When all are equal the individual loses importance in relation to the whole society. Since the power of the state comes from the people, democratic peoples see no need to limit it. Democratic peoples are also attracted by simple, general ideas and the uniformity of central power.

Chapter 3: How Both the Feelings and the Thoughts of Democratic Nations Are in Accord in Concentrating Political Power

Individualism makes democratic peoples inclined to allow the state to look after common needs. In addition, materialism makes them afraid of economic disturbances. Love of equality breeds itself, because the more equal conditions become, the more shocking the slightest dissimilarity is. Central government is perfect for making things equal and uniform. Democracies are therefore tending in that direction.

Chapter 4: Concerning Peculiar and Accidental Causes Which Either Lead a Democratic People to Complete the Centralization of Government or Divert Them From It

If people have lived freedom for a long time before becoming equal, the instincts of freedom combat the inclinations of liberty. This is the case in America, whereas in Europe it is the opposite. Education also helps men to maintain their independence, because systems which maintain liberty are more complex than those with a uniform central power. The greatest accidental cause that would lead to centralization of power in a democracy is the emergence of a ruler whom the people believe truly represents their interests and instincts. As long as the ruler makes the people believe he loves equality, he will be able to succeed in centralizing power.

Chapter 5: How the Sovereign Power is Increasing Among the European Nations of Our Time, Although the Sovereigns are Less Stable

All the revolutions and movements in Europe over the past fifty years have been alike in that they have decreased or abolished secondary powers and increased the centralization of government. Even religion is in danger of falling under government control. The state has also increased its economic power through government-controlled central banks. The independence and power of the judiciary are also being undermined. As nations become industrialized the power of the government also increases because it needs to provide a suitable infrastructure. Many stable dynasties have been overthrown and their power seems to be weakening, yet at the same time the central administration is growing ever more powerful.

In democratic revolutions, the people desired freedom in order to make themselves equal. Once that equality was established it made freedom more difficult to attain and maintain.

Chapter 6: What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear

Democracies are in danger of a milder despotism in times past, in which leaders are not tyrants but more like schoolmasters. This type of despotism would "degrade men rather than torment them." The scenario would look something like this: There are a multitude of equal citizens, completely absorbed in looking after their own comforts and material well-being, completely apathetic to the rest of society. Above them, there is a huge, protective power giving them securing and ensuring their happiness. Free choice becomes narrower and narrower. They allow this to happen because the people are sovereign so they think the government's policies represent their own choices. This sort of subjection is mostly concentrated in petty affairs and details of daily life. It seems less severe, but greatly erodes the ability of people to exercise their free will and even their ability to think for themselves.

Chapter 7: Continuation of the Preceding Chapters

Times of equality are most conducive to despotism. There is no possibility of reconstructing aristocracy. The only possible remedy is "to make freedom spring from that democratic society in which God has placed us." The most effective ways of doing this seem to be to give secondary bodies of private citizens some of the administrative power. Safeguarding freedom of the press is also extremely important because the individual's only means of appeal is to the nation as a whole. "The press is, par excellence, the democratic weapon of freedom." Maintaining a powerful and independent judiciary is absolutely essential for the protection of private rights. Democratic peoples tend to give little importance to individual rights; it is therefore extremely important to guard against this tendency. The doctrine of judging things based on social utility is especially dangerous. There must be clear and fixed limits of social power.

Chapter 8: General Survey of the Subject

The general influence of growing equality on mankind is remarkable. Never in the past have conditions been more equal. There are fewer grand and heroic virtues or individuals, but life in general is more comfortable and mores are more humane and gentle. Everything tends toward the middle. The growth of equality is inevitable, but people do have the power to shape the effects of that equality for better or worse.


In this last section of the book, Tocqueville brings the focus once again on his main theme of the challenges to maintaining liberty in the midst of a growing equality of conditions. Democratic despotism is a great danger, precisely because it is not so obvious as despotism by a single ruler and because it is perfectly compatible with rule by the majority. Democratic despotism is not a contradiction in terms, because democracy is a term indicating who rules, and despotism is a term indicating how much power the ruler has. Therefore when the people rule and the majority has absolute power, there is a democratic despotism. This sort of despotism is very different in character from traditional types of despotism. Tocqueville conjectures that "it would be more widespread and milder; it would degrade men rather than torment them."

Precisely because of its mildness, it is much easier to fall into democratic despotism than authoritarian despotism. Furthermore, the materialism and individualism of democratic peoples tend to prepare the way for despotic government. Tocqueville, imagining a society ripe for despotism, states, "I see an innumerable multitude of men, alike and equal, constantly circling around in pursuit of the petty and banal pleasures with which they glut their souls. Each one of them, withdrawn into himself, is almost unaware of the fate of the rest. . . . Over this kind of men stands an immense, protective power which is alone responsible for securing their enjoyment and watching over their fate." Such a government is far from cruel, yet it gently usurps the sphere of free action and continually narrows the realm in which human beings can exercise their free will. It is favorable to equality and to material comfort. For these reasons, Tocqueville remarks that "equality has prepared men for all this, predisposing them to endure it and often even regard it as beneficial."

The reason that people would allow themselves to live in such conditions is that though they value freedom, they also want uniformity, equality and guidance. In order to achieve these things, "centralization is combined with the sovereignty of the people. That gives them a chance to relax. They console themselves for being under schoolmasters by thinking that they have chosen them themselves. Each individual lets them put the collar on, for he sees that it is not a person, or a class of persons, but society itself which holds the end of the chain."

The ways to combat this tendency are all of those which Tocqueville has recommended throughout the book: a free press, freedom of association, religion, proper mores, local self-government and a strong independent judiciary. Because American society contains these elements which help to preserve liberty, and because the American people have a natural and deep-rooted taste for liberty, it is possible to prevent the degeneration of American democracy into despotism. Still, it is necessary always to guard freedom and to ensure the maintenance of those institutions and mores which help to preserve it, "looking forward to the future with that salutary fear which makes them keep watch and ward for freedom."