Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America

Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America

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Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America


Alexis de Tocqueville's visit to the United States in the early part of the nineteenth century prompted his work Democracy in America, in which he expressed the ability to make democracy work. Throughout his travels Tocqueville noted that private interest and personal gain motivated the actions of most Americans, which in turn cultivated a strong sense of individualism. Tocqueville believed that this individualism would soon "sap the virtue of public life" (395) and create a despotism of selfishness. This growth of despotism would be created by citizens becoming too individualistic, and therefore not bothering to fulfill their civic duties or exercise their freedom. Tocqueville feared that the political order of America would soon become aimed at the satisfaction of individual needs, rather than the greater good of society. Alexis de Tocqueville viewed participation in public affairs, the growth of associations and newspapers, the principle of self-interest properly understood, and religion as the only means by which American democracy could combat the effects of individualism.

Given that despots have every interest in keeping people isolated, the individualism resulting from equality makes despotism a great danger to equality. "Despotism... sees in the separation among men the surest guarantee of its continuance, and it usually makes every effort to keep them separate" (399). Exercising freedom through participation in public affairs is therefore extremely vital because it gives people a personal interest in thinking about others in society. Local self-governments are important because they draw people together, and it is therefore more likely that they will exercise their liberty. Tocqueville states that "as soon as a man begins to treat of public affairs in public, he begins to perceive that he is not so independent of his fellow men as he had first imagined, and that in order to obtain their support he must often lend them his cooperation" (400). When people act together they frequently form dependencies on one another, especially when they are working for the good of the entire community.
Another means by which Tocqueville believes it is possible to contest individualism is to form associations and write newspapers. He believes that like local governments, associations help people to realize their dependence on their fellow citizens and take interest in public affairs. It is crucial to have institutions and civic duties which force people to look beyond their own interests and think about the problems of the community.

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"As soon as several of the inhabitants of the United States have taken up an opinion or a feeling which they wish to promote to the world, they look out for mutual assistance; and as soon as they have found one another out, they combine. From that moment they are no longer isolated men, but a power seen from afar, whose actions serve for an example and whose language is listened to" (407). Seeing as citizens in democratic societies are independent and weak, they need to form associations in order to have some influence. By bringing people together, new thoughts and ideas are circulated with a stronger force behind them.

Newspapers combat individualism by allowing numerous readers to be exposed to the same thoughts and ideas. There is a shared relationship between newspapers and associations: newspapers aid in the formation of associations, and associations use newspapers as a means of communicating their thoughts and ideas. When there is a notion shared by many individuals, but not communicated between them, "a newspaper then takes up the notion or the feeling that had occurred simultaneously, but singly, to each of them. All are then immediately guided towards this beacon; and these wandering minds, which had long sought each other in darkness, at length meet and unite" (410).

While Americans generally do not speak of the abstract beauty of virtue, they recognize its usefulness and realize that "man serves himself in serving his fellow creatures and that his private interest it to do good work" (414). One way to combat individualism is to promote the idea of performing acts which are beneficial to the prosperity of fellow man. While the doctrine of self-interest properly understood does not lead to great virtue, it does establish virtuous habits. "The principle of self-interest rightly understood produces no great acts of self-sacrifice, but it suggests daily small acts of self-denial. By itself it cannot suffice to make a man virtuous; but it disciplines a number of persons in habits of regularity, temperance, moderation, foresight, self-command; and if it does not lead men straight to virtue by the will, it gradually draws them in that direction by their habits" (416).

By bringing people together in a community of common belief, religion also combats individualism. Religion teaches people how to use their freedom well. It is practically the sole means of counteracting the materialistic tendencies of democratic peoples by turning people's minds beyond the physical, material aspects of life. Tocqueville states that "Christianity, indeed, teaches that a man must prefer his neighbor to himself in order to gain eternal life; but Christianity also teaches that men ought to benefit their fellow creatures for the love of God!" (420). Religion teaches men that being good is in their self-interest because they will be rewarded in the afterlife. By working towards the common good rather than personal gain, people are forced to work together.
Through these features of American democracy which Tocqueville noted, Americans are able to balance individualism with notions of community. The love which peoples in democratic nations have for both equality and liberty, results in Americans being motivated by ideals of personal gain and private interest. Tocqueville does not imply that these rights of liberty and equality should be expelled, rather he believes that a political system aimed toward the benefit of the common good would diminish the individualism in American democracy.
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