Contradictions in Democracy


Tocqueville is mostly remembered for his detailed study of the fledgling democracy in nineteenth century America. Tocqueville is praised both as a conservative thinker for warning the world of the dangers of extreme equality and mob rule and as an “aristocratic Marx” for analyzing capitalism and spotting its inherent dangers and contradictions even in its infancy. Tocqueville sees American democracy in many different lights, but one of the more prominent ones is an unstable balance between freedom and equality. The ideal democracy is a golden mean between the two, but it cannot last. Jefferson famously said, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Another famous American adage reads, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

However, people are not eternally vigilante. The American people were fiery and alert during the American Revolution and birth of their country, but as time went by they lost their spirit and relinquished their freedoms to the government and corporations. Marx is famous for showing how capitalism is full of contradictions that will eventually grow and destroy capitalism itself. Tocqueville, the “aristocratic Marx”, makes a similar insight; that democracy is also full of contradictions and doomed to die because of them. In fact, the very benefits democracy provides such as economic mobility, freedom of speech, and voting rights, eventually turn on democracy and destroy it.

To Tocqueville, democracy is an unstable balance between freedom and equality, but eventually freedom and equality give way to despotism and inequality. Near the end of Democracy in America, Tocqueville describes a dark end of American democracy. “Our contemporaries are ceaselessly agitated by two conflicting passions: they feel the need to be directed as well as have the desire to remain free… They conceive a single, protective, all-powerful government but one elected by citizens… [They] think they have sufficiently safeguarded individual freedom when they surrendered it to national security”[1]. The American people grow dependent on a “soft despotism” to provide for them yet retain the illusion they are free to elect who they please. In one of the greatest political paradoxes in history, the people of a democracy, the freest kind of society on earth, willingly put themselves into bondage.

How do democracy’s benefits destroy democracy and why do people willingly become slaves? In the case of economic mobility, the bourgeoisie is partly to blame. Ironically, the bourgeoisie that eventually turns democracies in despotism is the same bourgeoisie that allowed democracy to exist in the first place. “The bourgeoisie, wherever it has gotten the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations.” Marx and Engels famously write in the Communist Manifesto.[2] The bourgeoisie rose from the guild-masters traders in growing medieval towns. Eventually, they challenged and defeated the aristocracy, propagating values such as free trade, natural rights, liberty, and equality.

But what of the bourgoesie in Tocqueville’s time? In the 1830s Americans had a relatively high degree of socioeconomic equality. The vast gap between rich and poor that plagues our modern American society did not eist in Tocqueville’s time. However, Tocqueville warns, just as the bourgeoisie defeated the old aristocracy, they could eventually become a new aristocracy, devolving democracy into despotism. Already, he saw middle class Americans divide into what Marx would later call the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

In observing factory workers and managers, Tocqueville describes how workers become more specialized in their labor and detached from their work. “When a craftsman is constantly and solely engaged upon the making of one single object… he loses the general capacity to apply his concentration on the way he is working… his thoughts are forever taken up by the object of his daily toil… the worker becomes weaker, more limited and more dependent.”[3] The craftsman, adopting democratic principles of thrift and usefulness, becomes a mere worker.

The bosses, however, grow in industry and power. As the worker’s mind is more narrowed to one specific task, the worker’s boss “daily surveys an increasing field of operation and his mind expands…”[4] Richer and more educated men devote themselves more expanding their wealth through industry. As everybody has a more equal condition in society, cheap, the demand for manufactured products become widespread[5], which in turn necessitate larger factories and more workers. The bourgeoisie becomes a more powerful and brutal aristocracy than any aristocracy beforehand. While the aristocracies of old held honor took responsibility of their subjects the new aristocracy brutally exploits its workers for profit. Ironically, the same bourgeoisie that paved the way for democracy will eventually end it in despotism. The very same equality of conditions in democracy create the demand for manufactures products, which leads to a divide between very wealthy and very poor.

In another part of American democracy, the very freedom of speech and voting rights people enjoy eventually lead them to become subjugated by despots. The free and equal American people, overconfident in their political power, in the invincibility of their freedoms, and entitled to their rights, become a tyrannical majority. The omnipotent majority, as Tocqueville writes, supports the magistrate’s arbitrary power “while supporting the legal despotism of the legislator”[6]. American politicians have a freer reign over their subjects compared to European ones. The American majority, believing itself to have absolute power, sees its politicians as its servants, “is glad to leave them to the care of serving its strategies. It, therefore, does not itemize in advance the details of their duties and scarcely bothers to define their rights.”[7] In the process the American majority takes deeply for granted the rights and freedoms they have, which contrasts the European who is more aware of what arbitrary power is like.

The congregation of a loud, overwhelming majority also stifles differences in opinion. Individualism and freedom of speech give way to uniformity and a form of tyranny. The majority upholds mediocrity while driving out people who think differently. Their freedom of speech becomes so great it takes away the free speech of others, turning dissidents into pariahs with civic privileges in name only.[8] Tocqueville describes the majority of almost having a reason for its behavior. “No monarch is so absolute that he can gather all the forces of society into his own hands and overcome resistence as can a majority endowed with the right of enacting laws and executing them.”[9] However, this strategy, if it ever was one, creates the opposite effect. A king of old Europe can persecute people who oppose him, but he cannot stop ideas. He will always have subjects who reject his authority and are hostile to him.[10] However, the “omnipotent majority” with “absolute rights and freedoms” is conquered from the inside, ostracizing people who criticize the ruling powers that dominate the American people, the same ruling powers the majority put into place with their freedom of speech and voting rights.

Tocqueville rightly calls America’s increasing despotism the strangest of paradoxes. The bourgeoisie that paved the way for social equality in America, defeating the old despotic aristocracies in the process, rises to become an even more despotic aristocracy. The very bourgeoisie American values of hard work, thrift, and honesty, end up justifying the tyrannical use of extreme wealth. The American people, fully aware of their freedom and equality, of their freedom of speech and voting rights, vote politicians into power and assume the politicians have their best interests. The appalling irony lies in that the American people, who fought so hard to win freedom and equality, are the very people who willingly give it away. Rather than refresh the tree of liberty, they let the tree die, still believing the tree will somehow protect them. They unwittingly use their very freedom of equality, their very economic mobility, freedom of speech, and voting rights, to transform democracy into despotism.

Works Cited

Marx, Karl, Friedrich Engels, Gareth Jones, and Samuel Moore. The Communist Manifesto. London: Penguin, 2002. Print.

Tocqueville, Alexis De. Democracy in America: And Two Essays on America. Trans. Gerald E. Bevan. Comp. Isaac Kramnick. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

[1] Tocqueville, pg. 806

[2] Marx and Engels, pg. 3

[3] Tocqueville, pg. 645

[4] Tocqueville, pg. 646

[5] Tocqueville, pgs. 646-647

[6] Tocqueville, pg. 296

[7] Tocqueville, pg. 297

[8] Tocqueville, pg. 298

[9] Tocqueville, pg. 297

[10] Tocqueville, pg. 297


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