PLSC 114: Introduction to Political Philosophy

Lecture 22

 - Democratic Statecraft: Tocqueville, Democracy in America


Three main features that Tocqueville regarded as central to American democracy are discussed: the importance of local government, the concept of “civil association,” and “the spirit of religion.” The book is not simply a celebration of the democratic experience in America; Tocqueville is deeply worried about the potential of a democratic tyranny.

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Introduction to Political Philosophy

PLSC 114 - Lecture 22 - Democratic Statecraft: Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Chapter 1. The Characteristics of American Democracy: Civil Association [00:00:00]

Professor Steven Smith: Last time, I believe I said I wanted to discuss three features that Tocqueville regarded as central to American democracy. That is not to say they were central to the democratic experience, but they are central features of the American democratic experience and to what degree these can be or could possibly be translated to other contexts in other emerging democracies remains very much an open question. But of these three features, the first I talked a little bit about on Monday is the importance of local government, the township as it’s translated in this edition, what Tocqueville calls the “commune,” the community, community spirit, local government. In some way, connected to what he calls later in the book “the spirit of the city,” using “the city” here in the context of the ancient sense of polis,l’esprit de cité, a kind of polis-like character in these small New England townships, very important, Tocqueville believes, for the sustaining a democratic country and a democratic society.

But the second, and probably the aspect of Tocqueville’s account of democratic America that has received the most attention at least recently, is the aspect of what he calls throughout the book “civil association,” civic association. It is what one might think of as intermediary groups, voluntary groups, civic organizations of all kinds that Tocqueville is immensely impressed with and which he turns into one of the central pillars of the democratic experience. He writes that, “in democratic countries,” one of the most famous sentences from the book, “In democratic countries, the science of association,” he says, “is the mother science. The progress of all the others depends on the progress of that one.” And it is through uniting and joining together in common endeavors, he believes, that people develop a taste for liberty, a taste for freedom. “In America,” if I can just quote him again, “In America, I encountered all sorts of associations, of which, I confess, I had no idea and I often admired the infinite art with which the inhabitants of the United States managed to fix a common goal to the efforts of many men to get them to advance it freely.” Struck by the immense variety and multiplicity and sheer number of these various kinds of civic association.

It is important to see, perhaps, this is one area in which Tocqueville seems to most clearly depart from Rousseau, at least the Rousseau of the Social Contract after having said last time that his account of local democracy, township democracy owes so much to Rousseau’s account of the general will. But remember that Rousseau in the Social Contract, would inveigh against, warned against what he called “partial associations,” partial associations like interest groups of various kinds that had the tendency to frustrate the general will, that stand, as it were, between the individual and the general will. But Tocqueville, on the other hand, regards these kinds of voluntary associations, associations of all sorts as precisely the place where we learn habits of initiative, cooperation and responsibility with others. By taking care of our own interests or the interests of our association, we learn to take care of the interests of others. “Sentiments and ideas renew themselves,” Tocqueville writes. “The heart is enlarged and the human mind is developed.” So you can see from a passage like that how much weight he puts on these civic associations. “The heart is enlarged. The mind is developed.” It is through these associations, PTAs, churches, synagogues and other civil bodies and associations that institutions are formed that can both resist in its way the power of centralized authority, central government. But they are also, as it were, the locus, the seedbed where citizens learn to become democratic citizens.

It is very much important for Tocqueville that these associations, the absence of which he felt very acutely in France, which had already become a highly centralized society. It was these intermediary, voluntary associations that stand between the individual and central authority, the authority of the national government, which is what makes them, of course, so important for him. This argument about the importance of civic association–I say it has become, in a way, the most talked about passage or part of the book in recent years–is due in large part to the influence of political scientist, Robert Putnam, a man who teaches at another university, a book called Bowling Alone. You’ve probably maybe heard of that. Here, Putnam speaks about what he calls “human capital,” what Tocqueville, in less social scientific jargon, calls “habits of the heart,” mores, habits of the mind and heart. But Putnam argues that it is this social capital that is developed through civic association and his chief example, as the title of the book and the article from which it draws suggest, is that the bowling league is a kind of model of civic association. Particularly, he is concerned with the decline of these associations in contemporary American life. Hence the title of the book, Bowling Alone.

The fact that Tocqueville himself describes these civic associations as the product of art suggests that, that is to say, that they are not natural. They are not somehow the result of some kind of instinctual behavior on us. Joining with others in voluntary associations is a learned activity. It is something that requires a certain kind of culture and is a learned activity. It is something also, it is an art, it’s a skill, it is a craft that can also be lost. His argument is that more and more people are, so to speak, choosing to “bowl alone,” something that shows an alarming tendency towards isolation and the subsequent kind of depletion almost of our civic capacities. The question is, taking Tocqueville to the present, have our capacities for joining with others been eroded by the forces of modern politics and technology? Are, in fact, we becoming more and more a nation of solitaries and couch potatoes? [Professor Smith talks to crew.] These are some of the serious questions and there is a big literature that has grown up around it. Some of this literature finds Putnam’s conclusions to be overdrawn, that he exaggerates the influence of these associations or the decline of these associations. [Professor Smith talks to crew.]

In fact, our civic state is not as bad off as he suggests. But what I want to do, suggest today, and this is where we’re going to show a film and Jude’s going to help me, just a couple of clips, is that there is a serious question, I think, in my mind, whether bowling leagues are a proper model for a democratic association. Now, one can say, and using the title “Bowling Alone” that Putnam is just speaking metaphorically, that he doesn’t mean bowling leagues. He’s just using it as a metaphor. But let’s take him at his word and let’s find out if bowling leagues are, in fact, the ideal transmitter for democratic mores and values. I want to take an example from a movie of which I’m very fond by the Coen brothers calledThe Big Lebowski, which is a movie about a bowling league, or at least three gentlemen who take their bowling and their bowling league very seriously. The three of them are “The Dude,” who is a stoned hippie, “Walter,” who’s kind of a whacked out Vietnam vet and “Donny,” who’s a lost waif. They are very, very concerned with getting into the finals, into the bowling tournament. In their way stands a man named Jesus Quintana who happens also to be a sex offender. I want to show a couple of clips from this movie and I should warn you that there is some very bad language being used here. So if you think that is going to be offensive to you, you should leave. It won’t take more than about four minutes or so. We’re going to show a couple of clips about the ethos of men bowling.

[Movie clip shown]

Professor Steven Smith: One more.

[Movie clip shown]

Chapter 2. The Characteristics of American Democracy: Spirit of Religion [00:10:50]

Professor Steven Smith: Obviously, it goes to show that civic association alone is not enough to create democratic citizens. Again, otherwise, “Smokey” and “The Dude” and “Walter” would be a perfect example of democratic citizens. Tocqueville focuses on a third, another leg of the stool of democratic life and that is what he calls the “spirit of religion.” Central, again, as the third and maybe a very important prop of the American democratic experience. “On my arrival in the United States,” he observes, “It was the religious aspect of the country that struck my eye first.” Very impressed with that. Like other European visitors to the United States, both then as well as now, Tocqueville was deeply struck with how democracy and religion seem to walk hand-in-hand with each other, precisely the opposite of what has occurred in Europe where religion and democracy or religion and equality were long on a collision course.

What made the American encounter with democratic life unique? That is one of Tocqueville’s big questions. In the first instance, you could say, or as Tocqueville notes that America is primarily a puritan democracy. “I see the whole destiny of America contained in the first puritan who landed on its shores,” he says, “like the whole human race in the first man.” Our experience was determined in crucial ways by early Puritanism. America was created by people with strong religious beliefs and habits who brought to the New World a suspicion of government and a strong desire for independence. This has been the foundation of the separation of church and state that has done so much both for religious and political liberty. Tocqueville drew from this two very important consequences, I think, about religious life in America.

The first is that the thesis propounded by the great philosophers of the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and still advanced in many, you might say, enlightened quarters today, that religion will disappear with the advance of modernity. As modernity advances, religious life will disappear. I suppose in the twentieth century, Max Weber gave voice most prominently to that point of view that would be a process of secularization within modernity and a sort of gradual withering away of religious belief. Tocqueville shows that to be demonstrably false, that religion will not simply disappear as modernity moves forward and that the Enlightenment and its contemporary heirs, theorists of development and modernization and so on have been all together wrong about their confident predictions about the decline and withering away of religious faith.

Secondly, Tocqueville takes it to be a terrible mistake to try to eliminate religion or to secularize society all together. This is, in fact, probably a more controversial, a very controversial claim. It was his belief, and again, perhaps here he’s influenced by Rousseau in the chapter on civil religion at the end of the Social Contract that free societies rest on public morality and that morality cannot be effective without religion. It may be true that individuals can derive moral guidance from reason alone, but societies can’t. The danger of attempting to eliminate religion from public life is that the need or desire to believe will therefore be transferred to other and far more dangerous outlooks. “Despotism,” he says, “can do without faith, but freedom cannot.” A very arresting sentence. “Despotism can do without faith, but freedom cannot.” “Religion is more necessary in a republic and in a democratic country than any other,” he says.

But why is religion necessary to a republic? Why does democracy require religion? Here, Tocqueville gives a variety of answers. One persistent theme running throughout his book as a whole is that only religion can resist the tendency toward materialism and a kind of low self-interest that he believes is intrinsic to democratic ages and societies. “The principal business of religion,” he frequently writes, “is to purify, is to regulate, is to restrain the kind of ardent desire for well-being and particularly, material well-being that becomes particularly prominent during ages of equality.” That’s one reason. But secondly or in addition, Tocqueville operates, I find, with a very interesting, I might even call it a metaphysic of faith that regards religious belief as a necessary component for human action. “When religion is destroyed in a people,” this is Tocqueville. “When religion is destroyed in a people, doubt takes hold of the higher portion of the intellect and half paralyzes all the others.” When religion is destroyed, doubt takes over. It has a kind of a paralyzing effect on the will and our capacity for action. This paralysis of the will, this inability to act is a condition that later writers would choose to call “nihilism.” Faith is a necessary component for our belief that we are free agents and not simply the play-thing of blind forces and random causes, so to speak. Our beliefs about freedom and the dignity of the individual are inseparable for him from religious faith and it is unlikely that these beliefs about the dignity of the individual can survive without religion. Just to take a contemporary example of that, think about the debates we have had over such things as cloning and the sense that many people have that the dignity of the individual, which is often connected with a kind of religious belief, sanctity of life, the dignity of the individual is somehow deeply violated by these advances of sort of scientific technology. Religion remains a crucial prop for our beliefs about human dignity. No more powerful challenge to the Enlightenment’s faith in science and scientific progress can be found than in Tocqueville.

One final issues remains, I would say. Tocqueville often writes, and I would say this is the dominant tone of his writing on religion. He often writes as if religion is only valuable or valuable primarily for the social function it serves. This is certainly consistent with lots of things he says about religion. He’s only concerned about religion for its social and political consequences rather than from the deeper truths of religious belief. “I view religion,” he says, “only from a purely human point of view,” he says. He’s only looking for its affect on society. But I would ask, how accurate is that statement, or does it describe or characterize all of Tocqueville’s views about religion? I think not. Let me just say why for a minute. I think that sort of sociological or functionalist reading of religion, that he’s interested in it only for its social affect, is only part of Tocqueville’s very complex attitude towards this subject. Maybe you’ll have a chance to talk about this in your section. Maybe you’ll have an opportunity to write about it at some other time. But remember that Tocqueville was not only a student of Rousseau.

As he said in that letter to Louis de Kergolay that I mentioned last time, his other two great sources of inspiration were Montesquieu and a seventeenth-century French philosopher named Blaise Pascal. Pascal was a religious philosopher, who more than any other, emphasized the emptiness of knowledge without faith. Man may be the rational animal, but reason is somehow unable to plumb or reason is unable to grasp the unfathomable depths of the universe. In one of his most famous statements, Pascal said, “A vapor,” a drop of water is enough to kill him, speaking of us, humans. “A drop of water is enough to kill us. Man is a reed, a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed.” We are weak. We think, but it is our weakness. It is our dependence, sense of dependence that struck Pascal. Tocqueville, you can find this in several passages throughout the Democracy. Tocqueville, I think discovered in Pascal a sense of kind of existential emptiness, an incompleteness of life that cannot be explained in terms of reason alone. There is also, he felt, something deeply hubristic about the way in which conditions of equality foster this idea of rational self-sufficiency.

Tocqueville’s purpose, in many ways, was to limit reason to make room for faith, and this is one of my favorite passages. Let me just read a sentence or two. “The short space of 60 years,” he writes, almost as an aside. “The short space of 60 years will never confine the whole imagination of man. The incomplete joys of this world will never suffice for his heart.” Incomplete joys of this world will never suffice for his heart. In other words, there is something we desire beyond the here and now that only faith and can supply. The soul exhibits a kind of longing, a desire for eternity and a kind of disgust with the world and the limits of physical existence. “Religion,” he goes on, “is only a particular form of hope and it as natural to the human heart as hope itself. Only by a kind of aberration of the intellect and with the aid of a sort of moral violence exercised on their own nature do men stray from religious belief. An invincible inclination leads them back to religion. Disbelief is an accident. Faith alone is the permanent state of humanity.” If anyone’s interested, that’s on page 284. But no one can possibly read that section and come away from Tocqueville by thinking he had only a kind of functionalist, sociological view of religion, concerned with its effects on human behavior and society. Disbelief is an accident. Faith is the permanent condition of humanity and only through a kind of moral violence, through moral violence can religious faith be eliminated.

I think these passages show a much deeper, almost metaphysical dimension to Tocqueville’s thought. It shows him to be, like Plato in many ways, of enormous psychological depth and subtlety and insight. But these are the three features, or three of the features, I think the three central features that remain for him crucial to democracy: local government, civil association and what he calls the spirit of religion. Yet, obviously, all is not well. All is far from being well. Too often, way too often we read Democracy in America as it if were simply a celebration of the democratic experience in America. It is not. Tocqueville, among other things, is deeply worried about the potential, I mentioned briefly about this last time, the potential of a democratic tyranny. Why is there a belief or why would one believe that the democratic government alone will eliminate various forms of arbitrary rule in tyrannical government? In fact, it might create new forms of tyranny, democratic tyranny of which previous societies had been, perhaps, unaware. This is an issue that he treats twice in two important parts in his work; one in Volume 1, the other in Volume 2. I’m going to talk for a little bit today about his account of tyranny of the majority in Volume 1 and I’m going to save the rest of the discussion for next week when he talks about what he calls “democratic despotism” in the second part of Democracy in America.

Chapter 3. Tyranny of the Majority [00:25:47]

In Volume 1, he treats what he calls the “tyranny of the majority” largely in terms, you might say, that are derived or inherited from Aristotle and even the authors of The Federalist Papers. As you remember in Aristotle’s Politics, Aristotle associated democracy with the rule of the many. “Rule of the many,” for all kinds of purposes, generally means rule of the poor and rule of the poor for their own interest. The danger with democracy for Aristotle was that it still represented the tyranny of one class of society over the society of a whole, the largest class ruling in its interests over the minority. Democracy for the ancients was always a form of class struggle between the rich and the poor. That was, in many respects, the way in which democracy came to be viewed even by The Federalist’s authors who came up with their own solution to the problem of democracy or what they called “republican government.” The problem of republican government was this problem of, you might say, majority faction and their answer to the problem of majority faction was in Madison’s term, “to enlarge the orbit of government,” to make societies and polities much larger in order not to try to eliminate faction, but to increase them. By increasing the number of factions, you decrease the possibility that any one of them will be able to represent or exercise a kind of permanent majority control, a kind of permanent tyranny of the majority. The greater the number of factions, the less likelihood that any one of them will be able to exercise despotic power over national politics.

This is a question that Tocqueville returns to or turns to in that very important chapter from book one called “The omnipotence of the majority in the United States and its Effects,” which is, in many respects, a response or provides his reading and critique of the classical or traditional theory of democratic tyranny. The U.S. constitution, he talks about, has enshrined the majority in its own Preamble–“We, the People.” It has enshrined the majority even as it has sought to limit the powers of the people. Although Tocqueville devotes a great deal of attention in Volume 1– we’re not really reading these sections, I don’t think they’re all that important for our purposes–he spends a great deal of attention simply sort of describing the makeup of the federal constitution, the structure of the Houses of government and so on. One has to say he is far less impressed than Madison or the Federalist authors were, that the problem of majority faction has been solved in America. Again, the Federalist authors, following Locke and Montesquieu, believed all that was necessary was separation of powers, a system of representation, a system of checks and balances, that this could serve as an effective check on majority rule.

But Tocqueville was less certain of that. He was less certain that these, as it were, institutional devices alone could check what he calls the “empire of the majority.” The empire of the majority, a term that he uses that clearly has kind of theological connotations, denoting a kind of divine omnipotence, that the people have come to be the ultimate or final authority. Rather than regarding, as it were, the people in Madisonian terms simply as a kind of ongoing shifting coalition of interests, Tocqueville regarded the majority in democratic societies, the power of the majority, as unlimited and unstoppable. Legal guarantees of minority rights, he thought, were unlikely to be ineffective in the face of mobilized public opinion. Why does Tocqueville believe that, or what led him to express such skepticism about even American democracy’s inability to check the prospect of democratic tyranny? In part, I think, Tocqueville’s answer was that majority tyranny was inseparable from the threats of revolutionary violence and particularly charismatic demagogues and military leaders like Napoleon in France and America’s counterpart to Napoleon, Andrew Jackson. Napoleon was in France, the man capable of mobilizing the masses into fits of patriotic zeal and to carry on war. Jacksonianism, for him, simply looked like an American form of Bonapartism, a military commander riding to political power on the wings of popular support. More than anything else, Tocqueville feared militarism combined with a kind of unlimited patriotic fervor. It is in these respects you can begin to see some of the less ennobling features of the democratic experience and the more ominous possibilities of democratic rule.

The power of the majority, he says, makes itself feared especially through the dominance of the legislature. He believed, we could talk about whether this belief is still valid or true, he believed that the most, again, that democracy tends towards a dominance of the legislatures where the people’s voice makes its will most clearly known. By having short elections or short cycles every two years in the House of Representatives, it was a way of making sure that the legislatures, the House, the Houses, are very close to public opinion and public control. He sees this as a dangerous thing, this kind of legislative dominance that he sees is one form in the way in which the tyranny of the majority expresses itself. But the most important and the most memorable aspects of tyranny of the majority have less to do with these institutional forms, you might, say. It has to do with the way in which the empire–again, I’ll use his term– the empire of the majority makes itself felt in the realm of thought and opinion, the influence of the majority over thought. In an always startling passage from the book, Tocqueville remarks, “I know of no other country where, in general, less independence of mind and genuine freedom of discussion reign than in America.” There’s no country where there is less independence of mind and freedom of discussion.

He is, I suspect, overstating the case, but his argument here is that the dangers to freedom of thought in a democracy do not come from the threat of an inquisition. They do not come from something like that, but they are exercised in more subtle forms of exclusion and ostracism. Tocqueville is, perhaps, in that passage, one of the first and most perceptive analysts of what today might be called the power of political correctness, to control and to eliminate certain kinds of ideas and opinions from being thought. It is the fear of ostracism, in some sense, the fear of being socially ostracized through which the majority exercises its control. Tocqueville’s statement here is, of course, that persecution can take many forms under a democratic people, from the cruelest to the most mild. He gives various examples of the crueler forms of the way in which the majority have expressed itself. In a lengthy footnote to the book, for example, in some of these parts, he gives two examples; one in which during the War of 1812, he says there were some anti-war journalists in Baltimore–maybe you read that passage–who were taken out. Their newspaper press was burnt down and I think they were hung, he says. This is a way in which mob mentality took over. He also uses the example of the way in which black voters in the state of Pennsylvania, and he focuses on this particularly, have been disenfranchised. He mentions Pennsylvania in particular because Pennsylvania is a Quaker state, that is to say a state where one would have thought liberal opinion towards questions of racial justice would have been most advanced. Even there, he says, the majority constrained African American voters from, free blacks, from voting.

So these are ways in which, again, some overt and cruel and persecutory, others milder and through the form of ostracism that he wants to say that democratic sovereignty can exercise itself. “Chains and executions are the coarse instruments,” he writes, “that tyranny formerly employed. But in our day, civilization has perfected despotism itself, which seemed to have nothing more to learn.” We have perfected despotism, he says. “Under the absolute government of one man, despotism struck crudely at the body so to reach the soul,” no doubt thinking about the Inquisition and things like this in Spain and in parts of Catholic Europe. He writes, “and the soul escaping from those blows rose gloriously above it. But,” he goes, “in democratic republics, tyranny does not proceed in this way. It leaves the body alone and goes directly for the soul.” Well, there’s a wealth of commentary you might think about when you read that passage that’s implied there. Oh, God. The time’s moving so quickly. There’s so much more. So that, for Tocqueville, is one of the other sides of the democratic experience. Again, I want to return to a piece of that on Wednesday, next week rather, Monday, because I think you will see in Volume 2, Tocqueville has something of a change of heart. He doesn’t become more optimistic. In fact, he becomes far more pessimistic about this. But there’s certainly a change of tone in what Tocqueville has to say about the potentiality of majority tyranny. Well, we had so much fun watching the movie, I didn’t get a chance–There’s a little more I wanted to say, but this seems like a good note to break on. I’ll try to finish whatever I can with Tocqueville on Monday and Wednesday I’m going to try to wrap things up and tell you what you should be thinking about. So anyway, enjoy yourselves and I’ll see you next week.

[end of transcript]

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