Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Summary: In an attempt to devise a portable and transferrable framework for a successful democracy founded on religious principles (yet free of religion in its administration), Tocqueville advances two central themes in his work: the equality of conditions and its relation to political freedom, and the importance of religion in daily life for the maintenance of freedom. Tocqueville advocates several tenants of the American style of republican democracy at both the government and individual-level including: administrative decentralisation of government and strong municipal or state authorities, political activism at all levels of government in order to create a strong civic culture, and the cultivation of proper mores in order to maintain freedom in a democracy. This work also serves as a cautionary tale however, as Tocqueville warns that there is a very real danger in placing full power and sovereignty in the people as a democracy may degenerate into a tyranny of the majority or “democratic despotism” if not unchecked.
Method: Tocqueville’s narrative appears to be one of the first (and most thorough!) ethnography of the American colonies, delving into both the institutional structures and political culture of majority groups (colonials) and minority groups (African-Americans and Aboriginals).
Important Insight: In his discussion of the relative merits and limits of liberty and equality in 19th century America, Tocqueville contrasts the American spirit of liberty with the advantages of equality that, while often put hand-in-hand with liberty, actually serves to limit liberty in pursuit of social peace. Tocqueville recognises the inherent difficulties threatening the Union including the division of wealth, liberty and equality between the North and South creating conditions for distrust and – in this sense, predicting in part, the Civil War that would follow 30 years after the release of Democracy in America. On a more positive note however, writ large, Tocqueville’s contribution is that of being the first political scientist to systematically look at both political culture and its outcome, leading him to be one of the founders of the Social Capital field in modern political science.
Critique: Tocqueville\’s definition of liberty is somewhat abstract and ambivalent, and often does not parse with the commonly-held idea of a powerful liberty that can be pursued at all costs; rather he seems to insinuate that liberty is the ability to govern oneself within the contractual obligation between the citizens and the state (the local administration) – a description that differs from many conceptualisations of liberty. Additionally, though Tocqueville does address the role of women in 18th century, he states that, owing to their Puritanical belief system, their primary role is to be the moral compass of society, painting a rather rosy picture of the continuous subjugation of women. Finally, Tocqueville advocates a new political class of jurists and lawyers to replace the monarchical class, however, the creation of a philosophical or intellectual hierarchy coupled with political power has the capability to generate a wealthy political class that rules over a poor class, creating the reverse of what he cautions against – a tyranny of the minority.