Discussion of Tocqueville's Democracy in America

by Roy P. Johnston

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville shows himself to be a very brilliant man. He is and astute observer and makes astounding insights into the cause and effects of what he observes. If his book seems to be dry and long-winded at least he thoroughly examines all his assertions. He attacks each idea from many directions, showing every twist of his mind. If one idea is lost in a elaborate passage, it is brought home to the reader in the next by attacking it from another direction. I was greatly impressed with Democracy in America. Its wealth of ideas and insights far surpass any book that I've read. I was most astounded when I found that some of my best ideas which I thought were original, were echoed in this book written over 150 years ago. Although Tocqueville treats many, many aspects of democracy in his book, he also seems to have only a couple overriding themes that links all his subjects together. One of these themes seems to be that, "When you democratize something, you cheapen it." Restated in terms of my thinking, people in a democracy live in a state of blah. A democracy tends to make everyone equal by raising those that are low and bringing down those that are high. In these conditions, great people cannot exist and by consequence no great works or institutions can exist. There is nothing great and everything melts into a grayness. There are no great evils yet there are no great virtues. There are no great atrocities but gentle oppressions can easily exist. When man is indiscriminately confined to this grayness, man is cheapened. When arts are subsequently confined to this grayness, they are cheapened.

One of the topics discussed in the book is the cheapening of the educational institution by democracy. In a democracy, society shows disdain for the intellectual. I think that this is most evident in early school, where children show little restraint in criticizing those that show superior academic capabilities. Tocqueville might see this as evidence of the tendency of democratic societies towards equality by bringing down those with advantages. Under peer pressure, academically capable students my try to hide their gift or curb their efforts to become intellectual. In either case their brought down to a median level and education is cheapened. Many that are less that intellectually capable obtain the benefits of education and are raised to the median. This advantage, though, can come only at the expense of blunting true intellectual greatness. As institutions of higher learning strive to open their doors to the masses, they also sacrifice the brilliant by pandering to those with little capability. Programs are no longer designed to push the intellectual to his upper most limits but to make sure that the least student is not left behind. With this kind of system, the potentially intellectually brilliant will be hardly distinct from the mediocre masses. According to Tocqueville, the result is that, in the United States, "there are so few ignorant, and at the same time so few learned, individuals."

Tocqueville also points out how the capitalistic and industrial spirit in the American democracy also contributes to the degradation and diminishing of the intellectual class. In this case he states that most of the rich men in America were once poor. In their youth they exerted their abilities not to better their minds but in the pursuit of accumulating wealth. Once they are older and have made their fortunes, they no longer have any inclination towards intellectual pursuits. Tocqueville also shows that others may pursue knowledge as a means to increase their fortunes. As Tocqueville states, "The utility of knowledge becomes singularly conspicuous even to the eyes of the multitude: those that have no taste for its charms set store upon its results, an make some effort to acquire it." So the utility of knowledge becomes the only end and what does not have immediate application is ignored or thrown away. In this way even those that do pursue the intellectual do it in a very one-dimensional manner and their range of knowledge becomes limited.

Philosophy is another institution cheapened by democracy. Tocqueville states that there are no real schools of philosophical thought attended to in America. Instead the individual attends to a most pragmatic and personal philosophy. As these people spend their time solving all the little difficulties of life and acquiring only the most utilitarian of knowledge, their philosophy is based only on personal experience and cannot transcend what cannot be explained. Immediately the scope of democratic philosophy is hampered and limited. Yet as the individual puts stock in only his self-formulated truths, economy forces him to borrow and assume many of his truths from a higher order. This is natural in all humanity since humans do not have the ability to verify all truths for themselves. In aristocracies, these assumed truths were gathered from supposedly higher individuals and classes. In a democracy, no individual is considered above another but the majority is supreme. Therefore the democratic citizen will assume his base of truths from public opinion. So even though a individual will strive to form his own limited philosophy, he will regularly submit and assume the opinions of the majority. Tocqueville calls public opinion "a species of religion...and the majority its ministering prophet." These two tendencies cause philosophy in America to be remarkably uniform and severely limited.

Tocqueville shows that this pragmatic philosophy has great consequences to the sciences. In America great esteem is given only to the applied sciences. This is understandable since applied science is the only science that can advance a person's station in democratic life. In consequence, the abstract and theoretical sciences are greatly ignored. This selfish approach to the sciences is beautifully explained by Tocqueville, "Amongst a multitude of men you will find a selfish, mercantile, and trading taste for the discoveries of the mind, which must not be confounded with the disinterested passion which is kindled in the hearts of a few." Tocqueville also attributes this deficiency to the fact that the Democratic mind is restless and the proper meditation needed for the theoretical cannot exist. In this way, science is cheapened. These are dangerous tendencies as neither of the sciences can exist for long without the other. The democratic mind must be forced to attend to theoretical if only to assure the continuance of the practical.

As has been pointed out, materialism conspires with democracy in cheapening the educational and the philosophical as well as everything else democratized. It is interesting, then, to see how democracy cheapens the heart of materialism: material objects. On this topic, Tocqueville deals specifically with the artisan but I believe that his assertions can be applied to manufacturing as well. In a aristocracy, artisans of a profession form a class or guild. The artisan's main goal is to protect his reputation and that of the guild's. This was only done by producing the highest quality crafts. The artisan had pride in his craft and the quality of it was only limited by his skill. In democracies, on the other hand, professions are open to all and artisans only strive to satisfy the greatest number of customers as that will bring the greatest profit. Expedience, not quality, becomes the issue. As all classes learn to desire the objects previously limited to the upper class, artisans endeavor to satisfy these desires. This is often done by sacrificing quality but maintaining the illusions of quality. Limited to his time period, Tocqueville did not comment on manufactures or the Industrial Revolution, but I think that his views on the degradation of the crafts extend to these modern processes. It may be that this degradation of the crafts lead to the Industrial Revolution.

In many instances, democracy may have seemed to have cheapened something but really hasn't. Quality remains but is hard to find since it becomes lost in a deluge of crude works of less quality. Literature falls victim to this principle as Tocqueville indicates. In his time, the great authors of America were yet to come. He is faced with only paltry literature coming from the United States yet he predicts that we would have great authors. Indeed, he not only predicts a literary culture forming in the United States but accurately describes its nature as having few "strict conventional rules." He sees no reason why democracy will suppress great works. On the other hand he points out the multitude of minor works that crowd the bookstore shelves, cheapening the use of language. This effect naturally extends to press. Even so, Tocqueville places great importance of the press in a democracy. The democratic press may express paltry ideas, yet free press is "the chief democratic instrument of freedom." Democracy has similar effects on fine art. While great works are not diminished, mediocrity abounds.

Alexis de Tocqueville was a brilliant prophet. What he saw and what he predicted is true. The national character of the United States is very bland. America is noted for little more than its industry and its advancements of applied science. It is the greatest country in the history of man, yet its cultural accomplishments do not reflect that greatness. It is not doubted that America has had great people that produced great works but their light is much tarnished by the bulk of mediocrity and ineptitude produced by this country. Tocqueville is very realistic in examining the deficiencies of democracy, but I believe he is far from denouncing democracy. He may write apprehensively about the democratic suppression of what is fine or great but he does recognize the great rewards that democracy has to offer. I will now end with a passage in which Tocqueville sums up the effects of democracy upon its people and culture:

"If there be few instances of exalted heroism or virtues of the highest, brightest, and purest temper, men's habits are regular, violence is rare, and cruelty almost unknown.... Neither men of great learning, nor extremely ignorant communities are to be met with; genius becomes rare, information more diffused.... There is less perfection, but more abundance, in all the productions of the art."


Home/ Weiner Pages/ e-mail/ Top of Page