De Tocqueville's Notion of Democracy
 

De Tocqueville grew up in a time when the nation was ideologically split between loyaltists of the monarchy and anti-monarchists. Although liberals were marked as anti-monarchists in general, there was current of so-called Doctrinaires who Tocqueville felt affiliated to. This group proposed the idea of installing the constitutional monarchy as a compromise between monarchy and republic, while extending the census suffrage to the entire middle class and liberalizing the legislature. Furthermore, they propagated the extension of the education system, aiming at raising the general level of education among the people in order to mold citizens who could take the responsibility to vote.

Political Currents
in France

The socio-political circumstances in Tocqueville's life have to be considered when evaluating his use of the notion 'democracy' in his descriptions of the American political system. Does this term denote the levelling off of society? Does Tocqueville think of the reign of uncontrolled masses, or does he contemplate political equality in terms of common suffrage? Legal and political notions of democracy are opposed to each other. De Tocqueville uses the term in different connotations, but the French idea of democracy did not include the common notion of 'government of the people by the people'. In France the revolution had produced a democracy consisting primarily of elemination of privileges and class order of the Ancien Régime. Hence, most French perceived democracy as a new form of social order, which, compared with the old aristocratic order, could be characterized by the abolition of rigid hierarchic order with its typical traditional distribution of power and privileges. Although class differences persist within democracy, social mobility is one characteristic feature of democracy.

Democracy as
Egalitarian
Concept

Tocqueville's concept of democracy changed throughout the time. In 1830 he regarded democracy as a dynamic process, which required an 'equality of conditions'. In his view the democratic process - i.e. the change of social order - would come to a halt when all political priviledges were eradicated. Later, in his second volume of Democracy in America, which was published in 1840, a more negative image of democracy prevailed: that of a levelling power which would not be restricted to social order, but which would also challenge the right of material property. Furthermore, he saw the danger that democracy could level any intellectual or individualistic distinctions. The notion of 'tyranny of the masses' formed in Tocqueville's mind.

Tocqueville's
Notion of
Democracy

Beside this sociologic observation, liberty is a reocurring notion in Tocqueville's understanding of democracy. The way he uses this notion implies that he interprets liberty not only as protection from the abuse of governmental power, but more as a positivistic idea of liberty as an asset which each citizen is obliged to make active use of. On the other hand he sees the necessity to restrict individual liberty and to "regulate it by believes, mores and laws." This is meant when he talks about 'liberté modérée'. Tocqueville's liberalism is characterized by the defence of liberty against authority, but also by defence of authority against liberty. Moreover, Tocqueville favors the classic theory of representation, like his friend John Stuart Mill, who advised a system in which the citizens should elect the most capable among themselves to represent them. The problem for France was that the population did not consist of responsible citizens which were necessary for the desired liberal system. The French people had proved during the years after the revolution that it was not able to exert their democratic rights. Still Tocqueville believed it would be possible to educate the people to transform them into citizens and to change the political culture in France.

Notion of
Liberty


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This document was last updated on 01/24/98.