Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1835 journal, Democracy in America, summarizes his experience in the United States, detailing his often-ambiguous feelings toward the way in which America has evolved since its founding in 1776. In his account, Tocqueville touches on many of the topics at the heart of American democracy, particularly issues of individualism and the principle of self-interest, which allows for a virtuous class of hard-working people. At the same time, however, the Frenchman warns of a future in which these Western ideals can be manipulated enough to actively harm individuals if the tyranny of the majority is not checked. Although they were written nearly 200 years ago, Tocqueville’s observations about American democracy and the hearts of its people are still as relevant today as they were then.
Tocqueville categorizes individualism as a relatively new development that only appeared once democracy gained prominence in the western world. Until then, any notion of making decisions with your own interest in mind was considered selfishness. This new wave of individualism called for free will, while also allowing one to mentally separate themselves from society without only caring about themself. This improved upon the ideas of Thomas Hobbes who described man as an individual, only able to experience social interaction if he signed away his liberties in exchange for access to a Social Contract.
Tocqueville’s evolution of Hobbesian ideals meant being in society and being self-motivated were no longer mutually exclusive. Your family name and past relationships no longer mattered since it was the individual that made the most (or least) of his life. Tocqueville realized that individualism could succeed in the United States because Americans naturally trend towards acting out of benevolence, namely due to participation in non-government institutions that promoted virtue such as the church, schools, and traditional family unit. What Tocqueville calls an “enlightened selfishness” in America allows for a more balanced sense of morality because doing good deeds results in positive externalities in one’s community. An awareness of one’s own self-interest combined with institutions that promote virtue allowed for individualism to be one of the key pillars of American democracy.
Although Tocqueville argued individualism within a democracy is inherently good, he warned that there could come a time when the manipulation of American ideals could cause significant harm. This possibility would most likely come rapidly within corrupt government institutions or very slowly in society as Americans partook in dialogue and debate, usually during Elections. Democracy promotes freedom of expression but it also allows enough leeway for the power of opinion to shift value systems. At first, the trend towards the tyranny of the majority may not necessarily require a numerical majority, but rather a group of individuals loud enough and motivated enough to begin shifting the tone. If executed properly, their tyranny of thought and strategic silencing can prevent proper discourse, especially if the opposing side is deemed evil and irrational instead of just disagreeable. This idea leads to Tocqueville predicting social movements like the modern “Cancel Culture” Movement and the subconscious notion of political correctness growing in America like ideological cancer.
In his writings, Tocqueville raises the question: if individuals can be silenced because their opinion is offensive, or does not match the majority’s narrative, has the land that created freedom of expression lost its very freedom of expression? The First Amendment protects against the legal degradation of a certain way of thinking or speech, but it does little to prevent groups from casting out others or harassing them on the basis of political correctness. If tyranny of the majority is not actively checked, the U.S. could easily succumb to a radically polarized society where each side demonizes the other and one side is either forcefully silenced or chooses to stay quiet out of fear of ostracization. This is the slippery slope Tocqueville says the U.S. will have to face as it continues to spearhead the liberal, democratic experiment.
Tocqueville sees America as a land of great potential: We can either live up to the ideals of our Founding or fall victim to the sabotage of democracy from the inside out. Tocqueville praises America for how far it has come in such a short time but also understands making a rash judgment call about liberalism’s implementation in the US may be irresponsible.
Despite his uncertainty, it’s quite clear how relevant his writings are to Americans today. The current political climate has been increasingly polarizing and it often feels like Americans are living in two different realities. At times, the battle between the ideological right and left has radically evolved from healthy debate to name-calling and virtue-signaling, or worse. If we do not change soon, the U.S. could live up to the warnings posed by Tocqueville in 1835, and the tyranny of the majority could overshadow America’s free democracy.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.