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Democracy in America

The "Second Democracy" (1840):
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« The point is not to rebuild an aristocratic society but to bring forth liberty from the democratic society in which God has ordained that we shall live. »
(Democracy in America, II)

Tocqueville's comprehensive sociological descriptions of democratic societies enable him to identify some of the fundamental forces and values that drive them and affect all aspects of social and political life. Rejecting the aristocratic ideals of heroism and grandeur, democratic society favors-and tends to universalize-bourgeois or middle-class values, giving priority to the private sphere over public commitment. This general disposition leads to individualism and to a frantic quest for individual and immediate pleasures, a "passion for well-being," which explains why democratic peoples come to retain as their "only political passion . the love of public tranquility" and why, in order to guarantee it, they are often prepared to grant "new prerogatives" to the "central government." This brings us to the central paradox around which the "second Democracy" is organized: How is it that equality of conditions engenders liberty and concern for individual independence, yet that same independence can lead to servitude? The citizens of democratic societies are free, independent, and given both to imitating one another and to distinguishing themselves from one another, with the result that in the end they come to distrust their fellow citizens and prefer to resign themselves to the loss of individual liberty and to rely entirely on "the immense being that rises up alone in the midst of universal abasement," which they come to see "as the unique and necessary support of individual weakness," namely, the state. Thus democratic man in his isolation, weakness, and withdrawal into the private sphere of personal well-being may come to renounce his freedom voluntarily and surrender entirely to the state that governs him.  play sound extractlire l'extrait sonore  

« The world that is rising is still half buried beneath the debris of the world that has fallen, and amid the immense confusion of human affairs, no one can say what will remain of old institutions and mores and what will eventually disappear. »
(Democracy in America, II)

This is the danger that Tocqueville sees in democratic society and which he describes in the final section of his book, where he points out that the danger is all the greater because citizens choose freely and voluntarily to give up their freedom: "Our contemporaries are constantly torn between two warring passions: they feel the need to be led and the desire to remain free. Unable to destroy either of these contrary instincts, they strive to satisfy both. They imagine a single, all-powerful, tutelary power elected by the citizens. They combine centralization and popular sovereignty. They console themselves for being watched over with the thought that they have chosen their own guardians. In this system, citizens shed their dependence just long enough to indicate their master and then return to it."
These somber passages of the "second Democracy," which disclose the darker face of democratic society, reveal that the unifying concern of the two volumes of Democracy in America was the question of how to reconcile equality of conditions with individual liberty. In other words, would democratic man be free or not? Democracy could no longer be rejected as such, and in any case it was never Tocqueville's intention to do so. Instead, he preferred to remind his readers of the need for vigilance, of the need to use their education, freedom of choice, and religious faith to refuse to settle for well-being alone and to choose instead to participate in associations and bear the burden of common responsibilities. "Man is powerful and free; so are nations," Tocqueville assures us at the end of us work, before adding: "Nations nowadays cannot prevent conditions from being equal, but it is within their power to decide whether equality will lead to servitude or freedom, enlightenment or barbarism, prosperity or misery."

'The Passers-By', Honoré Daumier

The Passers-By, Honoré Daumier, oil on canvas, circa 1860; Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts
© RMN/René-Gabriel Ojéda

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