Skip to Main Content


UE: POL 110-HA: Democracy in Troubled Times: Tocqueville - Democratic Defects

Practical Instruction in Civic Discourse

Overview - Democracy in America | Dangerous Propensities


In 1830, a twenty-six year old aristocratic lawyer from France, Alexis de Tocqueville, journeyed to the United States with his friend for the official purpose of studying prison reform, but in reality to observe American democratic government and society first hand.  In a whirlwind eight month expedition, Tocqueville and his companion travelled the length and breadth of the United States, visiting the populous Northeastern cities, the bustling commercial regions of Mid-Atlantic, the newly settled Western territories, the length of the Mississippi River and the slave holding plantations of the South, talking to leading public figures and observing for themselves.  Tocqueville was sensitive to the failed attempt to establish a democratic government in France during the French Revolution and to the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte thereafter.  He nevertheless believed that democracy was the unstoppable wave of the future and that America was the place to go for lessons that would prove useful to Europe.  On his return to France, he published his reflections in two volumes of Democracy in America and never returned to the United States.  Modern commentators consider him one of the founders of sociology.

- Copyright © 2013 - Hudson Reynolds, Ph.D.

Democracy in America deals with issues like religion, the press, money, class structure, racism, the role of government, the judicial system, etc. -- issues that are just as relevant today as they were then. Democracy in America has undergone several periods of popularity throughout the century, but it's never been as popular as it is now. Scores of colleges around the country use the text in political science and history courses, and historians consider it one of the most comprehensive and insightful books ever written about the U.S.

- retrieved from (09/15/13)

Essential Question

To what extent is democracy more than just a type of government?

America's Nostradamus

As Tocqueville Predicted

One of the most prescient secular observers of the political order in the United States was the French politician Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), in his classic book De la démocratie en Amérique (known in English as Democracy in America), published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840. He made a number of observations and predictions in this book:

1. The United States and Russia would be the two major world powers.

2. Slavery in the United States would be only stopped by acrimony, and that freed blacks, while nominally having the same freedoms and privileges as other Americans, would be subject to segregation. The Indians, due to their undemocratic traditions, would be forced to assimilate into the wider culture.

3. The democratic foundations of the U.S. would be threatened by increasing industrialization, since men could no longer support themselves and their families by their personal ownership of property, but rather by relying on earning wages controlled by others. A new industrial aristocracy would be formed.

4. The role of women in American society would diverge dramatically from Europe.

5. Individuals would become increasingly isolated and more alienated from the wider culture.

6. The emphasis on equality would stifle the intellectual life of the nation, particularly in the arts and sciences. The flourishing of both in the latter part of the 19th century, taking place after he wrote his book, seemed to contradict this prediction, but events closer to our current age rather confirm it, where “political correctness” stifles artistic expression, and which turns science away from the pursuit of the truth to supporting political agendas.

7. The burden of taxation would eventually be largely put upon the broad middle class, often to pay for the needs of the poor.  The laws of the land would continue to break up the accumulated wealth of the middle class.

8. Democracy would lead to increased materialism in the U.S., which would lead to the acceptance of the religious doctrine of pantheism, which would lead to tyranny. We see this in the New Age and the uncritical acceptance of the zeitgeist, or spirit of the age. Tocqueville thought that this tendency ought to be strenuously opposed, by returning to authentic Christian doctrine.

9. The ignorant and the violent would dominate party politics, with prejudice taking the place of wisdom.

10. Democracy would lead to an excessively optimistic idea of the perfectibility of Man.

Democracy in America, Vol. 1, Preface

"Instruction by which we may profit":  A guide to reading Tocqueville's Democracy in America

by John D. Wilsey

_____  The Preface

As we begin our study of Democracy in America, we bear in mind that the work’s distinguished author, Alexis de Tocqueville, blessed us with a clear, concise introduction to the two-volume work. The introduction is the most important chapter of the work in terms of coming to grips with Tocqueville’s overall argument and purpose for writing

_____  Equality of Conditions

In the second paragraph of the introduction, he states his thesis: “The more I advanced in the study of American society, the more I perceived that this equality of condition is the fundamental fact from which all others seem to be derived, and the central point at which all my observations constantly terminated.”[1]

Tocqueville will argue throughout Democracy in America that equality of condition is the most significant component animating American politics, religion, and society. He posits that equality of condition has reached its most developed state in the United States. Furthermore, in other parts of the world, such as Europe and the other countries of the Western Hemisphere, it is advancing rapidly.

Let’s consider what Tocqueville means when he uses the term, “equality of condition.”

First, let’s consider what it does not mean. It’s important that we strive to think historically and avoid thinking about Tocqueville’s terms anachronistically. Certainly “equality of condition” is one of those terms we must think through carefully. It is tempting to think of equality in contemporary terms—that all people are entitled to the same rights, for example. This modern understanding is not quite what Tocqueville expresses.

Rather, Tocqueville thinks of equality of condition in terms of a leveling out of classes caused over the course of several centuries. He gives a brief outline of these causes in the introduction. The increase of the church’s political power, the rise of the middle class, the development of commerce, the discovery of America, and the broadening of knowledge and education bring on equality of condition from the 12th century onward. In addition to these dynamics, the effect of the Crusades and the Hundred Years’ War on the nobility was, in a word, devastating. These wars undermined the power of the aristocracy and lifted the importance of commoners as the nation states of Western Europe grew like shoots out of the stumps of their old medieval kingdoms. New inventions such as gunpowder and the printing press also lifted the commoners from obscurity, and the Protestant Reformation gave a new significance to the individual. In short, Tocqueville writes, “The noble has gone down on the social ladder, and the commoner has gone up; the one descends as the other rises. Every half-century brings them nearer to each other, and they will soon meet.”[2]

One last word about the meaning of equality of conditions—Tocqueville writes that its growth is a providential certainty. While Tocqueville’s commitment to historic Christian orthodoxy was slight, he does convey a deep awareness and belief in the workings of God’s providence, particularly in superintending the growth and spread of equality of conditions. Like it or not, equality of conditions is destined to spread to all human civilization, with all its attending blessings and blights.

One of those blights is its threat to liberty. In contemporary times, we like to think of equality and liberty in complementary terms, but Tocqueville saw equality as a compulsion undermining liberty (for reasons we will explore later). Since equality stands as a threat to liberty, people who are caught up in its rising tide—especially people in France—need to take lessons from the Americans as to how to protect liberty and guard it against the tendency of equality of conditions to direct society toward despotism.

Thus, Tocqueville states his purpose in the introduction in this way: “The first of the duties which are at this time imposed upon those who direct our affairs, is to educate the democracy; to renovate, if possible, its religious belief; to purify its morals; to regulate its movements; to substitute by degrees a knowledge of business for its inexperience, and an acquaintance with its true interests for its blind instincts; to adapt its government to time and place, and to make it conform to the occurrences and the men of the times. A new science of politics is needed for a new world.”[3]

As we continue in our reading of Democracy in America, we will encounter Tocqueville’s thesis and purpose in a myriad of varying ways. As we do, it’s important that we continue to sharpen our understanding of Tocqueville’s phrase, “equality of condition.”

_____  The Feudal System

Prior to delving into the text of Alexis Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, it behooves us to get some historical context so that we can understand his observations, analyses, and conclusions. Context also helps us grasp the significance of Tocqueville’s project, allowing us to see through his eyes.

Think about historical context like you might think about seeing a movie or reading a novel. When you’re following a story as it plays out, the context serves to situate your perspective within the story so you can understand it and follow it as it unfolds.

Recall that Tocqueville visited America between May 1831 and February 1832. Recall also that Tocqueville was born in 1805, and was in his mid-twenties when he made his journey. Finally, recall that he finished volume one in 1835 and volume two in 1840. In the next few posts, we’ll consider some salient contextual features of Democracy in America so that our perspective on the work can be centered. Tocqueville’s book—and Tocqueville as a person—will mean much more to us once our perspective is situated appropriately.

Let’s begin with a brief consideration of feudalism. When Tocqueville and Beaumont came to America, feudalism as a set of social, economic, political, religious, and military structures was largely swept away by various dynamics occurring over several centuries, such as the centralization of the military, the creation of the nation-states, the Protestant Reformation, the rise of the middle class, and the globalization of the colonial system. But many feudal assumptions, such as those pertaining to class, were still prominent. Tocqueville was, after all, part of the aristocracy — even after the revolutionary cataclysms occurring in France between 1789 and 1830.

When Tocqueville came to America, he was struck by the absence of aristocracy and the prevalence of equality of condition (at least in the free states of the North). He was amazed by the absence of feudal structures — but also of the absence of the feudal mindset, particularly that of being tied down to the land. Americans were in constant movement, he observed, always in search of new lands and the attending promise of new wealth and prosperity.

The feudal system prevailed in Europe, generally from the death of Charlemagne until the end of the Hundred Years’ War. But its origins can be traced to the fall of the Western Roman Empire at the end of the fifth century through very late in the modern period. Its real demise in Europe could be placed around the end of the First World War in 1918, but this is debatable. An argument could be made that feudal attitudes still exist in the UK, where hereditary title remains today.

In its predominance, feudalism was a class system of mutual responsibilities centered on land, which served as the principal source of wealth. These mutual responsibilities were sustained between lords and vassals by the honor code known as chivalry.

The manor (also known as the feudum, fief, or benefice) was the basis of medieval society and economy. A lord was the bestower of land and the vassal was its recipient. Lords and vassals entered into formal contracts with one another. The vassal promised to give aid and counsel (military and administrative duties) and the lord was responsible to provide protection and justice to his vassals. Serfs, those who worked the land, owed their lords a tithe of their produce in return for the privilege of living on and working a parcel of land, as well as protection.

You can envision the feudal class system as a pyramid. At the top was the king. Under the king were the king’s chief vassals: dukes, viscounts, counts, marquesses, etc. Under those were the rear vassals. These steps of the nobility would proceed down through aristocrats, who possessed title but not land. Serfs were at the bottom of the pyramid, and they comprised most of the population. They worked the land or provided goods or services on the manor.

The Church also possessed its own feudal hierarchy parallel to that of the secular nobility. Land was also the basis of wealth for the church during this period. The feudal system was predominant for many centuries, primarily because the whole system was hereditary. While only the king could strictly be said to formally own land, those who possessed the land, as members of either the secular or ecclesial nobility, possessed it through hereditary title and passed it down generation after generation through the practice of primogeniture — a practice that Tocqueville was surprised did not exist in America like it did in France.

This brief summary of feudalism is, alas, generalized and simplified. It often operated in much more complex ways over time. But broadly speaking, these were some of the hallmarks of feudal assumptions, and Tocqueville was a product of those assumptions, which were exceedingly old. These assumptions were held in common by virtually all European people groups until comparatively recently in Tocqueville’s time. So when he encountered equality of condition in America, he was astounded and fascinated to see its effects. That fascination comes through in almost every page of Democracy in America.

In the next installment, we will consider the demise of feudalism and the Revolution of 1789. While Tocqueville was not yet alive to see those tumultuous times, his family suffered greatly, and that suffering formed many of Tocqueville’s attitudes toward revolution.

_____ The Coming of the French Revolution

In the previous installment, we considered feudalism as a class system of mutual responsibilities centered on land. Land was the basis of wealth during the medieval period.

But by the 12th century, land was slowly being replaced by trade as the main generator of wealth in Europe. That basic shift and the subsequent ripple effects would eventually lead to the conflict and chaos of the French Revolution. Tocqueville’s proximity to the Revolution in space and time had an enormous influence on his perspective as he traveled the United States.

The Hanseatic League in northern Europe and the Venetian Empire in southern Europe during the 1300s and 1400s were two of the powerful economic coalitions made up of towns and cities that were seeing increased power because of their status as centers of trade. Cities in the Hanseatic League, like Lübeck, Bruges, Hamburg, Bremen, Danzig, and Novgorod were changing the economies in France, Germany, the Baltic kingdoms, Scandinavia, and Russia. Venice and Genoa controlled the trade routes in the Mediterranean and Black Seas. This vast movement of trade goods throughout Europe contributed to the rise of the middle class, or the “bourgeoisie,” as it was known in France.

Along with the growth of the middle class, cities and towns were becoming more important politically and economically during the late medieval and early modern period. The feudal economic order, in which the manor served as the center of economic activity, was being slowly but surely replaced by a more modern economic order, with the town, dominated by the middle class, as the political and economic center.

These changes took place over centuries, but feudal assumptions were resilient. The feudal order was held together by mutual responsibilities between the aristocrats and the commoners. The aristocrats stood as mediating agents between the monarchy and the commoners. They were supposed to provide military and financial aid to the kingdom from the resources drawn from their manors, but they were also to provide justice and stability to the commoners who worked on their manors.

This system of mutual responsibilities broke down in France by the middle of the 1700s. Members of the aristocracy were given the privilege of exemption from paying taxes based on landed wealth (the taille), beginning as far back as the 1400s. Members of the bourgeoisie — the French upper middle class — were allowed to purchase noble titles from the French kings during the 1600s and 1700s, which also gave them exemptions from taxes. Both the nobles and the bourgeoisie moved out of the countryside and away from the commoners into cities and towns — especially to Paris, in order to have more ready access to the king.

In a word, the wealthy classes were becoming more and more isolated from the common people of France. This isolation meant also that the nobles were unable and unwilling to consider the interests of the people who lived on their lands. While life for the commoners was much harder and more dangerous during the height of feudalism in, say, the 1200s, it was more oppressive during the 1700s because the aristocracy had largely abandoned them.

This state of affairs reached the breaking point in 1789 with the storming of the Bastille on July 14 of that month. Events rapidly progressed to the downfall of the French monarchy with the execution of Louis XVI on January 21, 1793.

The immediate cause of the Revolution was a financial crisis. The French monarchy was bankrupt by 1789. Tax relief was necessary, but nobles and high clergy were unwilling to give up their exemptions from paying taxes. Louis was forced to call the Estates General — the representative assembly of France first established during the horrific Hundred Years War in the late 1300s.

Louis’ calling of the Estates General was the first time the body had met in 175 years. During that time, an absolute monarch had ruled France. When the Estates General met, it was comprised of three separate bodies—the First, Second, and Third Estates. The First Estate was made up of the aristocratic clergy, the Second Estate represented the nobles, and the Third Estate comprised the middle class and everyone else. One of the biggest differences between these groups was that members of the First and Second Estates could stand individually to represent their own personal interests. Members of the Third Estate had to speak as a group, represented by one leader. That meant that the members of the First and Second Estates could speak directly to the king on their own individual behalf. The Third Estate had no such access to the king.

This inequality proved unacceptable. Ultimately, the Third Estate met separately at a tennis court in Paris and proclaimed itself the National Assembly, and refused to adjourn until it had drafted a new constitution for France. The creation of the National Assembly in June, the storming of the Bastille in July, and the breakdown of royal authority in the countryside during the autumn of 1789 all resulted in the dissolution of the French monarchy’s power.

The French Revolution is a long and complex story, and my relation of key contributors and events of the Revolution represents just a starting point. But it is an enormously important benchmark from which Tocqueville’s perspective on the United States begins.

Not only was the Revolution a recent event for Tocqueville—he was born in 1805, just 16 years out from the fall of the Bastille. His family suffered great personal loss. His maternal grandfather was guillotined for his role in providing legal defense for the king. His mother and father were both imprisoned for several months on the charge of being loyal to the Bourbons. They were released only after Maximilien Robespierre lost his own head on the guillotine in 1794. The experience of imprisonment emotionally shattered Alexis’ mother. She never fully recovered.

The Revolution of 1789 casts a long shadow over Tocqueville’s political thought. When the July Revolution toppled the last Bourbon king in 1830, Tocqueville sought permission to go to America in part to escape its effects at home. He wondered at how Americans could experience a revolution and yet enjoy a secure and thriving political order in its wake. And in 1856, he wrote one of the best treatments of the French Revolution of the 19th century, The Ancien Regime and the French Revolution. Tocqueville’s analysis of the Revolution bears out the dangers of centralized authority to liberty. Liberty, for Tocqueville, depends on the active public spirit displayed by involved citizens in local communities.


[1] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America: A New Abridgment for Students, ed. John D. Wilsey, trans. Henry Reeve and Francis Bowen, Revised Edition. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016), 30. Emphasis added.

[2] Ibid., 33.

[3] Ibid., 34.

John D. Wilsey is affiliate scholar in history and theology at the Acton Institute. He is 2017-18 William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University and Associate Professor of Church History at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.                                                                                          gathered 3/19/20

Lockean Liberalism & Individualism

The Communitarian Critique of Lockean Liberalism

"John Locke's teaching was one of the most powerful ideologies ever invented, if not the most powerful. It promised an unheard of degree of individual freedom, an unlimited opportunity to compete for material well-being, and an unprecedented limitation on the arbitrary powers of government to interfere with individual initiative." Our nation's founders, however, assumed that the freedom of individuals to pursue their own ends would be tempered by a "public spirit" and concern for the common good that would shape our social institutions: "The Lockean ideal of the autonomous individual was, in the eighteenth century, embedded in a complex moral ecology that included family and church on the one hand and on the other a vigorous public sphere in which economic initiative, it was hoped, grew together with public spirit...The eighteenth century idea of a public was...a discursive community capable of thinking about the public good."

It is precisely this sense of common purpose and public spirit crucial to the guidance of institutions in a democracy that is absent from our society today. A ruthless individualism, expressed primarily through a market mentality, has invaded every sphere of our lives, undermining those institutions, such as the family or the university, that have traditionally functioned as foci of collective purposes, history, and culture. This lack of common purpose and concern for the common good bodes ill for a people claiming to be a democracy. Caught up in our private pursuits, we allow the workings of our major institutions -- the economy and government -- to go on "over our heads."

One way of summing up the difficulty Americans have in understanding the fundamental roots of their problems is to say that they still have a Lockean political culture, emphasizing individual freedom and the pursuit of individual affluence (the American dream) in a society with a most un-Lockean economy and government. We have the illusion that we can control our fate because individual economic opportunity is indeed considerable, especially if one starts with middle class advantages; and our political life is formally free. Yet powerful forces affecting the lives of all of us are not operating under the norm of democratic consent. In particular, the private governments of the great corporations make decisions on the basis of their own advantage, not of the public good. The federal government has enormously increased its power, especially in the form of the military industrial complex, in ways that are almost invulnerable to citizen knowledge, much less control, on the grounds of national defense. The private rewards and the formal freedoms have obscured from us how much we have lost in genuine democratic control of the society we live in.


-- by Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez
from a review of The Good Society

TEXT: The Communitarian Platform

TEXT: Self-Interest and Individualism in Tocqueville

Banal Materialism & Spiritualism Enthusiasm

Tocqueville on Democracy and Religion

Then as now, many people who held deep religious convictions were suspicious of democracy. In nineteenth-century France the dominant religion was Catholicism, and many devout French Catholics thought their religion incompatible with democracy.  Many religious conservatives wanted to preserve a national religion with a special role in the state, and did not think that a secular democracy in which faith would be left to a citizen's private choice would serve that goal.  On the other side,  many on the nineteenth-century French left thought that Catholicism had to be fought in order to establish real democracy.

In contrast, Tocqueville stood out as a friend of religion who was also a friend of freedom. He thought that a vibrant religious life was essential to the preservation and prosperity of a free democratic society. Tocqueville thought that religion (and he was favorable to almost any kind of religion) was essential to democracy for many reasons. Probably the most important one was that Tocqueville thought that organized religion was the only possible long-term counterweight to some of the main threats democracy faced: materialism on the one hand and religious fanaticism on the other. 

With regard to materialism, Tocqueville thought that in democratic societies, where no one had a position secured by birth or aristocratic title, there was a strong tendency for people to become totally absorbed in the search for material possessions.

Unfortunately, people who cared only about such things were apt to sacrifice their political freedom if it seemed like it might interfere with making a living, or at least to become apathetic towards their communities, concerned only with the needs of themselves and their own families. Tocqueville called this attitude “individualism”, and he thought that one of the best ways to fight it was through religion. Religion taught people that there were things in the universe more important than money, and encouraged them to lift their eyes beyond the petty concerns of daily life and concentrate on higher and more distant goals.

Organized religion could also help defuse the threat of religious fanaticism. Tocqueville was afraid that in a materialistic society, a minority of human beings, reacting in disgust against what they saw around them, would become religious fanatics and adopt extreme views. Rather than attempting to persuade their fellow citizens to look up to the heavens, they might attempt to force them to do so.

How was the right kind of religion to be encouraged? For Tocqueville, the best means of doing so was the separation of Church and State, as practiced in America. A government-sponsored religion risked the discredit of religion once the government became unpopular, as all governments must in time. He thought that the real reason so many French democrats hated Catholicism had nothing to do with Catholic religious doctrine, and everything to do with the fact that Catholicism had been so closely identified with the monarchy that was overthrown by the French Revolution. One can easily imagine an Iranian Tocqueville today issuing the same warning with regard to Shi’a Islam and cautioning his readers about the politicization of Islam in his country.

While Tocqueville was a strong supporter of the separation of Church and State, he was also a strong supporter of the practice of religion. Indeed, although he did not comment on it directly, he would have been a strong supporter of the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (emphasis added).

Rather than attempting to push religion out of the public sphere, he welcomed it, provided that its influence was indirect and it did not try to turn the public sphere in its own domain. Unlike current French law, he would have had no hesitation about letting students, or teachers, wear headscarves or crosses or yarmulkes in a public classroom (a student or teacher leading in a prayer in a classroom would be another matter, however). In his own day Tocqueville rejected the militant secularism that saw religion as the enemy, and there is no reason to believe he would have changed his mind today. He rejected equally the claim of some religious people that freedom was the enemy of religion. For Tocqueville, the only way for either freedom or religion to prosper in the long run was by recognizing that they were mutually necessary, and mutually beneficial.

-- Alan S. Kahan is an historian and political theorist who teaches in Paris.
His most recent books are “Mind vs. Money: The War Between Intellectuals and Capitalism” (Transaction),
and “Alexis de Tocqueville” (Continuum).
<> (09/114/13)

TEXT: Materialism and Militarism -- America's Hopeless Hurry to Happiness - Floyd W. Rudmin

Entreprenurial Spirit & Restlessness

Entrepreneurial Spirit Reigns Supreme in America

The entrepreneurial spirit has always been a proud American trait. Now, it seems, there’s research to back up the notion that starting one’s own business is as American as apple pie. A new study finds that Americans are far more likely than Europeans or Chinese to possess an entrepreneurial spirit.

Americans, the study found, are more likely than others to see themselves as risk takers. They are also more competitive or feel more confident they can tackle difficult tasks, the study, conducted by Gallup Flash Eurobarometer, showed.

More than 80 percent of the Americans surveyed said they are generally willing to take risks, compared with 65 percent of respondents in China and the European Union as a whole.  Respondents from Romania, Cyprus and Ireland were also somewhat confident in their entrepreneurial skills, with 73 percent in each country saying they are generally risk takers.  Lithuanians (46 percent) and Hungarians (43 percent) were least likely to see themselves this way.

 <> (09/14/13)

American restlessness, American unhappiness?

Imagine you are a high school basketball player, and a pretty good one. You are a senior, and right now you are the starting point guard for the Rochester Eagles. Last year you started for the Lexington Cougars, in a different state, and the year before that you played the same position for yet another squad, the Flyers of Pottsville. Your family moves a lot because of your father’s work, but you’ve managed to win a spot on the local team wherever you land.

So how do you think of yourself at the moment? Do you identify yourself as a proud Rochester Eagle? Or do you think of yourself as simply a talented point guard?

Well, if you’re like most people, you think of yourself primarily as a journeyman point guard, not as a member of the Eagles—or of any local team for that matter. That’s because you’ve learned from experience that group membership doesn’t last; teams and communities are fleeting. What endures are your grit, and your leadership skill, and your fast hands. In short, you.

This example comes from the work of University of Virginia psychological scientist Shigehiro Oishi, who has for some years been studying the mental and emotional consequences of residential mobility. America is one of the most mobile societies in the world, which means that lots of people are living different versions of the itinerant hoopster’s experience. Surprisingly, psychologists have not paid much attention to this common American experience. But as Oishi’s studies are showing, mobility shapes everything from our sense of identity to our friendships—and even our happiness.

It all starts with basic sense of self. Oishi studied a large sample of American college students, some of whom had moved around a lot before college and others of whom had pretty much stayed put. When he asked these students to describe themselves—their most important attributes—the itinerants were much more likely to mention personal traits, while less mobile students were more apt to mention important group affiliations. In fact, the mobile students didn’t belong to many groups; they weren’t joiners. And this tendency weakened their overall sense of community identity.

Mobility appears to affect the nature of friendship as well, in a variety of ways. In one study, for example, college freshmen who had moved around a lot reported having more friends—as measured by their Facebook friendships—and they also added more new friends after arriving on campus. But it’s not just the size of the social networks, Oishi has found. Mobile Americans are more likely to form “duty free” relationships, without the deep sense of social obligation that characterizes traditional friendships. Duty-free friendships are based on more on shared interests and similarities of personality, rather than group membership.

So who’s happier, those who ramble or those who stay close to home? One would guess that more mobile people might be happier, since that’s why many people move—to find a new life, perhaps a better job or a safer community. But the results are more mixed than that. As Oishi describes in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, adults who move often for work feel they have more interesting lives and are more satisfied with their marriages and family life. But itinerant adults also report more frequent health issues, like stomach aches and shortness of breath, than do less mobile adults. It’s possible that when people pull up stakes for a better life, they overestimate the novelty and opportunity of moving, and underestimate the social disruption and its consequences.

The stomach aches and other ailments may be the tip of the iceberg. When Oishi analyzed a decade of data from 7000 adults, he found that those who moved frequently in childhood were more likely to have died during the course of the study. Perhaps unsurprisingly, introverts suffered more from the negative consequences of mobility, including increased mortality. In short, the American pattern of residential mobility may have a dark side that has yet to be fully revealed.

When the French social critic Alexis de Tocqueville traveled in U.S. in the 1830s, he was struck by Americans’ restlessness, even in the midst of their prosperity. He was also struck by the “cloud” that darkened many American faces. This sadness, he believed, was explained by the fact that Americans are constantly thinking about the good things they might be missing.

Tocqueville didn’t have the advantage of modern genetics to help him understand the paradoxical American character. Today we know that nations founded by immigrants—like the United States and Australia—have much higher rates of mobility than older nations, such as China and Germany. Population geneticists now believe that these national differences might be explained by the genetic distribution of personality traits, and indeed a cluster of novelty-seeking genes has been found in populations that have migrated long distances. It’s possible that these genes were adaptive when Americans were a migratory people. Whether or not they remain adaptive is an open question.

-- versions of “We’re Only Human” appear in the Huffington Post and Scientific American Mind.
Wray Herbert’s book, On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits, will be published by Crown in September.
<> (09/14/13)

Tocqueville on the Three Races in America

Tocqueville believed America’s long-term potential as the primary vessel for the expansion of equality in the modern world was significantly circumscribed by what he saw in relations among the races.

TEXT: Tocqueville & Beaumont on Race Relations in America

Tyranny of the Majority

Romanian Students Discuss the “Tyranny of the Majority”

Do we have to know who we are before we can know what we need? Our hour-long discussion on Alexis de Tocqueville’s section on the “Tyranny of the Majority” from Democracy in America culminated when a student posed this wonderful perennial question.

This past Monday, I taught my third university-level textual analysis class. So far we have read John Winthrop’s A Model of Christian Charity, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, James Madison’s Federalist no. 10, and most recently a small section of Democracy in America. Our overarching theme has been an inquiry into American identity. In my first lecture I argued that the United States is in an identity crises. Our civil discourse is becoming increasingly polarized and there is not a consensus regarding what the common good is let alone how we can achieve it. Where and when did the breakdown begin? How can we reconstruct it? Should American identity be remade or rediscovered?

I I began our discussion of de Tocqueville with these words from our reading:

I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America. In any constitutional state in Europe every sort of religious and political theory may be freely preached and disseminated; for there is no country in Europe so subdued by any single authority as not to protect the man who raises his voice in the cause of truth from the consequences of his hardihood. If he is unfortunate enough to live under an absolute government, the people are often on his side; if he inhabits a free country, he can, if necessary, find a shelter behind the throne. The aristocratic part of society supports him in some countries, and the democracy in others. But in a nation where democratic institutions exist, organized like those of the United States, there is but one authority, one element of strength and success, with nothing beyond it.

Why does Tocqueville say that there is no real freedom of discussion in America when our “freedom of speech” is one of the freedoms we are most proud of in America? I think this reaches to the heart of our current identity crises and political gridlock. Freedom of speech is largely an illusion in America because the majority has deemed some words and ideas anathema. It is impossible to enact a plan to cut the debt because one plan is labeled “elitist” another is “socialist.” The majority has decided that both aristocratic elitism and socialism are politically incorrect words that should not even be considered. So, while candidates call each other “elitists” and “socialists” their ideas are not given a deep consideration in the public discourse.

Who is the majority?

First we asked, “Who is the majority?”  After a brief discussion, we decided that the majority was a group united around a common ideal opposed to another less powerful group united around the opposite ideal. We then went back and forth between whether or not the majority is worthy or unworthy to rule. One group seemed to be echoing Thomas Paine by saying that the majority should rule because they best represent the needs of a society while the other side took up James Madison’s argument that needs of the majority should not oppress the minority. While we argued about whether or not our mixed government and free speech on the internet provide protection and a voice for the minority a student asked the question at the heart of the argument. Do we have to know who we are before we can know what we need?

When Tocqueville published Democracy in America in 1835 he asserted that, “If America has not as yet had any great writers, the reason is given in these facts; there can be no literary genius without freedom of opinion, and freedom of opinion does not exist in America.” It does not exist in America, according to Tocqueville, because anyone who publicly speaks contrary to the opinion of the majority is made “a stranger in his own country.” We have had some great writers and orators since 1835. Mark Twain, Flannery O’Connor, and Martin Luther King Jr. became some of the heroes who showed us who we are and gave us a path forward.With the presidential election days away, we need to ask ourselves who we are and what do we really need. Where is the literary genius who can shine a light on who we really are? Are we left so intellectually and spiritually impoverished by the tyranny of the majority that the heroic literary genius described by Tocqueville is among us, but is merely another voice crying in the wilderness; and nobody hears.

-- posted on under Philosophy & Education
 <> (09/14/13)

The "Soft Despotism" of the Administrative State

The Road to Comfortable Servility?

Tocqueville was troubled by a certain fascination that Americans had with equality. For all their love of liberty, Tocqueville stated, “Americans are so enamored of equality that they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom.”

Democracy, Tocqueville argued, encouraged this fixation with equality because it requires people to relate to each other through the medium of democratic equality. This encourages us first to ignore, then to dislike, and finally to seek to reduce all differences that contradict this equality — particularly wealth disparities.

This is key to what Tocqueville considered democracy’s tendency to “soft despotism.” Democratic despotism, Tocqueville thought, would rarely be violent. Instead it would amount to a Faustian bargain between the political class and the citizens. He predicted that “an immense protective power” might assume all responsibility for everyone’s happiness – provided this power remained “sole agent and judge of it.” This power would “resemble parental authority” and attempt to keep people “in perpetual childhood” by relieving them “from all the trouble of thinking and all the cares of living.”

Is America on the road to comfortable servility? “The American Republic,” Tocqueville wrote, “will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.” Since Roosevelt’s New Deal, America has slowly drifted towards a political economy of soft despotism. Despite the Reagan Revolution, the trend-lines of government-spending and intervention have been in the anti-liberty direction. Entire constituencies of people now exist who regularly support politicians who promise that, in return for their votes, their entitlements (corporate-welfare, bails-outs for the “too big-to-fail,” the old-fashioned welfare state etc) will be maintained and increased.

The problem is that governments can only tax-and-spend so much before incentives to wealth-creation (as opposed to wealth-transfers) begin disappearing. The material comforts of servility slowly start to wane for many people. Politicians then have a choice. They can tell citizens the truth and risk losing their votes. Or they can incite populist envy by blaming whatever’s left of the wealth-producing classes for the situation.

In these circumstances, America’s greatest hope is hardly its political leaders. Rather it is those millions of Americans who still treasure liberty and have no intention of becoming comfortable serfs. As Tocqueville himself observed, “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”

Let’s hope he’s still right.

-- by Samuel Greg, "Despotism, the Soft Way" 
<> (09/15/13}

ONLINE TEXTS - Tocqueville: Defects

Tocqueville - Readings

Read from Democracy in America:

Vol. 1, “Introduction”

Vol. 2, chaps.1-3,       “Individualism”

Vol. 2, chaps. 10-13,  “Materialism”

Vol. 2, chap. 9,            “American Enterprise”

Vol. 1, chap. 7,            “Tyranny of the Majority”

Big Ideas, Essential Questions, and Higher Order Thinking

  Discussion Questions

  1. What historical changes led to the coming of democracy in Western Europe and America?
  2. What is the relationship between the dawning of a democratic era and the rise of “individualism” as a social and cultural phenomenon?
  3. To what extent is the American emphasis on “self-reliance” a result of the social forces of “individualism” operating in society? 
  4. To what extent does American society suffer from the effects of “individualism” today?  Are the communitarians right in their diagnosis of America’s contemporary ailments?
  5. What is the nature of American “materialism”?   Are middle class values necessarily a bad thing?
  6. What is the source of America’s restless entrepreneurial spirit?  What is the American dream, and why does it always lie just out of reach?
  7. What does Tocqueville mean by “tyranny of the majority”?   Does public opinion squeeze out all freedom of thought in America, as Tocqueville opines?

 Student Activities

  1. Have students compile a list of political, economic, and cultural problems facing the United States today.
  2. Have students interview someone other than a class member on the subject of “the American Dream” and bring the findings to class.
  3. Have students review the Saint Leo University core values and argue which is most honored in contemporary society and which is most neglected.