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

Practical Instruction in Civic Discourse

Overview - Democratic Remedies for Democratic Defects

In the first volume of Democracy in America, Tocqueville concentrated on the governmental institutions of America.  In the second volume, he turned to the effect of laws, morals, and customs on American democracy, what he refers to as “habits of the heart”.  In both volumes, Tocqueville lists concerns about the possibility of “tyranny of the majority” and of a general leveling or “dumbing down” of society; but, in both volumes he accompanies his fears with hope that there may exist democratic remedies for democratic defects.  “Volume One” definitely reveals Tocqueville as an alert and astute observer of his times; “Volume Two” makes the case for Tocqueville as the most reflective and profound prophet of modern democracy.  In the Nineteenth Century, the political philosopher John Stuart Mill acknowledged his deep debt to Tocqueville’s analysis of the tension between liberty and equality; in the Twentieth Century, the celebrated thinker Hannah Arendt borrowed extensively from Tocqueville for her investigation into the origins of totalitarianism.


Copyright © 2013 - Hudson Reynolds, Ph.D.

Self-Interest Rightly Understood

What is Enlightened Self-Interest?

To understand the significance of enlightened self-interest, one must look at the political and social atmosphere that existed in France during Tocqueville's time period. Tocqueville grew up and was educated in a period of French history marked by revolutions, political turmoil, and centralized rule. His maternal grandfather and an aunt had been guillotined and his parents imprisoned by the time of the French Revolution (Hutchins and Adler 1964).

In writing about the concept of enlightened self-interest, Tocqueville aimed at a better explanation of the uniqueness of America and its institutions. He also aimed at critiquing the popular philosophical and political notions of his French contemporaries. As a concept, enlightened self-interest was a response to egoism, individualism, and the prohibition of political associations. French aristocracy and the political elite viewed political associations as dangerous to the state. In America, local liberties prevailed; they often took the shape of political associations. Local liberty encouraged individuals to participate together in defining and addressing their needs and aspirations (Kincaid 1999). French aristocracy prohibited their existence under the auspices that creating these associations would encourage insurrection against leadership.

Yet, this same leadership encouraged civil associations. The aristocracy believed that encouraging individuals to participate in civil associations would take their mind off the political ills of the time. Aristocracy believed that encouraging these types of associations would make citizenry more apt to concern themselves with worldly pursuits. Tocqueville considered this to be a reflection of the popular philosophical sentiment of the time: egoism. He described this concept as individualism that had no bounds (Elazar 1999). However, Tocqueville's contention was that, without freedom to participate in both types of associations, people would be hesitant to join in association with each other. As a result, the civil society would not flourish.


The importance of Tocqueville defining this concept cannot be weighed lightly. Simultaneously, he accurately described the current philanthropic attitude of Americans and he criticized the current political reality of France. He attacked some of the key claims of the French aristocracy by asserting that freedom to form political dissent groups would actually encourage national stability by re-enforcing notions of democracy. Furthermore, Tocqueville's concept of enlightened self-interest helped to provide an accurate description of the foundational history of the nonprofit sector in America.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

The nonprofit sector flourishes today because of the concept that people working together can not only serve their own interest, but can also serve the community as a whole. In addition, much of today's corporate philanthropy rests upon a base of enlightened self-interest. For example, corporations give contributions to scholarship programs. They do this to educate their future workers. These same corporations may also support cultural programs in the cities where their corporate headquarters are located; one motivation for their doing so may be to make those cities more attractive to the people they are recruiting to work for them.

-- James A. Steenbergen, Graduate Student, Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University

TEXT: Greed is Not Good, and its Not Capitalism - by Jay Richards [American Enterprise Institute]  ?   

No longer available

Local Government


Local Democracy put to the test in Indonesia

Developing countries that free themselves from authoritarian governments are often called “experiments in democracy.” But what happens when a researcher runs an actual field experiment in democracy? A novel study by MIT economist Benjamin Olken has provided surprising insights about the impact of democratic government in the developing world.

In fieldwork involving 49 Indonesian villages, Olken arranged to have major decisions on public-works projects in some settlements decided by plebiscite — in which all citizens get a vote — rather than by the traditional small councils of village leaders. Unexpectedly, the types of projects selected by majority vote were nearly identical to those picked by village elites; the voting public did not try to redistribute wealth to themselves. And yet when people were allowed to vote, they expressed greater contentment with the results than when decisions were simply handed down by the elites. The conclusion was that even if democracy doesn’t make a material difference in people’s lives, it creates greater civic cohesion.

“I expected more of a change in the outcomes,” says Olken, an associate professor in MIT’s Department of Economics. “But there is more satisfaction and potentially more legitimacy through these direct democratic institutions, as opposed to having a decision made by a small set of people.”

In turn, the study challenges a popular view in development economics: that “elite capture” of politics — the control of government decision-making by a small group — only enriches a select few. “I was thinking that giving more power to everyone could take away elite dominance,” notes Olken. “But that didn’t come out in the data.” Instead the results suggest two plausible ways of looking at local political elites, in Indonesia and elsewhere: “One is that elites are bad guys, trying to steal money for themselves,” says Olken. “The other is that elites are leaders doing a good job of making sure things are allocated the right way.”

 <> (09/14/13)

Free Press

Charter for a Free Press

This Charter for a Free Press represents provisions approved by journalists from 34 countries at the Voices of Freedom world conference on censorship problems in London, Jan. 16-18, 1987.

The provisions embody a wide consensus on principles necessary to ensure free, independent news media. The Charter has been cited approvingly at OSCE and other meetings, formally endorsed by both the U.N. Secretary-General and UNESCO's Director-General and supported by a number of journalistic organizations around the world.

A free press means a free people. To this end, the following principles, basic to an unfettered flow of news and information both within and across national borders, deserve the support of all those pledged to advance and protect democratic institutions.

  1. Censorship, direct or indirect, is unacceptable; thus laws and practices restricting the right of the news media freely to gather and distribute information must be abolished, and government authorities, national or local, must not interfere with the content of print or broadcast news, or restrict access to any news source.
  2. Independent news media, both print and broadcast, must be allowed to emerge and operate freely in all countries.
  3. There must be no discrimination by governments in their treatment, economic or otherwise, of the news media within a country. In those countries where government media also exist, the independent media must have the same free access as the official media have to all material and facilities necessary to their publishing or broadcasting operations.
  4. States must not restrict access to newsprint, printing facilities and distribution systems, operation of news agencies, and availability of broadcast frequencies and facilities.
  5. Legal, technical and tariff practices by communications authorities which inhibit the distribution of news and restrict the flow of information are condemned.
  6. Government media must enjoy editorial independence and be open to a diversity of viewpoints. This should be affirmed in both law and practice.
  7. There should be unrestricted access by the print and broadcast media within a country to outside news and information services, and the public should enjoy similar freedom to receive foreign publications and foreign broadcasts without interference.
  8. National frontiers must be open to foreign journalists. Quotas must not apply, and applications for visas, press credentials and other documentation requisite for their work should be approved promptly. Foreign journalists should be allowed to travel freely within a country and have access to both official and unofficial news sources, and be allowed to import and export freely all necessary professional materials and equipment.
  9. Restrictions on the free entry to the field of journalism or over its practice, through licensing or other certification procedures, must be eliminated.
  10. Journalists, like all citizens, must be secure in their persons and be given full protection of law. Journalists working in war zones are recognized as civilians enjoying all rights and immunities accorded to other civilians.

Twenty Questions Posed by the World Press Freedom Association

  1. Are there restrictive press laws?
  2. Who owns the media, print and broadcast? Private, government or both?
  3. Are journalists prosecuted for what they write?
  4. Are journalists in jail? Reasons
  5. Is libel a civil or criminal offense?
  6. Are journalists required to have a government-enforced license to work?
  7. Do journalists have unrestricted access to government proceedings?
  8. Are journalists harassed while covering the news?
  9. Does the government pay journalists?
  10. Are newspapers or broadcasters subsidized?
  11. Is there government-supported censorship? Is there self-censorship?
  12. Are there restrictions on the means of production, such as government allocations of paper,  control of distribution systems and ownership of printing facilities?
  13. Is government advertising allocated fairly?
  14. Is there a legally mandated right of reply, which includes government officials?
  15. Are insult laws routinely used to shield officials' conduct from public scrutiny?
  16. Are courts able to judge news media cases independently?
  17. To what extend are media outlets owned by political parties, government-linked entities or others desiring to control content?
  18. Are crimes against journalists prosecuted by authorities?
  19. Are the activities of government -- courts, legislature, officials, records -- open to the press?
  20. Do journalists themselves consider themselves free to write or broadcast the news as they find it?

World Press Freedom Committee
<> (09/30/13)

Political Parties

Political parties are everywhere.

One hears a lot these days about political parties, the shuffle and reshuffle of personalities and policies.  Sometimes, indeed, there seems to be more interest in the parties than the work of government: if a party was not successful at the last election a big effort must be made to win next time.  That can be exciting.

In a democratic system parties compete to get the biggest number of members elected to Parliament, and if successful to be able to form the government.  In a more autocratic system there may still be parties, but they have less influence.

People work most effectively in groups.

As a general rule people are more effective working in groups, speaking more or less with one voice, promoting or defending coherent interests – common interests. They are alliances to get things done.  In a democracy they generally express a more or less consistent approach to issues, which may be called their philosophy – and at times they may have noisy disagreements and people may resign, or just fade away.

All good citizens should take a responsible interest in politics – the management of the community – and look for others with similar ideas, principles and interests, or worries and fears.  They should argue that their approach to current issues is the best for the community as a whole (and that in due course the voters will decide).

Life goes on. New issues arise. Old problems seem to disappear. The economy develops.  Improving communications change everybody’s range of contacts and sources of information.  Over time parties shift their focus, some people drop out and new (maybe younger) people arrive with fresh ideas.

How do political parties work?

The actual process changes from country to country.  Initially some enthusiasts form a party, people join (possibly paying a subscription). Members chose a candidate – or ambitious citizens find a party reflecting their ideals – and support them during the election.  Once in Parliament members of the same party work together in government or opposition.  But much depends on personalities, developments locally, or events around the world. And in some countries the political parties will play an active part in local as well as national elections.  A member of a city council can also be a member of Parliament.

In federal systems – such as the US and Australia – the individual states elect a local Parliament and premier or governor, and then (at another time) a federal Parliament and overall president. The political parties are active throughout the system. A high proportion of the citizens are actively involved at all levels.

by Roger Peren, Board member, Centre for Citizenship Education, written April 19, 2010.
<> ?   

The Legal Profession & the Jury System

"The malignant Influence of the Legal Profession" - a view from the Right

The United States has 5% of the world’s population and 66% of the world’s lawyers! Today, we are drowning in laws; we are contorted by judicial decisions; we are driven to distraction by omnipresent lawyers in all parts of our once private lives. America has a place for laws and lawyers, but that place is modest and reasonable, not vast and unchecked. When the most important decision for our next president is whom he will appoint to the Supreme Court, the role of lawyers and the law in America is too big. When lawyers use criminal prosecution as a continuation of politics by other means, as happened in the lynching of Scooter Libby and Tom Delay, then the power of lawyers in America is too great'

Lawyers solve problems by successfully representing their clients, in this case the American people. Lawyers seek to have new laws passed, they seek to win lawsuits, they press appellate courts to overturn precedent, and lawyers always parse language to favor their side. Confined to the narrow practice of law, that is fine. But it is an awful way to govern a great nation. When politicians as lawyers begin to view some Americans as clients and other Americans as opposing parties, then the role of the legal system in our life becomes all-consuming. Some Americans become “adverse parties” of our very government. We are not all litigants in some vast social class-action suit. We are citizens of a republic that promises us a great deal of freedom from laws, from courts, and from lawyers.

Tort (Legal) reform legislation has been introduced in congress several times in the last several years to limit punitive damages in ridiculous lawsuits such as “spilling hot coffee on yourself and suing the establishment that sold it to you” and also to limit punitive damages in huge medical malpractice lawsuits. This legislation has continually been blocked from even being voted on by the Democrat Party. When you see that 97% of the political contributions from the American Trial Lawyers Association goes to the Democrat Party, then you realize who is responsible for our medical and product costs being so high!

-- retrieved and rearranged from "The Lawyer's Party" by Bruce Walker
<> (09/14/13)

<Add lawyer joke here.> 

What do you call a lawyer whose body has been dumped into the Hudson River?                                Answer: -- "A beginning!"

[Overheard in a downtown New York City bar.]

Japan reintroduces the Jury System, 2009

Jurors are seated with judges during a moot court in Saitama, north of Tokyo, March 2009

Jurors are seated with judges during a moot court in Saitama, north of Tokyo, March 2009.  Japan has opened its first jury trial for more than 60 years, after making changes to a legal system which has often been criticised as unfair. Six jurors are working with three judges to decide a verdict in the case of 72-year-old Katsuyoshi Fujii, who has been charged with murder.

Until now Japanese trials have been decided by a panel of judges. Critics say the old system was too slow, lacked transparency and was out of touch. But some legal experts remain concerned that randomly selected members of the public are not fit to decide the outcome of serious crime cases, especially those involving a possible death penalty. In the past the justice system in Japan has been notoriously secretive, with a system of judge-only trials and private police interrogations. Criminal trials currently have a 99% conviction rate, and there are increasing concerns that the system of judge-only trials and private police interrogations leads to false confessions and the conviction of innocent people.

The jurors at Tokyo District Court have four days to decide the verdict and, if guilty, the sentence for Katsuyoshi Fujii. He is charged with the fatal stabbing of a 66-year-old neighbour in May. At least one of three professional judges presiding over the trial must agree with the jury's decision for it to stand.

"We hope to achieve a justice system that is speedier, more accessible and reliable," Justice Minister Eisuke Mori told reporters. "With the change, trials will become more democratic," he added. In all there are set to be about 2,000 to 3,000 jury trials a year, all of them for serious crimes such as murder and rape. Japan has the death penalty, but this is only usually given for multiple murders. Candidates for jury service will be randomly selected from eligible voters nationwide. About 300 mock trials have already been held in preparation for the new system.

Japan first launched a jury system in 1928, but dropped it in 1943 during World War II.

 -- BBC News, March 3, 2009
<> (09/15/13)

Religion in America

Christianity as a moderating influence on American democracy

"In Democracy in America, Tocqueville made it clear that although the equality of conditions in America has given the budding country much hope, it has also given the young democracy much to fear. Among the main problems that Tocqueville saw as inherent in American democracy are the country's isolationist tendencies (and, consequently, its inclination towards individualism), and its proclivity for an extreme form of materialism. According to Tocqueville, religion - and in particular, Christianity - acts as a buffer to individualism and materialism and their potentially adverse effects; moreover, Christianity additionally plays a "positive" role by contributing greatly to the well-being and prosperity of American society. In particular, Tocqueville claimed that Christianity's acceptance of its limits (e.g. by staying far removed from political concerns, and by being keenly observant of and sensitive to public opinion), as well as its ability to actively and successfully give moral guidance, make it the best religion for American democracy."

"Christianity in Tocqueville's American Democracy" 09 July 2008. Web. 14 September. 2013.



Robert J. Delahunty

It is with great pleasure that I introduce the writings of Robert J. Delahunty available at the Center for Law and Religion, St. John's University School of Law.  Prof. Delahunty is a deep reader of Tocqueville and has has published a number of musings on Tocqueville's insights into religion, what they meant in his own time and what they mean now. Among them you will find the following:


Tocqueville’s Faith

Tocqueville on Religion and the Limits of the Political Imagination

Tocqueville on the naturalness of religious belief

Tocqueville on materialism

Tocqueville on Protestantism and Natural Religion: Part I

Tocqueville on Protestantism and Natural Religion: Part II

Tocqueville on Unitarianism

Tocqueville on Pantheism: Part I

Tocqueville on Pantheism: Part II

Tocqueville’s America and Ours

Tocqueville and Habermas

Tocqueville and Gobineau

ONLINE TEXTS - Tocqueville: Remedies

Tocqueville - Readings

Read from Democracy in America:

Vol. 2, part 2, chap. 8, "Self-Interest Rightly Understood”

Vol. 1, part 1, chap. 5, “Local Government”

Vol. 2, part 2, chap. 5, “Civic Associations”

Vol. 2, part 2, chap. 6, “Free Press”

Vol. 2, part 2, chap. 7, “Political Parties”

Vol. 1, part 2, chap. 8, “Lawyer, Judge, and Jury”

Recommended Reading

Big Ideas, Essential Questions, and Higher Order Thinking

 Discussion Questions

  1. What is the difference between classical “virtue” and “self-interest rightly understood”?
  2. How does participation in local government educate Americans in democratic practices and democratic values?
  3. To what extent are Americans still involved in forming associations to improve their lives?
  4. Is the news media the same today as it was in Tocqueville’s time?
  5. Do political parties still provide instruction in democratic practices as they did in Tocqueville’s day?
  6. If we were in the process of exporting democracy to foreign countries, should we rest content with giving them a democratic constitution, or should we try to encourage local government, self-reliant civic organizations, and a competitive political party system?
  7. Do lawyers still contribute to a democratic society, or are they simply ridiculous parasites?
  8. What does one actually learn from doing jury service?
  9. Are American Catholics sufficiently democratic?