Sunday, May 4, 2014

Tocqueville as Prophet

From Intercollegiate Review:
Tocqueville’s vivid picture of soft despotism appears almost abruptly, at the end of the second volume of Democracy in America (1840). Up to that point, his depiction of democratic America is mostly (though not entirely) positive. He sees Americans overcoming the dangers of individualism through involvement in local self-government and by their propensity to create and work in voluntary associations—the little platoons, as Edmund Burke called them. He sees religion—and the nonprivileged place of different churches and sects—in America as tending to produce virtuous behavior and place limits on destructive impulses. He sees an America bursting with prosperity, resourceful in commerce, creative in invention, expanding rapidly over a continent even as it sends out ships to all parts of the world—an America where the ordinary person had a higher standard of living than ordinary people anywhere else on the globe, and one that seemed sure to ascend to greater heights.

He also sees a threat. America’s success is the result of things that could in time produce a future much gloomier and could prevent democratic America from achieving its potential. Near the end of the second volume of Democracy in America he presents this ominous vision:
I do not fear that in their chiefs [Americans] will find tyrants, but rather schoolmasters. . . . I think therefore that the kind of oppression with which democratic peoples are threatened will resemble nothing that has preceded it in the world; our contemporaries would not find its image in their memories. I myself seek in vain an expression that exactly reproduces the idea that I form of it for myself and that contains it; the old words despotism and tyranny are not suitable. The thing is new, therefore I must try to define it, since I cannot name it.
I want to imagine with what new features despotism could be produced in the world: I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others: his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them and does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and if a family still remains for him, one can at least say that he no longer has a native country.
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