Some Tocqueville for the Elections

In honor of the upcoming U.S. elections, some quotes from Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835, 1840):

Our contemporaries are ceaselessly agitated by two conflicting passions: they feel the need to be directed as well as the desire to remain free. Since they are unable to blot out either of these hostile feelings, they strive to satisfy both of them together. They conceive a single, protective, and all-powerful government but one elected by the citizens. They combine centralization with the sovereignty of the people. That gives them some respite. They derived consolation from being supervised by thinking that they have chosen their supervisors. Every individual tolerates being tied down because he sees that it is not another man nor a class of people holding the end of the chain but society itself. Under this system citizens leave their state of dependence just long enough to choose their masters and then they return to it.              –Vol. 2, Part IV, Ch. 6.

 

I know of no country where there is generally less independence of thought and real freedom of debate than in America. . . .  Inside America, the majority has staked out a formidable fence around thought. Inside those limits a writer is free but woe betide him if he dares to stray beyond them. Not that the need fear an auto-da-fe but he is the victim of all kinds of unpleasantness and everyday persecutions. A political career is closed to him for he has offended the only power with the capacity to give him an opening. He is denied everything, including renown. Before publishing his views, he thought he had supporters; it seems he has lost them once he has declared himself publicly; for his detractors speak out loudly and those who think as he does, but without his courage, keep silent and slink away. He gives in and finally bends beneath the effort of each passing day, withdrawing into silence as if he felt ashamed at having spoken the truth.                   –Vol. 1, Part II, Ch. 7.

 

I think that the type of oppression threatening democracies will not be like anything there has been in the world before; our contemporaries would not be able to find any example of it in their memories. I, too, am having difficulty finding a word which will exactly convey the whole idea I have formed; the old words despotism and tyranny are not suitable. This is a new phenomenon which I must, therefore, attempt to define since I can find no name for it.

I see an innumerable crowd of men, all alike and equal, turned in upon themselves in a restless search for those petty, vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, living apart, is almost unaware of the destiny of all the rest. His children and personal friends are for him the whole of the human race; as for the remainder of his fellow citizens, he stands alongside them but does not see them; he touches them without feeling them; he exists only in himself as for himself; if he still retains his family circle, at any rate he will be said to have lost his country.

Above these men stands an immense and protective power which alone is responsible for looking after their enjoyments and watching over their destiny. It is absolute, meticulous, ordered, provident, and kindly disposed. It would be like a fatherly authority, if, fatherlike its aim were to prepare men for manhood, but it seeks only to keep them in perpetual childhood; it prefers its citizens to enjoy themselves provided they have only enjoyment in mind. It works readily for their happiness but it wishes to be the only provider and judge of it. It provides their security, anticipates and guarantees their needs, supplies their pleasures, directs their principal concerns, manages their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances. Why can it not remove from them entirely the bother of thinking and the troubles of life?

Thus it reduces daily the value and frequency of the exercise of free choice; it restricts the activity of free will within a narrower range and gradually removes autonomy itself from each citizen. Equality has prepared men for all this, inclining them to tolerate all these things and often even to see them as a blessing.

Thus, the ruling power, having taken each citizen one by one into its powerful grasp and having molded him to its own liking, spreads its arms over the whole of society, covering the surface of social life with a network of petty, complicated, detailed, and uniform rules through which even the most original minds and the most energetic of spirits cannot reach the light in order to rise above the crowd. It does not break men’s wills but it does soften, bend, and control them; rarely does it force men to act but it constantly opposes what actions they perform; it does not destroy the start of anything but it stands in its way; it does not tyrannize but it inhibits, represses, drains, snuffs out, dulls so much effort that finally it reduces each nation to nothing more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as shepherd.                 –Vol. 2, Part IV, Ch. 6.

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Posted on October 27, 2012, in Society and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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