The Good and Bad of Democracy

I’ve been rereading Alexis de Tocqueville’s masterful Democracy in America.  This book, written in the first half of the nineteenth century by a French aristocrat for his countrymen, remains standard reading for American college students and even some of their professors.  In a way it is too bad that we tend to read it as Americans, as if it were written for Americans.  The problem with this bit of (entirely understandable) self-involvement is that it blinds us to just how unique—even odd—the United States is in global and historical perspective.

Tocqueville knew how odd we were, and this knowledge helped him to analyze and highlight what made it possible for us to combine two important but usually contradictory principles of public life:  democracy and ordered liberty.  To make sense of this achievement, one first must understand what Tocqueville meant by “democracy.”  Tocqueville often referred to “the sovereignty of the people” in a way that comports with democracy as majority rule through representatives.  But this purely political definition in no way captures all Tocqueville meant.  For Tocqueville, our “democracy” was as much social, and even economic, as it was political.  Equality of condition—in terms of how much formal political power each American citizen had, but also in terms of how they were treated by the laws, their roles and respect in social life, and even their wealth—was, according to Tocqueville, a defining characteristic of American life.

Living in our liberal, post-Marxian age, most Americans today would emphasize how unequal Americans were in the nineteenth century.  In addition to the scandal of slavery, many Americans would point to the great families (the Washingtons and the Lees, to name but two) and the seemingly stratified hierarchies of early American social life, with its mechanics, farm workers, and semi-aristocratic landholders.  But the French aristocrat Tocqueville was astonished by just how equal Americans were, and how equally they were treated by their governments and by one another.

Inequality in aristocratic Europe really meant something.  It meant that aristocrats would be subject to different courts and different laws, allowing them, for example, to get away with harming those “beneath them” through dishonesty and even violence, with impunity.  It meant that the “lower orders” would bow to their “betters” or be beaten, that one class ruled, by law, the others, and that aristocrats were not taxed, while the poor found themselves dragooned into back-breaking work on public projects, without pay.  The list could go on, but the point is that real, aristocratic inequality was a system instituted and maintained through law and other powers of the state as well as by individual and social prejudice.

America, meanwhile, was democratic in the sense of being characterized by deep and fundamental equality.  But it was not today’s equality.  The government did not redistribute income from some to others, did not demand that employers discriminate against some types of people in favor of others, did not impose a uniform, awful education system on Americans in the name of “equal opportunity.”  Nor did “democracy” mean empowering the federal government to regulate our economic, social, and even religious lives.

The “inegalitarian” equality of Tocqueville’s America can be attributed to the people’s attachment to another, seemingly contrary ideal, namely, ordered liberty.  Americans’ attachment to equality, on Tocqueville’s view, was at times excessive and even dangerous.  It could spawn a “tyranny of the majority,” stifling dissent and punishing anyone who dared espouse views contrary to the mainstream-of-the-moment.  But these impulses were kept in check by institutions, beliefs, and practices strengthening local associations so that they could, and did, keep the central government from taking over the essentials of everyday life, along with an attachment to “sacred” rights of property and the family to which the people were attached through long practice as well as self-interest and philosophical disposition.  In particular, the township served as the focus of daily life and a bulwark against administrative centralization, empowering people in their local communities to lead free lives within accepted constraints of custom and tradition.  Especially important, of course, was the “spirit of religion,” which motivated the Puritans to come to American shores and to found tight-knit communities committed to living Godly lives in common, with the people ruling themselves according to rigorous conceptions of duty and the common good.  Such a pattern of life did not create fertile soil for grand schemes of universal reform, instead buttressing the authority of myriad local groups within looser state and national institutions limited in their scope to addressing particular issues of general concern.

So what happened?  How did we “progress” from an equality of freedom and community to our administrative and welfare state, which enforces a meaningless equality at the expense of primary social groups?

The easiest answer would be “the Civil War.”  According to many historians and, judging by their actions, most politicians, the War Between the States destroyed the old republic on the grounds that its loose structure was both unjust and unstable, allowing for too much local liberty and, with it, the injustice of slavery and racism.

But that answer is too pat, too easy, and too superficial.  Perhaps most important, it assumes what it should prove—that the Civil War fundamentally changed our culture and society.  And the facts on the ground disprove these claims.  Even if taken in the most anti-Southern view possible, the fact of continuing unrest, racial violence, and discrimination in large parts of the United States (north, south, east, and west) show that the attitudes we all can and should deplore regarding race did not simply disappear at Appomattox.  Rather, the more rational argument is that America was changed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, granting Congress the power to enforce equal citizenship (with its privileges and immunities), due process, and equal protection of the laws.

But, was the Fourteenth Amendment intended to bring a revolution, centralizing administration into the hands of the federal government, quashing the rights and traditions of states and localities in the name of a new kind of equality?  Clearly not.  As Raoul Berger’s classic Government by Judiciary shows, not even the most radical supporters of the Fourteenth Amendment believed it would even extend the right to vote to freed slaves.  Rather, the intention was to open the courthouse door to freed slaves, providing them with the basic rights necessary to participate in social and political life, thus allowing them to fight for the respect and dignity they deserved (Tocquevillean equality).

A better question might be “was it inevitable that, in protecting the rights of freed slaves, the Fourteenth Amendment would destroy local life and politics, instituting a new kind of government and society?”  Here, too, the answer seems to be a clear “no.”  Sadly, the Fourteenth Amendment was, in practice, found to be consistent with unjust laws penalizing, not just freed slaves, but anyone with even a small amount of African blood, with legal disabilities and the humiliations of segregation.

The change in our society from Tocquevillean democratic liberty to government-enforced egalitarianism was the result of broader, deeper, and more corrupting trends than a specific change in the Constitution.  For laws, and even constitutions, can “lead” societies and cultures only on rare occasions, and are themselves the result and not the cause of revolutions.

The revolution in American society took place over many decades, in the hearts and minds of Americans, from old stock and new immigrants, who came to choose uniformity, security, and individual pleasure over the hardships of self-government under God.

Perhaps the greatest flaw Tocqueville saw in the American character was individualism.  Most Americans would resist the very idea that the kind of independence and self-reliance we associate with individualism could be a threat to liberty.  But what Tocqueville saw as individualism was not the spirit of liberty that combined with the spirit of religion and the reality of vibrant communities in America.  Rather, it was the considered view that we are happiest when we ignore the world outside our small group of family and friends, retreating into the felicities of domestic life.  That feeling, while understandable, blinds people to the needs of their wider community, and the dangers thereto posed by centralizers preaching ideological slogans and promising material progress.  Do we want better schools, roads, and human relations?  Well, then, let us bring in the experts from Washington!  This is the attitude that enervates local life, leaving our communities prey to outside forces.

It was not the sins of slavery that required the growth of the leviathan state, any more than it was the battle against those sins.  Rather, it was our own loss of virtue, of our practice of participating in local life, that allowed power to shift from its most natural locale to the distant realm of ideology.  Can such a shift be undone?  On a national level, perhaps not.  But there remain attachments to important, permanent goods and groups that can make our lives more meaningful and awaken, at least in some of our neighbors, a capacity for more fully human lives.

Editor’s Note: This essay first appeared September 3, 2013 on Imaginative Conservative and is reprinted with permission.

Bruce Frohnen


Bruce Frohnen is Professor of Law at the Ohio Northern University College of Law. He is also a senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center and author of many books including The New Communitarians and the Crisis of Modern Liberalism, and the editor of Rethinking Rights (with Ken Grasso), and The American Republic: Primary Source. His most recent book (with the late George Carey) is Constitutional Morality and the Rise of Quasi-Law (Harvard, 2016).