Tocqueville on Democracy

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Slides on Alexis de Tocquieville's observations on American democracy for an undergraduate course in Political Thought that I taught between 2003-2005.

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  • Learning Objectives: 1.) To grasp the basic characteristics of democracy that Tocqueville identifies (and why one is more important than the other). 2.) To understand the necessity for centralized political power within democratic states. 3.) To appreciate inherent problems unique to democratic rule.
  • Tocqueville on Democracy

    1. 1. Tocqueville on Democracy
    2. 2. Overview <ul><li>Who was Alexis de Tocqueville? </li></ul><ul><li>What did Tocqueville see as the basic characteristics of democracy? </li></ul><ul><li>What did he feel were the major dangers inherent to democracy? </li></ul>
    3. 3. Tocqueville (1805-1859) <ul><li>Frenchman of noble birth </li></ul><ul><li>Jurist and public official </li></ul><ul><li>Influenced by the events surrounding the French and American revolutions </li></ul><ul><li>Seminal work: Democracy in America </li></ul>
    4. 4. Democracy <ul><li>To Tocqueville, democracy has two fundamental characteristics: </li></ul><ul><li>Liberty </li></ul><ul><li>Equality </li></ul><ul><li>Between these two, equality is the defining characteristic </li></ul>
    5. 5. Equality <ul><li>Freedom may not be exercised without equality </li></ul><ul><li>In a civil society, “equality” entails equality of opportunity </li></ul><ul><li>In a democracy, true equality consists in the equal right to take part in government </li></ul>
    6. 6. Political Power <ul><li>It is because of equality that political power becomes centralized in a democracy </li></ul><ul><li>The more equality is enjoyed, the greater the distaste for any form of inequality </li></ul><ul><li>The solution is to vest power in a central authority under which all are equal </li></ul>
    7. 7. Democracy: Problems <ul><li>Tocqueville identifies three potential problems inherent to democracies: </li></ul><ul><li>Tyranny of the majority </li></ul><ul><li>Democratic despotism </li></ul><ul><li>Class oppression </li></ul>
    8. 8. Tyranny of the Majority <ul><li>Majority rule is an instrument of working democracies </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Justice is based on what is sanctioned by the majority </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>However, majorities can be wrong </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>They also inadvertently suppress free thought and free expression </li></ul></ul>
    9. 9. Despotism <ul><li>Despotism in democracies is of a less tangible though equally sinister kind </li></ul><ul><li>Democratic governments seek to please their constituents </li></ul><ul><ul><li>They become the sole judge of what can make the people happy </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>This suppresses freedom, breeds apathy and imposes uniformity </li></ul></ul>
    10. 10. Class Oppression <ul><li>Manufacturers are favored in democracies </li></ul><ul><li>Division of labor makes workers more specialized at their tasks </li></ul><ul><li>Cheaper manufacturing is accomplished by producing in bulk </li></ul><ul><li>Equality leads to greater demand for goods </li></ul>
    11. 11. Class Oppression <ul><li>Workers are confined to their specialized work </li></ul><ul><li>Those with capital invest and control manufacturing ventures </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Their status is “elevated” and they learn new things </li></ul></ul><ul><li>The relationship between rich and poor is impersonal and arms-length </li></ul>
    12. 12. Solutions? <ul><li>Autonomous public authorities </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Those who can act in spite of the general will </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Greater scope for individual liberty </li></ul><ul><ul><li>“ Subsidiarity” </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Social safety nets </li></ul>

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