Alexis de Tocqueville was born in 1805 to an aristocratic family in France. His parents narrowly escaped the guillotine during the French Revolution, which is lucky for us because Alexis turned out to be a pretty smart guy.
He went to law school, served in parliament, supported the abolitionists, and most relevant to us today, tricked France into funding his vacation to America.
He and his friend Gustave received a grant to study the American prison system, but that was a trick. He actually intended to study American society, and this fancy new thing called democracy.
He took a nine month journey across America, then went back to France and compiled all his thoughts into a two volume book called “Democracy in America”.
Tocqueville believed that democracy was going to be the future, and America, unlike France, seemed to have really figured it out. He found lots of things he liked, but also found a few big issues that democracies would have to deal with.
In America, there was much more equality of opportunity. People were free to pursue whatever their heart desired, and the typical barriers to social mobility were gone. But this seemed to have led to a culture of hardcore materialism.
In an old aristocratic society, there were so many barriers to social mobility that the poor had no way to create wealth, while aristocrats had no money problems. This meant that whether you were rich or poor, money didn’t really matter, because there was nothing you could do about it.
Meanwhile in America, people believed they could make money and improve their conditions significantly if they worked hard. So far so good, but they took it much further, because money seemed to be the only thing that Americans respected. If you were making money, you were a success, and if you weren’t making money then something must have been wrong with you.
Democracy is inherently a rejection of overly centralized authority. It’s a belief that everyone is equal in some fundamental way. It is a bit of a leap to go from believing that someone’s blood doesn’t give them the right to rule, to believing that someone’s degree doesn’t mean that they’re smarter than you, but it’s a leap that can be made. And it’s a leap that Tocqueville saw Americans making.
From Tocqueville’s perspective, it was surely the case that some people were smarter and more qualified for certain things than others, but that’s not how the Americans saw it. There was a reluctance to submit to any form of authority, even when it made logical sense.
Tocqueville thought there was a conflict between democracy, which is majority rule, and individual rights. In a political system where the majority has absolute power to create laws, they can easily oppress minority groups by creating laws that target them.
Democracy seems like it should be the opposite of tyranny, but when the majority has homogeneous thoughts, and absolute power, democracy morphs into tyranny.
“If ever the free institutions of America are destroyed, that event may be attributed to the unlimited authority of the majority, which may at some future time urge the minorities to desperation, and oblige them to have recourse to physical force. Anarchy will then be the result, but it will have been brought about by despotism.” - Alexis de Tocqueville
Hamilton and Jefferson realized this as well. Tocqueville cites them to support this point.
“It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure.” - Alexander Hamilton
"The executive in our governments is not the sole, it is scarcely the principal object of my jealousy. The tyranny of the legislatures is the most formidable dread at present, and will be for long years. That of the executive will come in it’s turn, but it will be at a remote period." - Thomas Jefferson
America was a place with high conformity, and no freedom of discussion. This seems strange in a land of freedom, but in America people assumed the system was fair and put their faith in newspapers and “common sense”.
It was also a commercial society, where you made your livelihood by doing transactions with other people, so you wouldn’t want to harbour any thoughts or ideas that might cause them to not want to do business with you anymore.
Democracy was able to silence opponents of the majority through social actions. If you offended the majority, you could say goodbye to any future career in politics, and maybe even any future career at all.
While kings had mostly physical power, the social pressure of the majority could cause people to stifle their thoughts, and hide what they really believed.
“The authority of a king is purely physical, and it controls the actions of the subject without subduing his private will; but the majority possesses a power which is physical and moral at the same time; it acts upon the will as well as upon the actions of men, and it represses not only all contest, but all controversy. I know no country in which there is so little true independence of mind and freedom of discussion as in America.” - Alexis de Tocqueville
When society is highly unequal and there’s nothing you can do about it, as was the case in the pre-democracy world, the inequalities of society are almost invisible to you. You’re like a fish so used to the ocean that it doesn’t register that there’s a thing called water.
But when there’s more equality of opportunity, and people’s conditions are more similar, people become highly attuned to instances where things seem a bit off.
So even when things are getting better, there’s more abundance, and life is good, people in a democracy are angry. In fact, they’re more angry when things are good, because everything looks so perfect that the one imperfect spot is completely intolerable.
“The hatred which men bear to privilege increases in proportion as privileges become more scarce and less considerable, so that democratic passions would seem to burn most fiercely at the very time when they have least fuel. I have already given the reason of this phenomenon. When all conditions are unequal, no inequality is so great as to offend the eye; whereas the slightest dissimilarity is odious in the midst of general uniformity: the more complete is this uniformity, the more insupportable does the sight of such a difference become. Hence it is natural that the love of equality should constantly increase together with equality itself, and that it should grow by what it feeds upon.” - Alexis de Tocqueville
Alexis de Tocqueville didn’t just find problems, he also came up with some potential solutions to them, but that’s for another post.