One of the most interesting features of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is the author’s ambivalent attitude to the political model he so greatly assisted in popularising, through his illustration of the US example. On his account, democracy encouraged individual independence, dignity and responsibility, while the equality of citizens in democratic societies favoured sociability and solidarity. At the same time, democracy generated selfishness and materialism; it brought to power mediocre, vulgar leaders; perhaps more alarmingly, it replaced the despotism of ancien régime monarchies with a new form of tyranny, based on the opinion of the majority and a watchful social state.
Lucien Jaume addresses this ambiguity in Tocqueville’s work from an essentially French perspective, placing it in the context of the European post-revolutionary experience. Described in the original 2008 French edition as an “intellectual biography”, the book reconstructs in detail the influences that oriented and shaped Tocqueville’s thought, looking beyond obvious references such as Montesquieu or Guizot to religious traditions such as Protestantism and Jansenism and new literary and aesthetic currents.
At the beginning of his study, Jaume explains that Tocqueville’s seeming ambivalence towards his subject was to some extent a deliberate choice. He kept his distance, remaining, as it were, “behind a curtain”, so that readers might feel free to make up their own minds. Indeed, if one considers Tocqueville’s background, his restraint was quite admirable: as the heir of an aristocratic royalist family that had suffered greatly during the revolution of 1789, he would have been a natural candidate for unbending conservatism, rather than for the role of sympathetic observer of democracy. Instead he remained faithful to his origins by embracing an aristocratic tradition of support for freedom and moderation. In France, this tradition had been crushed by the authoritarian ambitions of the Bourbon monarchs, who deliberately diminished and marginalised the aristocracy. It was an attitude that would leave their hapless descendants at the end of the 18th century to face the assaults of a disaffected nation alone, without the support of a loyal nobility.
Clearly it was misguided to believe, as some nostalgic royalists did during the Restoration, that with the return of the monarchy the French aristocracy might recover its lost historical role. However, Tocqueville believed that in post-revolutionary society, something must take its place in order to protect the nation from the unrestrained power of the general will.
Published in 1835-40, Democracy in America had an almost visionary quality to it, as the representative regimes of Europe (and in different ways the US one) were far from what we would regard today as “true” democracies. Poorer men, and of course all women, were still excluded from suffrage, while government rested in the hands of the traditional ruling classes and of the new bourgeois elites. Significantly, Tocqueville did not join those conservatives who thought that the best defence against the evils of democracy was to continue excluding the great majority of citizens from government. He thought instead that new moderating forces should take on the role of mediator that had once been performed by the old aristocracy, containing and guiding popular opinion. These forces he identified in the spontaneous associations of civil society, so active in US political life, thus stressing a dimension - spontaneous citizen mobilisation - that was destined to play a crucial role in modern democracies. Although it may be a little too diffuse and intricate for the lay reader, Jaume’s book illustrates compellingly the novelty and lasting interest of Tocqueville’s contribution.