De tocqueville

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Modern Europe: Reason, Identity and Power in Contemporary Europe

Liberalism and Nationalism Alexis de Tocqueville

Friday, 31st May 2010

In 1789, the French Revolution was influenced by three key-notions: Liberty, equality, fraternity and in 1792, the first French Republic was proclaimed. Forty years later, Alexis de Tocqueville examined the democracy in America in comparison to that ofFrance with an eye towards the historical development of each country. His interest in the democracy in America was led by the notion of equality of rights among equality of conditions. In my opinion, it is difficult to compare such different histories: the French Revolution and that of the United States of America. The difference, in respect to de Tocqueville’s thinking, is that the USA was acountry born with democracy as its system of government, whereas in France the people had to learn how to manage the change from a aristocratic state to a social democratic state through the exercise of their newly won rights. Alexis de Tocqueville described the perceived equality of conditions as a major advantage for the American state; every citizen held rights and had access to formal educationas well as the processes of political power. There existed in 1830s in America a vertical social mobility that did not exist in contemporary France, despite both countries adopting liberal democratic systems of governance. This led de Tocqueville to state “At any time, the servant can become the master and aspires to it.”1 According to the contemporary idea of the Law of Nature, men are notinherently inferior to each other, but rather become inferior through the socioeconomic relationship of subordination. De Tocqueville saw American politics as dominated by the middle class where all the people were roughly equal. He saw that this broad equality held risks for the liberal democratic system in the US. First, although they did hold significant amounts of personal property, most of themiddle class were too frightened of losing what they already had in a gamble to increase their social status especially as the connection between land and family name was not a rigorous under American inheritance laws as under the French. The second risk de Tocqueville identified is that of a growing expectation of equality. As societies become more equal, the still existing inequalities become moreblatant and obvious. The Law of de Tocqueville states that with the progression of equality, even the most minute of inequalities become unsupportable and that the only way to eradicate these inequalities is to support the further advancement of equality. After consideration of the thoughts of de Tocqueville regarding the nature of freedom and inequality within a liberal democracy, a questionsprings to mind: Did the passion for equality that was developing amongst the people represent a danger to the system of liberal democracy? For as de Tocqueville states, there existed “a depraved taste for equality… [which] reduces men to prefer equality in slavery than inequality with freedom.”2 Alexis de Tocqueville believed that the most modern paradigm of the liberal democratic societies is one ofa new form of despotism at the hands of the majority. The ‘tyranny of the majority’ is a term used by de Tocqueville to explain this state of affairs. In order to more fully understand this concept, one must explore the social mores of the United States at the time of de Tocqueville’s study. The foreign


observer of American culture saw the rise of individualism coming to the forefront,and with it a renewed focus on the quest for material comfort as well as striving for equality of conditions within distinct social classes with a limited but real chance of upward mobility. Furthermore, he had expressed his fear at the beginning of the 18th century spent in the US “I am acquainted with no country in which their reigns in general, less independence of mind, and real freedom of...