The “democracy” that Tocqueville observed in the United States was a pervasive social condition, not simply a matter of political or legal equality. Indeed, he opened Democracy in America by saying that “[o]f all the novel things which attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, none struck me more forcibly than the equality of social conditions.” The “extraordinary influence” of “this fundamental fact” shaped both “civil society” and “political customs and laws.” Democracy at 11.
Tocqueville is sometimes misrepresented as opposing liberty to equality. The fact is that he was a partisan of both. In the chapter immediately succeeding his analysis of soft despotism (which he called a “Continuation” of the latter), he says unequivocally that “all those who now wish to found or guarantee the independence and dignity of their fellows should show themselves friends of equality.” Preventing democracy from slipping into despotism is a question, he says, of “drawing freedom from within the democracy in which God has placed us.” Id. at 809. True, he acknowledges that “[e]quality introduces into men’s minds several tendencies which are a danger to liberty.” Id. at 813. But he holds the “firm belief” that “the dangers imposed by the principle of equality upon human independence” are “not insurmountable.” Id. at 817. Inequality, no less than equality, may pose a danger to liberty in a democracy.
Democracy and social equality
Tocqueville observed social equality everywhere in America. In a short section of Volume I of Democracy entitled “Remains of the Aristocratic Party in the United States” (Vol. I, Pt. ii, ch. 2), Tocqueville invites his readers to consider the situation of “the wealthy man,” “this opulent citizen.” “Within the four walls of his house he adores luxury; he invites only a few chosen guests.” But in public, “[h]is clothes are simple and his demeanor is modest.” When “he emerges from home to make his way to work . . . everyone is free to accost him. On the way, his shoemaker might pass by and they stop; both then begin to chat. What can they say? These two citizens are concerned with affairs of state and will not part without shaking hands.” True, the rich feel “a deep distaste” for their country’s democratic institutions, and “both fear and despise” the people. But they bow before the force of democratic social conventions. Democracy at 208-09.
Elsewhere Tocqueville describes the manner of Americans towards one another as “natural, open, and unreserved.” “In America, where privileges of birth have never existed and where wealth grants no particular right to its owner, strangers readily congregate in the same places and find neither danger nor advantage in telling each other freely what they think . . . . [T]here is practically nothing that they expect or fear from each other and they make no more effort to reveal than to conceal their social position.” Id. at 656.
Fishtown and Belmont
It would be unrealistic to think of America in such terms nowadays. Consider Charles Murray’s recent work, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (2012). Murray argues that America is “coming apart at the seams – not seams of race or ethnicity, but of class” (id. at 12). The white working class, he contends, has become estranged from the nation’s “founding virtues” of “industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity” (id. at 131). Basing his Continue reading