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Samuel Gregg on Tocqueville and democracy’s fall in America

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‘Democracy in America’ by Alexis de Tocqueville is a 19th century book that serves as a guide to explain how the American political system has evolved into its current state. In this book, Tocqueville describes what he noticed about American democracy when he traveled through the country in 1831.  Acton Institute Director of Research, Samuel Gregg gives insight in a new article at Public Discourse of what Tocqueville noticed about American democracy and how it might be susceptible to despotism. Gregg starts out by explaining the connections between democracy and equality, something that Tocqueville took extra note of:

When Democracy in America’s second volume appeared in 1840, many reviewers noted that it was more critical of democracy than the first volume. In more recent times, Tocqueville’s warnings about democracy’s capacity to generate its own forms of despotism have been portrayed as prefiguring a political dynamic associated with the welfare state: i.e., people voting for politicians who promise to give them more things in return for which voters voluntarily surrender more and more of their freedom.

This very real problem, however, has distracted attention from Tocqueville’s interest in the deeper dynamic at work. This concerns how democracy encourages a focus on an equality of conditions. For Tocqueville, democratic societies’ dominant feature is the craving for equality—not liberty. Throughout Democracy in America, equality of conditions is described as “generative.” By this, Tocqueville meant that a concern for equalization becomes the driving force shaping everything: politics, economics, family life . . . even religion.

Gregg goes on to explain how Tocqueville believed religion played a unique role in promoting virtue:

Some of Tocqueville’s recommendations focus on constitutional restraints on government power. He understood that the political regime’s nature matters. But Tocqueville also believed that the main forces that promoted virtue, and that limited the leveling egalitarianism that relativizes moral choices, lay beyond politics. In America’s case, he observed, religion played an important role in moderating fixations with equality-as-sameness.

Tocqueville didn’t have just any religion in mind. He was specifically concerned with Christianity. For all the important doctrinal differences marking the Christian confessions scattered across America in Tocqueville’s time, few held to relativistic accounts of morality. Words like “virtue,” “vice,” “good,” and “evil” were used consistently and had concrete meaning.

In the last paragraphs of Gregg’s article, he discusses how the combination of religion with the pursuit of equality could be fatal:

These religions are incapable of performing the role that Tocqueville thought was played by many religious communities in the America he surveyed in the early 1830s. Of course, the object of religion isn’t to provide social lubrication. Religion is concerned with the truth about the divine, and living our lives in accordance with the truth about such matters. However, if religion ceases to be about truth, its capacity to resist (let alone correct) errors and half-truths such as “values-talk,” or justice’s reduction to equality-as-sameness, is diminished.

Politics is clearly shaped by culture. Yet at any culture’s heart is the dominant cultus. America’s ability to resist democratic equalization’s deadening effects on freedom requires religions that are not consumed by the obsession with equality that Tocqueville thought might be democracy’s fatal flaw. For Tocqueville, part of America’s genius was that religion and liberty went hand in hand. In the next few years, America is going to discover whether that’s still true.

You can read Gregg’s full article at Public Discourse.

Kyle Hanby

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