In his book “democracy in America”, Alexis de Tocqueville provides a thorough study of the equality of condition as a distinctive feature of the democratic America and discusses some of the consequences it might have. He begins his writing by introducing the reader that during his stay in America the equality of condition struck his attention the most. In America, the democracy has reached another level that has never been seen before or experienced in any of the European countries but that are slowly progressing towards it. This level of democracy has created a society in which all persons are legally understood to be socially and politically equal. Despite all the benefits that the equality of condition brings to the society, it also tends to isolate people from one another and cut them off from the social beliefs and values. When this form of isolation is transformed into an extreme form of individualism, it creates selfishness and egoism among people.
When these people come together to form a majority which in a democratic society enjoys a great amount of power, it might cause the tyranny of majority – de Tocqueville’s main concern. The concept of equality of condition is more complex than it first seems and a society based on this fact poses a threat to freedom. De Tocqueville argues that “the influence of the equality of condition extends far beyond the political character and the laws of the country and it has no less empire over the civil society than over the government, it creates opinions, gives birth to new sentiments, founds novel customs and modifies whatever it does not produce” (“Democracy in America” Heffner ed., 26). It is important to depict from this quote that a society based on the equality of condition, above all, creates the common opinion.
In an equal society, the fact that all the members are resembled enables them to trust and support the common judgment and opinion. Furthermore, de Tocqueville argues that all the inhabitants of the democratic society are individually equal and independent to each other but if one individual alone tends to contrast the “totality of his fellows”, he will find himself insignificant and weak. Therefore in a democratic society, the public has, as de Tocqueville calls, “a singular power” where it enforces certain opinions and infuses such opinions in the intellect of their mind.
Considering that in a democratic society, it is the majority that takes decisions, the public opinion will then become the law creating political omnipotence. Therefore, de Tocqueville claims that in the US the majority comes up with opinions and the individuals although they develop their personal thoughts have to adopt those that the majority offers since they, alone, are unable to contrast them. This, in turn, discourages and in a way prohibits them from developing their own intellectual thoughts. Thus, the equality of condition that gives rise to the majority opinion poses a great threat to the individual freedom of thought.
During his stay in America, de Tocqueville discovered that the American people appeal only to their own individual effort of its own understanding. He has found that in America the tie which unites generation is broken and that nobody traces or cares about the ideas of their forefathers. In a society where everybody is equal and classes tend to disappear, no man can have an intellectual influence in the mind of another man since nobody looks at his fellows as being superior. Therefore, de Tocqueville argues that in a society based on the equality of condition, not only the trust of one man on another is destroyed but also the intellectual authority on any man.
In absence of such intellectual authority, people develop their own believes and judgments within themselves different from the rest of the society. In the absence of an intellectual trustworthy authority capable of imposing social beliefs and values, people are left to seek the truth alone and when they fail to do so or such truth is against their personal judgment, they simply ignore it. Thus, an equally conditioned society tends to isolate people from one another and cut them off from a common set of social beliefs and values.
This isolation that results from the equality of condition has dangerous consequences if it reaches extreme levels which de Tocqueville calls individualism. As a result of the individualism, the selfishness and the egoism of people will be born. The egoism and selfishness cause people in this society to develop a love for material gratification a love for richness. They want to acquire everything for themselves even if it is done in the expense of other people. Furthermore, according to de Tocqueville, these individuals do not change their character as they unite with each other or grow in number. In fact, they tend to enforce those selfish opinions but on a greater scale.
The majority they create will then act as one selfish individual and in a pure democratic society is given the power to make laws and take decisions on behalf of everybody. Therefore, such a majority consisting of egoist people who fulfill their needs and greed in the expense of the other people composing a minority creates the tyranny of majority. In a democratic society, the ultimate reason that the tyranny of majority occurs, is the individualism which separates people from each other and from the social values and beliefs and allows people to establish selfish opinions that hurt the other people. Therefore, de Tocqueville argues that the establishment of “family”, “religion” and “patriotism” are necessary protections against such tyranny because they bring people together and enforce on them social and moral values.
Families bind people together and connect them with each other. Members of the family are taught to sacrifice some of their personal gratification for his ancestors and descendants. Therefore, the establishments of families attempt to fight the selfishness that individualism has created. The members of the family in their childhood are taught morals and social values. The elderly in the family can influence the young ones because they are perceived to have some intellectual authority. Therefore, the family brings people close to each other, where one member of the family cares about the others, and to the social values avoiding the isolation. Patriotism also fights the selfishness and brings people together. De Tocqueville sees patriotism as one citizen making a personal sacrifice for the greater welfare of the public.
He also argues that in a patriotic society people do not fail to faithfully support each other. A patriotic person believes that it is his duty to make himself useful to other fellow citizens. Therefore, patriotism also creates a strong community where the members care about one another. It breaks the isolation and consequently the individualism that the equality of condition creates. Religion also brings people close to each other and to the social and moral values. De Tocqueville argues that every religion places the object of men’s desire above any treasurer in the earth. Every religion imposes duties on men towards his fellow citizens and draws him away from the contemplation of himself.
Furthermore, the main concern of religion is to purify and restrict the excessive and exclusive taste for well being which men in the periods of equality wishes. Man cannot be cured by the love of the riches but they may be persuaded to enrich themselves by none but honest means (“Democracy in America” Heffner ed., 152). Thus, religion serves as a superior intellectual authority which brings people together to each other and also enforces on them moral values that people abide to. In essence it fights both the isolation and the selfishness of people. The “family”, “patriotism” and “religion” fulfill the absence of a superior intellectual authority, create a strong community and bring people close to the social and moral values which lack in an egalitarian society.
De Tocqueville emphasizes the importance of associations in a democratic society. In his opinion an association consists of a group people united by a common interest and who agree to promote their ideas in a certain manner. Simply, associations guide a group of people with divergent minds towards achieving a specific end. In order for an association to exist it has to have the liberty to create an opinion and the freedom to meet which a democratic society grants to them. De Tocqueville distinguishes between two types of associations; the political association and the civic association. The political association besides having the two liberties mentioned above, they also have the liberty to unite into electoral bodies and chose their representatives. A political association acts as a government within a government where the delegates of the association represent the collective force of their party just like the delegates of the majority.
The civic associations include a large number of organizations starting from building inns, churches, schools and hospitals. While the political associations have one major goal that they try to achieve by electing delegates; the civic associations are less formal, include a larger number and attempt to improve the social life in the society. Political associations are sometimes used to organize revolutions like those in Europe whereas the civic associations are voluntarily created and peaceful in their nature. The political associations are similar to the political parties today who elect their delegates and compete for offices. The civic associations are very similar to the interest groups where a group of people form an organization and express their point of view in certain issues and attempt to influence those who already occupy offices. The civic associations like the interest groups include a greater variety of interests.
De Tocqueville goes further to argue that the political and civic associations are necessary to retain an active community life in a democratic society. De Tocqueville argues that in a democratic society all the citizens are independent and feeble and they, alone, cannot do anything and cannot oblige another person to assist them. They all become powerless if they do not learn to help each other voluntarily. If they do not form associations, which are simply artificial ways of binding people, they might preserve their wealth but their independence as well as their civilization will be in jeopardy. Furthermore, in a democratic society, as I have discussed earlier, people tend to get isolated from tone another. Therefore, since civic associations are very diverse, they are necessary to voluntarily bring people together and create ties among them.
Thus, they are crucial to retain an active sense of community life. The political and civic associations are very important in a democratic society in the attempt to avoid the tyranny of the majority. The minorities can create political associations and elect their delegates in order to directly fight the oppressive laws created by the majority. The civic associations can also be used by minorities to create a larger group and then together voice their opinion. The associations are also used to bring people together and avoid the creation of individualism which is very likely in a society based on the equality of condition. Political and civic associations are, therefore, necessary schools for democracy because they teach us how to avoid the tyranny of majority in advanced democracies.
De Tocqueville’s philosophy is still relevant for our own time. Nowadays, the political and civic associations play a very important role in creating communities. As countries become more democratic, the number of associations in those countries increases because people as individuals become powerless and they are unable to defend their beliefs on their own. Today, the political and civic associations are very common and much more active that they have ever been. The political and civic associations enable people to unite and become active members of the society. As people join different organizations, they agree to help and support other fellow citizens. People unite and form associations because they have strong feelings for a cause they fight although such a cause might not directly affect them. Therefore, political and civic associations tend to correct and remove selfishness from the people. The existence of a large number of associations is the reason why we have not experienced the tyranny of majority although a number of countries have reached advanced levels of democracy.