Alexis De Tocqueville and his interpretation of totalitarian rule. Is America a dangerous democracy?

Alexis de Tocqueville

To discuss the inherent dangers of a democracy some trenchant thought has to be given towards defining it, exploring its objectives and rendering judgment. Governments can also be a cover to deny freedom. The Bill of Rights in the United States allow for no transgressions of the individual.  Sadly,  its efficacy is often questioned and defeated. Tyrannies believe that they have the right to impose their rule on others simply because they were chosen by the electorate.  In the history of the human race no electorate has ever constituted government thus the evil is real. 

Forays into law cannot maintain liberties. Often these actions raise a red flag indicating that the government has been taken over by tyrants. Civil liberty cannot take care of its goal to prevent illegal search and seizure of property. Few worried about such attacks during American democracy’s infancy where a government with checks and balances was established.

The architect of democracy,  Alexis de Tocqueville, worried that a state’s power would end up concentrated in one authority. Citizens were “reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.”1 Tocqueville stated “I do not know if the people of the United States would vote for superior men if they ran for office, but there can be no doubt that such men do not run.”2 While the America he wrote about was of a previous time, the  concerns are relevant today. Tocqueville feared the majority would trample upon on minorities. The author is correct when he states that men and women at the helm of governments are by nature incompetent. Therefore, to promote government able individuals would be removed from it.  Tocqueville attributes this reason as the failure to help overcome oppression.  He was concerned burdens would result in negative opinion.  Alexis De Tocqueville felt these failures to be a permanent impression ofAmerica, a country with “less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than of any other he had encountered.”3  Democracies as envisioned by Tocqueville desired to not only get rid of evil but also to apply salve to the population.


1. Alexis de Tocqueville. “ “”.

2. Ibid. “”

3. Ibid. Democracy in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.)



Continued popularity of Democracy in America remains because despite misgivings Tocqueville was optimistic.  He knew the kind of equality that had taken hold in America might be tyranny but he also believed that equality gave people a taste for freedom which would lead them to resist tyranny.  Equality he noted “insinuates deep into the heart and mind of every man some vague notion and some instinctive inclination toward political freedom thereby preparing the antidote for the ill which it has produced.”4

To render democracy final the concept of radicalism may be seen as a good approach. Radicalism is a way of thinking based on the belief that important political or social changes are needed. To this end, citizens have haunted the mighty. In the pamphlet Common Sense 5, radical Thomas Paine argued that America’s independence as a colony from Britain could not be established under their authority.  Man, Paine argued was born into a state of equality and the distinction that had arisen between the England and America was an unnatural one. Common Sense6 reflected the belief that America had evolved into a nation that no longer needed Britain’s support. He was of the opinion that independence would be best served as a democracy. He admired the British parliamentary system even as he worked to overthrow rule. Tocqueville supported an increasing radicalization of opinion especially of government. Radicalism believed that the king’s power was illegitimate. It advocates that those affected by evil ought to have some say in how decisions are made.  Thus, radicalism would only function if it was direct opposition. Paine used these precepts to successfully rebel against Britain.

Pride in American democracy lies in the division of political power into its legislative, judiciary and executive entities. These concessions have a lot to be admired. In practice though these divisions have often deepened into a morass of back room legislations. To stop decay a lot can be gathered from the religious reform movements in Scotland and British North America. By examining the relationship between ecclesiastical and political action radicalism considers the ways in whichpolitical theory and covenanting movements”8 could be used to reform democracies. In a similar way the party “levellers have “Presbyterian also constituted radical thinking”.9   




5. Thomas Paine. Common Sense (Philadelphia:, 1999.)

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Valerie Wallace. “Exporting Radicalism within the Empire : Scots Presbyterian Political Values in Scotland and British North America, C.1815-c.1850” (United Kingdom: University of Glasgow, 2010.)




The philosopher Hegel advices us to differentiate the object of study, democracy from its background, “a night where all cows are black.”10 American democracy’s successes lie in the ability to reign power.  Democracies without restraint are as dangerous as any other political form of government, libertarian, authoritarian or even dictatorships. Thomas Paine and Alexis De Tocqueville provided documents from which many people can draw inspiration. These allow equality within the boundaries of law; a democracy of the people, for the people and by the people.


10. Yirmiyahu, Yovel. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.)



de Tocqueville, Alexis.…/hist_2006_us_pol.htm.

Mansfield, HC, Winthrop, D and de Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Paine, Thomas. Common Sense. Philadelphia:, 1999.

Yirmiyahu, Yovel. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Hegel’s Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Wallace, Valerie. Exporting Radicalism within the Empire : Scots Presbyterian Political V values in Scotland and British North America, C.1815-c.1850. 2010. PDF. University of Glasgow, United Kingdom.

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