One: Democracy breeds materialism
In the society that de Tocqueville knew from childhood, making money did not seem to be at the forefront of most people’s minds. The poor (who were the overwhelming majority) had almost no chance of acquiring wealth. So while they cared about having enough to eat, money as such was not part of how they thought about themselves or their ambitions: there was simply no chance. On the other hand, the tiny upper stratum of landed aristocrats did not need to make money – and regarded it as shameful to work for money at all, or to be involved in trade or commerce. As a result, for very different reasons, money was not the way to judge a life.
However, the Americans de Tocqueville met all readily believed that through hard work, it was possible to make a fortune and that to do so was wholly admirable and right. There was hence no suspicion whatever of the rich, a certain moral judgement against the poor, and an immense respect for the capacity to make money. It seemed, quite simply, the only achievement that Americans thought worth respecting. For example, in America, observed de Tocqueville, a book that does not make money – because it does not sell well – cannot be good, because the test of all goodness is money. And anything that makes a profit must be admirable in every way. It was a flattened, unnuanced view that made de Tocqueville see the advantages of the relatively more subtle, multi-polar status systems of Europe, where one might (on a good day) be deemed good, but poor; or rich, but vulgar.
Democracy and Capitalism had created a relatively equitable, but also very flat and oppressive way for humans to judge each other.
Two: Democracy breeds envy and shame
Travelling around the United States, de Tocqueville discerned an unexpected ill corroding the souls of the citizens of the new republic. Americans had much, but this affluence did not stop them from wanting ever more and from suffering whenever they saw someone else with assets they lacked. In a chapter of Democracy in America entitled ‘Why the Americans are Often so Restless in the Midst of Their Prosperity’, he sketched an enduring analysis of the relationship between dissatisfaction and high expectation, between envy and equality:
‘When all the prerogatives of birth and fortune have been abolished, when every profession is open to everyone, an ambitious man may think it is easy to launch himself on a great career and feel that he has been called to no common destiny. But this is a delusion which experience quickly corrects. When inequality is the general rule in society, the greatest inequalities attract no attention. But when everything is more or less level, the slightest variation is noticed… That is the reason for the strange melancholy often haunting inhabitants of democracies in the midst of abundance and of that disgust with life sometimes gripping them even in calm and easy circumstances. In France, we are worried about increasing rate of suicides. In America, suicide is rare, but I am told that madness is commoner than anywhere else’.
Three: The tyranny of the majority
Typically, we think of democracy as being the opposite of tyranny. It should, in a democracy, no longer be possible for a clique to lord it over everyone else by force; leaders have to govern with the consent of the governed. But de Tocqueville noticed that democracy could easily create its own specialised type of tyranny: that of the majority. The majority group could, in principle, be very severe and hostile to minorities. De Tocqueville wasn’t simply thinking of overt political persecution, but of a less dramatic, but still real, kind of tyranny in which simply being ‘in a minority’ as regards prevailing ideologies starts to seem unacceptable, perverse – even a threat.
Democratic culture, he thought, could easily end up demonising any assertion of difference, and especially of cultural superiority or high mindedness, which could be perceived as offensive to the majority – even though such attitudes might be connected with real merit. In a tyranny of the majority, a society grows ill at ease with outstanding merit or ambition of any kind. It has an aggressively levelling instinct; in which it is regarded as a civic virtue to cut down to size anyone who seems to be getting above themselves.
Four: Democracy turns us against authority
De Tocqueville saw democracy as encouraging strong ideas about equality, to an extent that could grow harmful and dispiriting. He saw that democracy encourages ‘in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which always impels the weak to want to bring the strong down to their level’.
Five: Democracy undermines freedom of mind
Instinctively, you’d suppose that democracy would encourage citizens to have an open mind. Surely democracy encourages debate and allows disagreements to be resolved by voting, rather than by violence? We think of openness of mind as being the result of living in a place where lots of opinions get an airing.
However, de Tocqueville came to the opposite conclusion: that in few places could one find ‘less independence of mind, and true freedom of discussion, than in America’.
Trusting that the system was fair and just, Americans simply gave up their independence of mind, and put their faith in newspapers and so-called ‘common sense’. The scepticism of Europeans towards public opinion had given way to a naive faith in the wisdom of the crowd.