By Virtue Prosper: Tocqueville’s Discussion of the Advantages and Disadvantages of Democracy

Written by on December 16th, 2013. Subject: History. Filed in American, about Tocqueville American Democracy in America

|||Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 2002.|||

The County Election The vices and weaknesses of the government of democracy are seen without trouble; they are demonstrated by patent facts, whereas its salutary influence is exerted in an insensible and, so to speak, occult manner. Its faults strike one at first approach, but its [good] qualities are discovered only at length…How is it therefore that the American republics maintain themselves and prosper? p. 221.

Before beginning his discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of democracy, Tocqueville offers a caveat, noting that he does “not consider American institutions the only ones or the best that a democratic people should adopt.”1 This is noteworthy at the outset because it acts as a basis or foundation upon which his subsequent discussion of the disadvantages of democracy will be based. He notes that the disadvantages or “vices” as he calls them are readily apparent, but more careful and deliberate considerations should be had in order to understand the advantages of the system.

First, in seeking democracy’s advantages, Tocqueville notes that the laws in democracy “generally tend to the good of the greatest number, for they emanate from the majority of all citizens, which can be mistaken, but cannot have an interest contrary to itself.”2 This he cleverly juxtaposes against how laws are in an aristocracy. For in a democracy, the legislator or the legislature becomes an important component in the democratic process, and therefore to Tocqueville’s overall argument. Why is he most concerned with the legislators? It is because the legislative body is that which is closest to the majority, it being the representatives chosen from the people. For, he notes, since the peoples in a democracy jealously guard their liberties, they are sure to “prevent their representatives from deviating from a certain general line that their interest traces for them.”3

Here we get to the real, and most important, advantage of democracy. Democracy serves not “to favor the prosperity of all, but only to serve the well-being of the greatest number.”4 The integrity of democracy is preserved, since, he argues, those in power will never really deviate from will of the majority, despite their own personal vices and errors.5

Next, he notes another advantage of democracy, namely the ability of democracy to inspire public spirit. This public spirit, he notes, “is one born of enlightenment; it develops with the aid of laws, it grows with the exercise of rights, and in the end it intermingles in a way with personal interest.”6 This spirit is born, he notes but the ability of those in a democracy to serve publically—“the most powerful means, and perhaps the only one that remains to us, of interesting men in the fate of their native country is to make them participate in its government.”7

Finally, Tocqueville offers a summary of the great benefits or advantages of democracy. He notes that democracy “does each thing in it less well [than despotism] but in the long run produces more things.”8 Democracy does not give “the most skillful government to the people, but it does what the most skillful government is often powerless to create; it spreads a restive activity through the whole social body…”9

Of its disadvantages, the most damaging stems from the democracy itself and has already been alluded to. Springing from the principle or idea of the sovereignty of the people, a potential pitfall, namely the tyranny of the majority10 becomes a real issue in a democratic polity whose most powerful entity, namely the legislature, “obeys the majority most willingly.”11 But Tocqueville rejects the idea that the majority is sovereign on every matter without check.12 The will of the majority must be tempered by justice if a real threat to freedom is to be avoided, (Federalist Paper #10). It is not the freedom those in America enjoy as a result of democracy, it’s that there is “not a guarantee against tyranny.”13 As such, the danger of democracy lies not in what it offers, but what it can allow to pass unchecked into authority.

About John Heitzenrater

John W. Heitzenrater is a teacher of history at St. Peter’s Classical School, is a visiting lecturer at the Walsingham Society for Christian Culture, and a guest instructor for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth. He graduated from the College of Saint Thomas More and is currently finishing his Masters degree with the University of Dallas where his thesis will explore Individualism and Personalism in Catholic Social Thought. He can be reached at [email protected].

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  1. p. 221. 

  2. p. 222. 

  3. p. 223. 

  4. ibid

  5. p. 224. 

  6. p. 225. 

  7. p. 226. 

  8. p. 234. 

  9. ibid 

  10. p. 239. 

  11. p. 336. 

  12. p. 240. 

  13. p. 241.