Daniel Choi: Why Scholars Misread Tocqueville’s Democracy in America

Roundup: Talking About History

[Daniel Choi currently works at Notati, an Internet startup based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He has a Ph.D. in government from Harvard University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School.]

Over the past few decades, as Karl Marx was thrown into the dustbin, Alexis de Tocqueville came surging back from the graveyard of intellectual history. Tocqueville’s main claim to fame is as the author of Democracy in America, which was originally published in two parts, in 1835 and 1840. Owing largely to this book, he is hailed today by almost universal consensus as a thinker of virtually superhuman prescience—indeed, as the supreme oracle of the modern age. Tocqueville now enjoys “magistral status,” observes one eminent commentator (Wolin 2001, 4). “No one seriously believes,” writes another, “that an author, dead for more than century, can say anything to us about the novelties we face, that he can explain us to ourselves. This is precisely what Tocqueville accomplishes, it seems to me, when he elaborates the idea of democracy” (Manent 1996, xi). “By speculating in the large about democracy,” writes a third, Tocqueville “far transcended the confines of his time and place” (Eisenstadt 1988, 272). The introduction of a recent translation proclaims Democracy in America “at once the best book ever written on democracy and the best book ever written on America” (Mansfield and Winthrop 2000, xvii). Democracy in America is “summoned not only to interpret the past and present but to augur the future. . . . Scarcely a week passes without some quotation from Democracy in America appearing in the popular media or in literary reviews” (Wolin 2001, 4). No less than three new English translations of Democracy in America have appeared within the past seven years.

One may be surprised therefore to hear that Democracy in America’s predictions about modern civilization’s future were wrong on nearly all essential points because Tocqueville incorporated into the definition of modern democracy the concrete social and economic features of early-nineteenth-century democratic societies, including the rudimentary degree of education, the unsophisticated technology, and the lack of extensive occupational specialization. In sum, his idea of democracy was premised on a permanent forestalling of modern industrialization and its social consequences. From this premise, he deduced practically all of the book’s major predictions, warnings, and prescriptions for modern democratic societies. In the end, the interesting question is not how this young Frenchman (who was only thirty-five years old when he finished writing Democracy) could have been so astonishingly prescient—he was not—but how the near-sighted predictions he set forth in Democracy in America came to be construed as vindicated prophecies.

In letters and articles he wrote after completing the first volume of Democracy in 1835, Tocqueville offered his views on industrialization in England during the 1830s.

These letters throw into broad daylight his egregiously conservative estimate of the future impact of modern industrialization. Though rarely cited by modern Tocqueville commentators, they are the best starting point for understanding the logic of Democracy in America’s reflections on modern democracy Tocqueville saw the facts clearly. “Already in England,” he wrote in a letter dated May 19, 1835, “nearly two-thirds of the population have passed from agriculture to trade and manufactures” (1861, 2:7). We know, of course, that this movement of labor away from agriculture was laying the groundwork for the modern industrial economy. For thousands of years, since humans figured out how to grow crops and domesticate animals, the vast majority of worked in agriculture. Now, thanks to technological progress, a tiny fraction of the population can produce enough food for all the others, freeing up a huge mass of human talent and energy for countless other productive and creative pursuits. Although the exodus of English workers from agriculture augured this future, Tocqueville certainly did not know it. He wrote that “its progress must lead to an unnatural and, I believe, an unmaintainable state of society” (1861, 2:7). The unemployment, job insecurity, and wealth inequality that accompanied industrialization in England would produce, he believed, “universal discontent” that ultimately would push England into revolution (1861, 2:8). It would not be a socialist or a Marxist revolution that would abolish private-property rights and socialize economic production, but a Jeffersonian-Jacksonian revolution that would reverse the progress of industrialization, roll back the division of labor, and redistribute the land, turning England into a democracy of independent smallholders—as France and America still were at the time....

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