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Democratic Society

Tocqueville's Democracy in America (1835, 1840) is not primarily a study of the political institutions of that state - it is a study of American society - a study that asks, among other things, about the kinds of political institutions that are appropriate to a democratic society: ie, a society marked by equalisation of condition.

In Tocqueville we find encapsulated a strain of thinking, that developed in France, but that went on to have a powerful effect throughout Europe, that identified equality as the true practical legacy of the French Revolution, and of the modern state more generally. The problem he identified was as old as Aristotle - how to ensure that equality in one respect did not come to take the form of a demand for equality in all respects; or, conversely, how inequality in one respect, could avoid becoming a demand for inequality in all respects.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America -

You should read:

The 'Introduction' to Vol 1 ( have included chapter titles because some editions divide parts up differently - I have used the standard Chicago edition).;

Part one, chapters 3 and 4 of volume 1 ('social conditions of the Anglo-Americans' and 'the principle of the sovereignty of the people').

Volume 1, part 2,ch 6 ('what are the real advantages that American society gains from the government of democracy?')

and part 2, ch 7 ('on the omnipotence of the majority in the US')

Volume 1, part 2, ch 8 and 9 ('of what tempers tyranny of the majority...' and 'of the principal causes that tend to maintain the democratic republic...')

Vol 2, part 2, ch 2a, 3, 4a ('of individualism in democratic countries', 'how individualism is greater at the end of a democratic revolution than at other times' and 'how the Americans combat individualism with free institutions'.

You might then want to use the following to organise your thinking: Class slides here

Questions to consider

What is tyranny of the majority? What causes it? Why is it problematic? How might it be checked?

What is individualism? What role does it play in American society?

What different kinds of causal explanation are at work in Tocqueville's theory? (For a handy summary of Elster's account of different types of causality in Tocqueville, see here).

Suggested secondary reading

Richard Herr, Tocqueville and the Old Regime (2015) - ebook

Jon Elster, Political Psychology (1993) The last two chapters are on Tocqueville and his methods.

Arthur Kaledin, Tocqueville and his America: a darker horizon (2011) - ebook (interesting on the continuing salience of Tocqueville in America)

Ch on Tocqueville in Annelien de Dijn, French Political Thought from Montesquieu to Tocqueville (2011)

Cheryl Welch, de Tocqueville 1999