Alexis de Tocqueville was a more prophetic observer of American democracy than even his most ardent admirers appreciate. True, readers have seen clearly what makes his account of American exceptionalism so luminously accurate, and they have grasped the profundity of his critique of American democracy’s shortcomings. What they have missed is his startling clairvoyance about how democracy in America could evolve into what he called “democratic despotism.” That transformation has been in process for decades now, and reversing it is the principal political challenge of our own moment in history. It is implicitly, and should be explicitly, at the center of our upcoming presidential election.

Readers don’t fully credit Tocqueville with being the seer he was for the same reason that, though volume 1 of Democracy in America set cash registers jingling as merrily as Santa’s sleigh bells at its 1835 publication, volume 2, five years later, met a much cooler reception. The falloff, I think, stems from the author’s failure to make plain a key step in his argument between the two tomes—an omission he righted two decades later with the publication of The Old Regime and the French Revolution in 1856. Reading the two books together makes Tocqueville’s argument—and its urgent timeliness—snap into focus with the clarity of revelation.

Alexis de Tocqueville in 1850 (RMN-GRAND PALAIS/ART RESOURCE, NY)
Alexis de Tocqueville in 1850 (RMN-GRAND PALAIS/ART RESOURCE, NY)

What’s missing in volume 2 of Democracy is concrete, illustrative detail. Volume 1 mines nine months of indefatigable travel that began in May 1831 in Newport, Rhode Island—“an array of houses no bigger than chicken coops”—when the aristocratic French lawyer was still two months shy of his 26th birthday. Tocqueville’s epic journey extended from New York City through the virgin forests of Michigan to Lake Superior, from Montreal through New England, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee by coach, steamboat, and even on foot through snow-choked woods, until he and his traveling companion, Gustave de Beaumont, boarded a steamer for New Orleans. From there, they crossed the Carolinas into Virginia, visited Washington, and returned to New York to embark for home with a trunkful of notes and American histories. Tocqueville had watched both houses of Congress in action and interviewed 200-odd people, ranging from President Andrew Jackson, ex-president John Quincy Adams, Secretary of State Edward Livingston, Senator Daniel Webster, Supreme Court Justice John McLean, and future chief justice Salmon Chase to Sam Houston, a band of Choctaw Indians, and “the last of the Iroquois: they begged for alms.”

Only by the time The Old Regime came out, though, three years before Tocqueville’s untimely death from tuberculosis at 53 in 1859, had he amassed the wealth of practical political experience needed to flesh out the argument of Democracy in America’s second volume. After three terms in the Chamber of Deputies during Louis Philippe’s bourgeois monarchy, he had served in the Constituent Assembly following the 1848 revolution, helping to write the Second Republic’s constitution and serving as foreign minister, until president Louis Napoleon made himself emperor. He had researched The Old Regime by reading mountains of official reports and correspondence from the 1750s onward in the archives, chiefly of Tours and Paris. All this allowed him to document what had been inspired but mostly theoretical speculation in volume 2 of Democracy in America.

Tocqueville didn’t go to America out of blind democratic enthusiasm. “It is very difficult to decide whether democracy governs better, or aristocracy,” he mused: but the question is merely academic, because anyone who pays attention to swiftly shifting French affairs—from the Revolution, the Directory, and Napoleon to the Restoration and the constitutional monarchy of 1830—can’t deny that “sooner or later we will come, as the Americans have come, to an almost complete equality of conditions.” In that case, “[w]ould it not then become necessary to consider the gradual development of democratic institutions and mores not as the best way to be free but as the only way left to us?”

So he went to America in search of “lessons from which we might profit”—negative lessons as well as positive ones. And just after the publication of volume 1 of Democracy in America, he cast his own lot with democracy, marrying, to his family’s horror, a beautiful middle-class English Protestant, Mary Mottley, whom he considered “the only person in the world who knows the bottom of my soul”—but who never shed her middle-class outrage at “the least deviation on my part,” he complained. After all, who can stop his “blood boiling at the sight of a woman”? (And, already at 17, he had fathered a child, whose fate is unknown, with a servant girl.) Still, he at least remained faithful to democracy: when he inherited the title Comte de Tocqueville in 1836, he never used it.

In America, he believed, he’d find democracy in its purest form—morally pure but also unmixed with any vestiges of a hierarchical regime from which it had had to revolt, unlike any other modern democracy. The earliest Anglo-American settlers had crossed the sea to begin the political world afresh. This band of equals had “braved the inevitable miseries of exile because they wished to ensure the victory of an idea,” he wrote—the Puritan idea that “was not just a religious doctrine” but that “coincided with the most absolute democratic and republican theories,” inseparably intertwining “the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty.” For the Pilgrims, Tocqueville explained, “Religion looks upon civil liberty as a noble exercise of man’s faculties, and on the world of politics as a realm intended by the Creator for the application of man’s intelligence. . . . Liberty looks upon religion as its comrade in battle and victory, as the cradle of its infancy and divine source of its rights.” As the settlers believed, “religion subjects the truths of the other world to individual reason, just as politics leaves the interest of this world to the good sense of all, and it allows each man free choice of the path that is to lead him to heaven, just as the law grants each citizen the right to choose his government.”

“Nongovernmental associations spring up for furthering ‘public security, commerce and industry, morality and religion.’”

So Puritanism was the wellspring of American mores—a key term for Tocqueville that refers not just to “what one might call habits of the heart, but also to the various notions that men possess, to the diverse opinions that are current among them, and to the whole range of ideas that shape habits of mind.” In French, the word is moeurs, meaning manners, morals, core beliefs, and customs—what we would call culture. There are “three major factors that have governed and shaped American democracy,” Tocqueville argued, “but if I were asked to rank them, I would say that physical causes matter less than laws and laws less than mores.”

From the seventeenth-century Puritan acorn grew American culture’s fundamentally libertarian creed. Universal reason (which reveals Jefferson’s self-evident truths, for example) is the source of moral authority, “just as the source of political power lies in the universality of citizens.” Most Americans believe that “consensus is the only guide to what is permitted or prohibited, true or false,” and that “the man who properly understands his own self-interest has all the guidance he needs to act justly and honestly. They believe that every person is born with the faculty to govern himself and that no one has the right to force happiness on his fellow man.” And they believe in human perfectibility, the usefulness of the spread of enlightenment, and the certainty of progress, so that what seems good today will give way tomorrow to something better but as yet unimagined.

Why are your ships not built to last? Tocqueville once asked an American sailor. Naval architecture improves so quickly, the sailor replied, that the finest ship would be obsolete before it wore out. A Silicon Valley engineer would sound the same today.

Not surprisingly, a culture that leaves men free to judge for themselves in religion and politics nurtures independent self-reliance from childhood on. Even in the schoolyard, American children make up their own rules and punish infractions themselves. As adults, they never think of waiting for government to solve everyday problems. If a road gets blocked, they organize themselves to fix it. If they want to celebrate something, they spontaneously join together to make the festivities as fun and grand as possible. Spontaneous nongovernmental associations spring up for furthering “public security, commerce and industry, morality and religion,” Tocqueville marvels, pointing to the temperance movement and the founding of seminaries and hospitals as just a few examples. “There is nothing the human will despairs of achieving through the free action of the collective power of individuals.” Free and collaborative: that’s the mainspring of American mores.

With such an emphasis on self-reliance, it’s also no surprise to see American trade and industry booming. The typical American is “ardent in his desires, enterprising, adventurous, and above all innovative,” Tocqueville writes. Focused on material gratifications, and seeing idleness as shameful, Americans “think only of ways to change or improve their fortunes,” so that “any new method that shortens the road to wealth, any machine that saves labor, any instrument that reduces the cost of production, any discovery that facilitates or increases pleasure seems the most magnificent achievement of the human mind.” If one scheme fails, an American doesn’t quit: “picking himself up again, often disappointed, never discouraged, he marches indefatigably on toward the immense grandeur that he can but dimly make out at the end of the long road that mankind has yet to travel.” No wonder Tocqueville judges (as Arthur Goldhammer deftly translates him for the Library of America) that “there is something heroic about the way Americans do business.” These traits will soon enough make Americans “one of the greatest peoples of the world. Their offspring will blanket all of North America. . . . Wealth, power, and glory will inevitably be theirs some day, yet they hasten after this immense fortune as though they had but a moment left to lay hold of it.”

And note, Tocqueville emphasizes, that all this is the product of culture and institutions. With the same natural advantages, but different mores, the Spaniards of South America have created some of the most “miserable” nations on earth. Similarly, with a vast wilderness stretching from their doorstep, French settlers in Canada have chosen to “squeeze themselves into a space too small to hold them.”

Tocqueville’s friend Gustave de Beaumont made this sketch of Frenchman Island in New York State’s Lake Oneida when the two travelers (doubtless depicted in the lower left corner) explored it in July 1831. (YALE TOCQUEVILLE MANUSCRIPTS. GENERAL COLLECTION, BEINECKE RARE BOOK AND MANUSCRIPT LIBRARY, YALE UNIVERSITY)
Tocqueville’s friend Gustave de Beaumont made this sketch of Frenchman Island in New York State’s Lake Oneida when the two travelers (doubtless depicted in the lower left corner) explored it in July 1831. (YALE TOCQUEVILLE MANUSCRIPTS. GENERAL COLLECTION, BEINECKE RARE BOOK AND MANUSCRIPT LIBRARY, YALE UNIVERSITY)

America’s unique history also powerfully shaped its political culture. The Mother Country was only too pleased to see its turbulent Puritans slip over the horizon, and it ignored them for well over a century. So America developed from the village up, rather than from a metropolis down. Colonial politics were resolutely local. “One might almost say that, in the beginning, each town was an independent nation,” Tocqueville notes. Local citizens elected their magistrates, levied and collected their own taxes, raised their own militias, maintained their own roads, provided for their own poor, and, in New England at least, established their own schools and made their children attend them. In New England, too, they did this directly, not through representatives, so, despite their Puritan individualism, they learned from the start how to cooperate. “As in Athens, matters affecting everyone’s interests were discussed in public places and in general assemblies of citizens.” These local institutions, Tocqueville judges, “foster a taste for liberty among the people and teach them the art of being free.” In a self-reinforcing cycle, an “American learns about the law by participating in the making of it. He teaches himself about the forms of government by governing. He watches the great work of society being done every day before his eyes and, in a sense, by his hand.” He becomes a free citizen by practicing the duties of citizenship.

“Tocqueville saw that the Puritans’ religiosity remained, two centuries later, an undiminished force in American life.”

One of those duties is jury service, which shapes the national character by giving citizens firsthand respect for equity and the rule of law. Since most people won’t be criminals but everybody can be sued, civil jury duty especially highlights the idea of responsibility for one’s actions and teaches everyone to think like a magistrate. And a jury, notes Tocqueville, is “above all a political institution . . . a form of popular sovereignty.” Going back to Magna Carta and beyond, as the Founding Fathers liked to say (though Tocqueville does not mention), juries are the last defense of the citizen’s rights against the sovereign’s power. As “the most energetic form of popular rule,” says Tocqueville, the jury “is also the most effective means of teaching the people how to rule.” Moreover, because lawyers, who play so large a role in politics, compose a respected, quasi-corporate body, they also form a mediating buffer between the citizen and the state, with their essentially conservative love of order and formalities.

A century and a half after the Puritan settlers established the little republics of New England, the Constitution carefully preserved the spirit of localism in its federal structure. Congress takes charge of such national matters as foreign relations, war, and international trade, but, lacking any means of knowing the innumerable details of local needs and customs, as Friedrich Hayek later argued about the inevitable failings of centralization, it leaves local matters to the state legislatures and the town meetings. “So feeble and limited is the share of government left to the administration, and so much does the latter reflect its popular origins and obey the power from which it emanates,” Tocqueville concludes, “that it is fair to say that the people govern themselves.”

Tocqueville also saw that the Puritans’ religiosity remained, two centuries later, an undiminished force in American life. It still kept the spiritual realm and its values vibrantly present in minds otherwise materialistic. When an American strikes out into the wilderness to make his fortune, his Bible always goes with him, along with the religious habit of his heart, with its “moral truths.” Tocqueville stresses that religion retains its vitality in America because it has “remained entirely distinct from the political order.” For when religions meddle in politics and take political stands, theirs is but one more mere opinion, subject to disagreement and derision. Thus if clerics make political pronouncements, “they run the risk of not being believed about anything”—as has happened to mainstream Protestantism in our post–William Sloane Coffin era and, much more tragically, to the black church when it embraced social justice instead of salvation, depriving its community of an indispensable moral guide. Because religion’s moral teaching is so critical to democracies in the age of enlightenment, and its moral authority is so potentially precarious, Tocqueville says, “I would rather chain priests inside their sanctuaries than allow them to venture out.”

As nothing is perfect in human affairs, Tocqueville of course paints the inevitable shadows into his otherwise sunny panorama. Powering the frenzy of American activity is a high-voltage charge of anxiety. After the Revolution, most states outlawed entail, the inheritance rule that the owner of an estate must leave it to his eldest male heir, with pittances to the other children. Henceforth property got divided and redivided more or less equally, with the result now that “the families of the great landowners have almost all been absorbed into the common mass,” Tocqueville observes, and even fallen “into the uttermost depths of obscurity.” America thus has almost no permanently rich families: “wealth circulates there with incredible rapidity, and . . . it is rare for two successive generations to garner its favors.” This leveling force generates “that restlessness of the heart which is natural to men when, all conditions being almost equal, each person sees the same chance of rising.” With everyone feverishly striving, though, whenever some individual manages to shoot up out of the mass to wealth and power, his fellows respond with envy and wonder if he’s a crook. The result is an “odious mingling of the ideas of baseness and power, unworthiness and success, utility and dishonor.”

So while democracy often gives rise to “a manly and legitimate passion for equality that spurs all men to wish to be strong and esteemed,” it can also lead weak men “to want to bring the strong down to their level”—with such base fervor as ultimately to defeat democracy’s purpose by “preferring equality in servitude to inequality in freedom.”

In any event, all the striving intensifies Puritan individualism to an extreme where it “disposes each citizen to cut himself off from the mass of his fellow men,” leaving “the larger society to take care of itself,” Tocqueville writes. “These people owe nothing to anyone. . . . Thus not only does democracy cause each man to forget his forebears, but it makes it difficult to see his offspring and cuts him off from his contemporaries. Again and again it leads him back to himself and threatens ultimately to imprison him altogether in the loneliness of his own heart.”

American equality and materialism don’t provide fertile ground for deep thought, either. As people increasingly resemble one another, each man intellectually “feels weaker vis-à-vis all the others” and “loses confidence in himself when they combat him.” He finds it “very difficult to believe what the masses reject and to profess what they condemn,” and usually he ends up “admitting he is wrong when most people say he is.” Public opinion bears all before it in America; its power is one of Tocqueville’s prime examples in a chapter he heads with James Madison’s epithet “the tyranny of the majority.” So irresistible is its force that Tocqueville can think of “no country where there is in general less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America.”

Such intellectual tyranny weighs most heavily on writers and politicians. With no need for the racks and chains of old, democracy’s very mild tyranny “ignores the body and goes straight for the soul,” Tocqueville laments. It leaves the dissident his life, liberty, property, and civic privileges, but it makes them useless to him by making him a pariah, unable to gain the votes or the esteem of his fellow citizens, who will shun him for fear of being shunned themselves. Little wonder, therefore, that America has produced no great writers. And if you want a refutation of the wisdom of crowds—the “theory of equality applied to intelligence,” Tocqueville scoffs—look no further. As someone who believes that “freedom of the intellect is a sacred thing,” as Tocqueville does, “when I feel the hand of power weigh upon my brow, it scarcely matters who my oppressor is, and I am not more inclined to submit to the yoke because a million arms are prepared to place it around my neck.”

“Given the threat of majoritarian tyranny, . . . a centralized administration would pose a fearful danger.”

That same majoritarian tyranny explains why America’s elected officials are so mediocre. To win votes, they have to flatter public opinion with the obsequiousness of Louis XIV’s most sycophantic courtiers. Andrew Jackson is Tocqueville’s Exhibit A. He “is the slave of the majority,” Tocqueville sneers; “he obeys its wishes and desires and heeds its half-divulged instincts; or rather, he divines what the majority wants, anticipating its desires before it knows what they are in order to place himself at its head.” Like most politicians, he cares only about reelection, so that “his own individual interest supplants the general interest in his mind.” His (ultimately successful) vendetta against the Second Bank of the United States is a perfect example. Even though it inestimably benefits the nation by ensuring its monetary stability, Jackson happily attacks it, accusing its directors of being an aristocracy in the making, opposed to the democratic majority—and, incidentally, to Jackson as well. But of course, Jackson’s Democrats, the party that stands for the infinite expansion of the power of the people, have a permanent majority over the rival Federalists, who could win election only when the country needed to navigate the perils of the Founding, a unique emergency that prompted the Federalist Party’s superior men to accept public office.

However, the modest scrap of elitism that remains in America does the country much good, Tocqueville judges. By contrast with the House of Representatives, where you see local lawyers or businessmen “of vulgar appearance”—or even Tennessee congressman “David Crockett, who had received no education, could read only with difficulty,” and “spent his time hunting, selling his game for a living, and spending his whole life in the woods”—the Senate throngs with “eloquent attorneys, distinguished generals, clever magistrates, and well-known statesmen. Every word uttered in this assembly would do honor to Europe’s greatest parliamentary debates.” Why the difference? The people directly elect their congressmen, while the popularly elected state legislatures elect the senators, a two-step process that refines and ennobles the choice and that Tocqueville recommends for democracies everywhere. But note, he remarks, that even the best democracy will give you a broadly prosperous nation, with little real misery, rather than a brilliant one.

Part of the genius of the U.S. Constitution, Tocqueville thinks, is that it not only prevents Congress from making laws for localities but also provides no central administrative system that could carry them out if they existed. Given the threat of majoritarian tyranny, such as reigns over U.S. public opinion, such a centralized administration would pose a fearful danger. If the central power could not only issue orders and frame general principles but also carry them out in detail, if it could reach down and seize the individual by the collar, “then liberty would soon be banished from the New World,” Tocqueville asserts.

But hang on! From a glowing panorama, to some gathering shadows, to this? What makes him say this—and then harp on it as the keynote of volume 2 of Democracy? After all, as he himself observes, even no past European sovereign was ever powerful or absolute enough “to subject all his people indiscriminately to the minute details of a uniform code, or . . . to dictate and manage the lives of each and every one of them.” Such an idea “never occurred to the mind of man.” So why bring it up?

Yet, as Tocqueville discovered in his researches for The Old Regime and the French Revolution, not only did such an idea arise under many a royal crown, but a long progression of sovereigns gradually made it a reality.

By no means a democrat by birth, Tocqueville lived in this chateâu in Normandy. (1CLIC / PHOTO12 / THE IMAGE WORKS)
By no means a democrat by birth, Tocqueville lived in this chateâu in Normandy. (1CLIC / PHOTO12 / THE IMAGE WORKS)

Here, briefly, is how. During the fourteenth century, no taxation without consent was as firm a principle in France as in England. But around 1440, Charles VII sweet-talked the nobles into pushing the Estates-General to let him levy a new tax, the taille, at his pleasure—a tax from which the nobles would be exempt. As the taille increased, amplifying the injustice of taxing the poor rather than the rich, so did the people’s resentment of the exempt aristocrats, who had hitherto been their protectors and patrons, especially in times of dearth. And as the nobles gradually sold off their land, tied their fates to the central government by investing the proceeds in its bonds, and moved to Paris, they ceased to feel any obligation or concern for their former tenants, ceding their role as a revered corporate body that once had mediated between the people and the sovereign. An analogous process occurred in the towns over the same period, as municipal corporations became petty oligarchies, uninterested in ordinary citizens, who, in turn, stopped caring about their town’s welfare and didn’t bother to turn up at the rigged elections—where elections still existed.

What filled the power vacuum was the Royal Council, an ancient body that, by the eighteenth century, had become supreme, with a Controller General as its executive officer, and faceless bureaucrats, who shunned publicity and beavered away silently in the shadow of the throne, as its members. The Controller General administered the entire nation through 30 intendants, one per province. Obscure middle-class functionaries like the Royal Councilors, they and their subdelegates apportioned and collected the taille in every parish, managed poor relief in every town and village, and, as the eighteenth century progressed, tried to teach peasants scientific agriculture, told them where they could plant this or that crop, and built and maintained roads and canals. Says Tocqueville, “There was in France no township, borough, village, or hamlet, however small, no hospital, factory, convent, or college which had a right to manage its own affairs as it thought fit or administer its possessions without interference.” Moreover, each intendant had brigades of mounted police to keep order, arrest vagrants and beggars, and quell riots. Scots-born John Law, named Controller General in 1720, marveled that until he took office, “I could hardly believe such a state of affairs existed. Believe it or not, the French kingdom is ruled by thirty Intendants.”

True, the old, independent legal system still stood protectively between the sovereign and the citizen, even after he had lost the aegis of the lord and the town corporation. Kings couldn’t fire or transfer judges; instead, they found a way simply to bypass them. They set up special courts, dependent on royal favor, to try any case involving the king’s authority or interest. Throughout the eighteenth century, moreover, royal decrees and orders from the Royal Council declared that any disputes that resulted from them would be heard by the intendant, with a right of appeal to . . . the Royal Council. And any case concerning the administration not covered by such a council order could be summarily snatched out of the ordinary courts and transferred to the intendant’s jurisdiction by a so-called evocation. The intendants and their subdelegates were exempt from personal lawsuits, making them untouchable.

Even private property lost its sanctity, when Louis XIV promulgated the long-held but judicially rejected feudal belief that all landed estates were held conditionally and that their true owner was the state. So the highway department never hesitated as it extended France’s highway system in the eighteenth century to use eminent domain with gay abandon to drive roads straight and true through anybody’s parkland. And the state gradually swept into its coffers donations willed to charitable institutions over centuries, until in 1780 the king seized the ancient endowments of the hospitals, in return for a government annuity. “It never seemed to cross anyone’s mind,” Tocqueville drily remarks, “that the surest way of training people to violate the rights of the living is to set at nought the wishes of the dead.”

The result was that the “former ruling class retained their rank and titles, but all effective authority was gradually withdrawn from them,” as the kings built up “a massive, four-square structure rising from the wreckage of the half-demolished institutions of the past,” creating “modern institutions . . . within the shattered framework of the feudal system.” And to most Frenchmen, the sweeping transformation—a real French revolution—long remained invisible, even though the functionaries had ensnared the country in a net of regulations and smothered it with forms to be filled out.

By the mid-eighteenth century, some of France’s most advanced thinkers—the Physiocrats, whom we remember today as laissez-faire economists—clearly perceived this gigantic governmental machinery and began speculating about the social uses to which it could be put, anticipating not only the whole program of the French Revolution, Tocqueville notes, but also “the subversive theories of what is today known as socialism” and anticipating as well (as he could not know) an almost Leninist totalitarianism. For “socialism and centralization thrive on the same soil; they stand to each other as the cultivated to the wild species of a fruit,” Tocqueville presciently observed.

The Physiocrats were opposed “to deliberative assemblies, to secondary organizations vested with local powers,” and indeed to all mediating institutions, “however venerable and well-founded,” used “by free peoples . . . to curb the domination of a central authority,” Tocqueville writes. Similarly, theories of the separation of governmental powers, one Physiocrat wrote, were “the merest moonshine.” They liked their state power straight.

They would use it to abolish “all class distinctions, all differences of rank.” The “nation was to be composed of individuals almost exactly alike and unconditionally equal,” writes Tocqueville, “even if equality spelled servitude.” They would do away with private property, prescribing life imprisonment for anyone trying to reintroduce it. Everything would be produced under state supervision, placed in state warehouses, and distributed to citizens according to need. All towns would be identically laid out, and all houses the same (for architectural totalitarianism is totalitarianism’s handmaiden). “At the age of five,” wrote one Physiocrat in 1755, “children shall be taken from their parents and educated communally at government expense and on uniform lines.” For, wrote another, as if predicting the advent of New Soviet Man, “The state makes men exactly what it wishes them to be.” And what it wants, wrote the most famous of the Physiocrats, Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, who rose from intendant to Controller General in 1774, is “young men trained to do their duty by the State; patriotic and law-abiding.”

“That giant state machinery was there for Napoleon to create his million-man army and seek to conquer all Europe.”

By 1789, France was a “servile state” that had lost its understanding of liberty. Even Turgot’s friend Voltaire, who so admired English freedom of speech and the press during his London exile from 1726 to 1728, didn’t realize that the freedom he praised depended on the political freedom that “left him indifferent,” Tocqueville writes—even though he was in London because of despotism at home. Another Frenchman in London, Tocqueville wryly reports, spluttered in amazement, “It is the literal truth that the average Englishman consoles himself for having been robbed with the reflection that at any rate his country has no mounted police!” Remarks Tocqueville, “It never occurred to him that these ‘eccentricities’ were bound up with the whole British concept of freedom.” So when the 1789 revolutionaries, constitutional monarchists whom Tocqueville thinks patriotic, unselfish, magnanimous, but woefully inexperienced, set about “transforming the social system, root and branch, and regenerating the whole human race,” they had no idea that since Louis XII, French kings had been “dividing men so as the better to rule them” and that by the end of the eighteenth century, “it would have been impossible to find . . . even ten men used to acting in concert and defending their interests without appealing to the central power for aid.” Nor was there even any personal affection to support the king and aristocracy against the overwhelming, all-devouring resentment of the people. So the ancient monarchy came crashing down, and there was nothing to stop the demons “who carried audacity to the point of sheer insanity” and “acted with unprecedented ruthlessness.”

And they could do so because the centralized machinery was in place to carry the reign of terror throughout the nation. “The same conditions which had precipitated the fall of the monarchy made for the absolutism of its successor.” That giant state machinery was there for Napoleon in turn to create his million-man army and set forth to conquer all Europe. And it was still there in 1856, when The Old Regime appeared, and when “the French nation [was] prepared to tolerate in a government that favors and flatters its desire for equality practices and principles that are, in fact, the tools of despotism.”

As he wrote volume 2 of Democracy, and especially as he struggled with its conclusion during his first few months in the Chamber of Deputies, Tocqueville perceived the outlines of this French reality and intuited its inextricable connection with the rise of democratic equality, but he hadn’t yet reached a systematic understanding of it. But his were the intuitions of genius, and what he foresaw came to pass not only in Europe but also in the United States, starting half a century after his death.

He liked America’s administrative decentralization—in the 1830s, there were only 12,000-odd U.S. officials, as against France’s 138,000—for its political and cultural effects: “People care about their country’s interests as though they were their own,” he noted. “In its successes they see their own work and are exalted by it.” Matters are different today, now that the federal government has more than 2.7 million employees, state and local governments have 14.3 million, and college students don’t know who won the Civil War or who the U.S. vice president is, and don’t care. Americans have come to resemble the French of Tocqueville’s day, who don’t know what’s happening in their country, are “indifferent to the fate of the place they live in,” and think that the fate of their town and the safety of their streets “have nothing to do with them, that they belong to some powerful stranger called ‘the government.’ ”

As happened in France, a gigantic modern state grew up inside the shell of America’s Founding-era institutions, with few Americans even noticing and most unaware of the magnitude of the revolution even today. We created a giant administrative regime, just as Tocqueville feared, composed of such executive-branch agencies as the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Elections Commission, and on and on.

As the Physiocrats would have wanted, these agencies don’t bother with the “moonshine” of the separation of powers or due process of law that Tocqueville ranked so high among America’s political virtues and that Woodrow Wilson classed among the “great deal of nonsense” that the Founding Fathers put forth as “the inalienable rights of the individual.” These executive-branch agencies legislate by making binding rules for individuals and corporations, and they then adjudicate and punish infractions of them through juryless administrative courts indistinguishable from those run by the French intendants and the Royal Council, lacking due process and usually with no appeal to the real court system. They provide, to use Tocqueville’s words, “an image of justice rather than justice itself.” Nor, as in the ancien régime, can the victims of these agencies’ absolutism sue them or their functionaries. As for the congress whose legislation gave life to these bodies, it is as much a sham as the old French town corporations or magnificently titled nobles. It does little but seek exemptions from the agencies’ rules for corporate donors—whose companies the agencies’ original rationale was to control. And the Constitution that gave life to the government Tocqueville so cherished is, if not dead, then dying.

What’s more, this Second American Revolution occurred under just the rationale that Tocqueville predicted. Democratic citizens, he wrote, “are willing enough to grant that the power that represents society possesses far more enlightenment and wisdom than any of the men who compose it and that its duty as well as its right is to take each citizen by the hand and guide him.” Accordingly, President Wilson set the administrative state in motion in the name of disinterested government by nonpolitical experts, armed with science, statistics, and professionalism, who, laboring away quietly and selflessly, would advance the common good so much more efficiently than the free action of the collective power of individuals.

And when the New Deal took administrative government to new depths of unconstitutionality, Franklin Roosevelt and his brain trust used almost Tocquevillian language in explaining why, in the age of giant corporations more powerful than any individual citizen or mediating institution, only an equally mighty government could protect the wee, timorous, cowering individual. “Thus the industrial class needs to be regulated, supervised, and restrained,” wrote Tocqueville, “and it is natural for the prerogatives of government to grow along with it.” The argument will be, Tocqueville predicted, that “as citizens become weaker and less capable, government must be made more skillful and active, so that society can take upon itself what individuals are no longer capable of doing on their own”—a sentiment that could have come from one of FDR’s fireside chats. “Entrenched greed,” charged FDR in 1936, “will take the course of every autocracy of the past—power for themselves, enslavement for the public.”

Tocqueville couldn’t find a precise enough name for the new oppressiveness that he saw coming into being—saw with a shiver, like those who witness, wondering and secretly afraid, the demonic power of an atom bomb explosion, or like astronauts watching the Earth become an ever smaller blue ball as they hurtle into the silent void, seeing what hitherto only God has seen. “ ‘Despotism’ and ‘tyranny’ will not do.” He groped for a description that would adequately convey the almost otherworldly force he glimpsed in outline, a presence like something out of science fiction, human and yet inhuman.

Over today’s swarming millions of equal, materialistic, utterly isolated individuals, he wrote, “stands an immense tutelary power, which assumes sole responsibility for securing their pleasure and watching over their fate.” This new kind of sovereign, “after taking individuals one by one in his powerful hands and kneading them to his liking,” will spread over society “a fine mesh of uniform, minute, and complex rules,” which constrain even the best and brightest. “He does not break men’s wills but softens, bends, and guides them. He seldom forces anyone to act but consistently opposes action. He does not destroy things but rather prevents them from coming into being. Rather than tyrannize, he inhibits, represses, saps, stultifies, and in the end reduces each nation to nothing but a timid and industrious flock of animals, with the government as its shepherd.”

“Today the iron cage of administrative rules prevents new businesses from opening, and old ones from hiring.”

Under the New Deal’s mesh of minute and complex rules, the sovereign—with the Supreme Court’s blessing—punished a farmer in 1942 for growing grain in excess of his allotted quota, to feed to his own livestock. Today the iron cage of administrative rules prevents new businesses from opening, old ones from hiring, doctors from treating patients as they think best, groups of citizens from uttering political speech, even a landowner from moving a pile of sand from one spot to another on his property, purportedly because it could affect a navigable waterway 50 miles away. It slows projects to a crawl, so that building a bridge, a skyscraper, a power plant takes years—whereas in the old America, the Empire State Building rose in 11 months.

And today’s sovereign does force men to act as well as suppressing action, so that nuns must provide their employees with birth control that their religion holds to be sinful, bakers must make cakes celebrating homosexual marriages that their religious beliefs abominate, private colleges must regulate their students’ sex lives, banks must lend to deadbeats. The immense tutelary power has turned private charities into government contractors, so that Catholic Charities or Jewish Social Services are neither Catholic nor Jewish—though most public welfare comes direct from the state, from babies’ milk to old people’s health care and pensions, for which only a minority has paid. As Tocqueville observed, “It is the state that has undertaken virtually alone to give bread to the hungry, aid and shelter to the sick, and work to the idle.” In New York State, where even in the 1830s Tocqueville saw administrative centralization taking form, the sovereign has commanded strictly private clubs to change their admissions criteria, so that even the realm of private association is subject to government power. And whatever traditional American mores defined as good and bad, moral and immoral, base and praiseworthy, the sovereign has redefined and redefined until all such ideas have lost their meaning. Is it any wonder that today’s Americans feel that they have no say in how they are governed—or that they don’t understand how that came about?

Such oppression is “less degrading” in democracies because, since the citizens elect the sovereign, “each citizen, hobbled and reduced to impotence though he may be, can still imagine that in obeying he is only submitting to himself.” Moreover, democratic citizens love equality more than liberty, and the love of equality grows as equality itself expands. Don’t let him have or be more than me. “The only necessary condition for centralizing public power in a democratic society is to love equality or to make a show of loving it. Thus the science of despotism,” Tocqueville despairingly concluded, “can be reduced . . . to a single principle.”

But, wonders Tocqueville, is this what human life is for?


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next