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Alexis and Our Elections

by Randolph J. May
Legal Times, September 4, 2000

With Labor Day having come and gone, it’s back to the fast pace of the 24-7 workaday world, in the lingo of today’s dot-com crowd. No more snatching a day off here or there for just lazing around, not to mention escaping for a week at the beach. When it is too hot in August to do much else, I always use the dog days to catch up on reading I know probably will play second fiddle after Labor Day.

So last month, with the political conventions providing background buzz and bringing the coming election into focus, I reread Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (my heavily dog-eared abridged version). As we now enter the heart—and the sure-fire heat—of our quadrennial exercise of making democracy work in America, Tocqueville merits revisiting.


Tocqueville—who was only 25 when he arrived in America in 1831 for his nine-month visit, and only 30 when he published the first part of his great work—was more than just a keen observer of the American scene and of the “new” Americans. He was a political philosopher of the first rank.

Tocqueville was a classical liberal in the Enlightenment and Madisonian traditions, when the terms “liberal” and “conservative” meant something very different than they do in contemporary parlance. Were he alive today, I am convinced that he would not shy away from being labeled a “compassionate conservative” in the George W. Bush vein. Let me explain.

The closer we get to Election Day, the more we will focus on the nitty-gritty details of the candidates’ platforms and promises. The claiming and counterclaiming will take place, of course, with respect to the candidates’ different approaches to Social Security, Medicare, prescription drugs, education, taxes, the environment, and so on. For guidance on the specifics of hot-button issues such as these, I understand that the voters won’t be rifling through their copies of Democracy in America.

But Tocqueville had much to say that is still relevant today, in a much broader philosophical context, about how one ought to think about the appropriate function of government in a democratic republic. It is still relevant because, as Tocqueville put it, “human institutions can be changed, but man cannot.”

Above all else, I agree with Tocqueville that the most enduring and difficult challenge in any democracy, but particularly in one as pluralistic as ours, is for government to protect and preserve individual freedom while still giving vent to the majoritarian impulse to realize greater degrees of equality for all citizens.

Today, of course, much of our ongoing national conversation concerning “equality” takes place, often in code words, in the context of whether or not one favors affirmative action for certain minority groups, particularly when affirmative action is taken to mean imposition of hard quotas or prescribed forms of government-mandated “reaching out.” Given the indelible stain of slavery and the legacy of Jim Crow (and putting aside constitutional objections), it’s easy to understand the sympathy for such programs directed toward African-Americans.

Tocqueville mostly ignored the problem of race engendered by slavery. But he did wrestle with the problem of equality in a more fundamental political sense that has much to commend itself to today’s broader political debate concerning the extent to which we need more or fewer government programs to ameliorate the condition of those who are less well off.


Tocqueville foresaw that democratic regimes are driven ceaselessly by a majoritarian impulse in the direction of striving for ever greater degrees of what he referred to as “equality of condition.” This term, in modern-day language, does not refer to equality of opportunity, but rather to something more akin to equality of outcome.

With considerable prescience, Tocqueville predicted that this constant striving toward a leveling of society necessarily would lead to demands for ever greater degrees of concentration of government power. Why? This is where Tocqueville’s understanding of human nature came into play.

According to Tocqueville, despite the programs or policies the government mandates to “render its members equal and alike, the personal pride of individuals will always seek to rise above the line, and to form somewhere an inequality to their own advantage.” So, to enforce its dictates, government’s authority must expand to cover “the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd.”

Strong language, to be sure. But Tocqueville left little doubt that he feared the end result might turn out unhappily for the cause of individual liberty. When society too heartily embraces the notion that equality of condition can be furthered only by governmental edict, then “individuals seem of less, and society of greater importance” and “a very humble notion of the rights of individuals” is nurtured.

It is in this context that Toqueville’s well-known observations on the value of private associational activity are best understood. In one of his most-quoted passages, he wrote:

“Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds—religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive.”

Tocqueville appreciated that only the government can perform certain functions. But he also asked, “What political power could ever carry on the vast multitude of lesser undertakings which American citizens perform every day, with the assistance of the principle of association.” He saw the existence of such associations—with citizens taking on the job of providing assistance in a variety of ways to their fellow citizens—as a counterweight to the need for government to assume more and more tasks in its drive to promote equality of condition.

Obviously, time and place are important here. There are initiatives, unimaginable in Tocqueville’s time, that government must undertake to give all citizens a chance at a better life, and to provide a social “safety net.” But it seems to me that George W. Bush’s message captures Tocqueville’s spirit: Voluntary associational activity of many stripes contributes to our national well-being. The candidate’s brand of “compassionate conservatism,” with its emphasis on encouraging greater reliance on the volunteer and charitable sectors than on the government to help those in need, certainly has Tocquevillian echoes.

Jesse Jackson, with his usual rhetorical flourish, recently commented that the real question about Bush “is not the content of his heart but of his budget.” Bush is nothing if not Tocquevillian in arguing that one can be compassionate, without necessarily agreeing that only new government entitlement programs, even ones denominated “investments,” are always the best means to the end of creating greater opportunities for all.

It’s not a coincidence that political salesmen as disparate as President Bill Clinton and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich invoked Tocqueville’s observations on community self-help in their initial addresses to Congress in 1995. It is a validation of the fact that he has much to teach us as we consider what our would-be leaders are hawking in the fall campaign.

One final thought: Tocqueville confided that “I spend a little time each day” reading Montesquieu. A darn good choice. In fact, Montesquieu himself said, “I have never known any trouble an hour’s worth of reading would not dissipate.” Right now, next August seems far away. But I’ve already got my sights set on revisiting Tocqueville’s fellow French philosopher when dog days next roll around.

Randolph J. May is a senior fellow and director of communications policy studies at the Progress & Freedom Foundation in Washington, D.C. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation. He may be reached at rmay@pff.org. His column, “Fourth Branch,” appears regularly in Legal Times.

© 2000 ALM Properties Inc. All rights reserved. This article is reprinted with permission from Legal Times (1-800-933-4317 • subscriptions@legaltimes.com • www.legaltimes.biz).



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