Americans boast in democracy, but we are unaware of the ways it has biased and prejudiced our thinking in negative ways. Enter de Tocqueville, the Frenchmen who visited the United States in the 1830s. His reflections contained in Democracy in America give Americans a fresh, piercing perspective about our way of life. The benefits of democracy are obvious, but the dangers are subtle and often work themselves out over many years. De Tocqueville was something of a seer. By looking at the seed of equality, he was able to see the fruits, good and bad, that would develop even hundreds of years later.
What are the dangers of democracy today?
- The tyranny of the majority. Many people are unaware that America is a democratic republic and not a pure democracy. In other words, a government should pass and enforce just laws. When the majority passes unjust laws and enforces them through a powerful government, like in the French Revolution, the result is ugly: carnage, death, and the debasement of people. Hobbes says, “Man has a right to everything, including [to harm] another person’s body.” Against Hobbes, de Tocqueville says, “I hold it to be an impious and detestable maxim, that, politically speaking, the people have a right to do anything…The rights of every people [ought to be] confined within the limits of what is just.”
- Choosing comfort over freedom. Since the government is so powerful, Americans will increasingly rely on government to make them happy. But we need to learn the lesson of Greece quickly: while a government can protect everyone’s right to pursue happiness, it cannot make everyone happy. Notice I said cannot, and not should not. A government can try to make everyone happy, but it will always fail. Since human desires are so great, a government, like Greece, that tries to do the impossible—to make everyone happy—will bankrupt itself. A government should enforce justice equally. A government should not artificially enforce equal outcomes.
- Self as epistemological authority. De Tocqueville wisely points out that every epistemology has an authority. For example, modernists and Enlightenment thinkers choose Reason (capital R) as the authority. Protestants choose God speaking through the Bible as the authority. Catholics choose the Roman Catholic Church as the authority. Americans choose Self as the epistemological authority. This results in narcissism, disrespect for all authority, subjectivity, sometimes a denial of reality, and an antisupernaturalistic bias. Remember Skully from the X-files? She was an unknowing disciple of Descartes—de Tocqueville might have been talking about her: “Americans readily conclude that everything in the world may be explained and that nothing in it transcends the limits of the understanding. Thus they fall to denying what they cannot comprehend; which leaves them but little faith for whatever is extraordinary, and an almost insurmountable distaste for whatever is supernatural.”
- Pride. In aristocratic ages, pride expresses itself as the desire to be everyone’s superior. In democratic ages, pride expresses itself as the desire to be no one’s inferior.
- Uniformity of thought. “I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America…In America, the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion: within these barriers, an author may write what he pleases; but woe to him if he goes beyond them.”
- An interest in science not as something true and beautiful and good, but as something useful. When we feel justified murdering children with advanced technology and hiding people in freezers (because science), we know scientific research got off track somewhere. We go off track, because like Nazi Germany, we encourage scientists to pursue what is possible and useful instead of what is true, good, and beautiful.
Here is De Tocqueville’s overall warning: “It is therefore most especially in the present democratic times, that the true friends of the liberty…ought constantly to be on the alert, to prevent the power of government from lightly sacrificing the private rights of individuals to the general execution of its designs.”