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Tocqueville on The Toxicity of American Ideals

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As “Democracy in America” revealed, Tocqueville believed that equality was the great political and social idea of his era, and he thought that the United States offered the most advanced example of equality in action. He admired American individualism but warned that a society of individuals can easily become atomized and paradoxically uniform when “every citizen, being assimilated to all the rest, is lost in the crowd.” He felt that a society of individuals lacked the intermediate social structures—such as those provided by traditional hierarchies—to mediate relations with the state. The result could be a democratic “tyranny of the majority” in which individual rights would be compromised. Tocqueville was impressed by much of what he saw in American life. He admired the stability of its economy and the value of religion. He also made the distinction of the irony of the freedom-loving nation’s mistreatment of Native Americans and its embrace of the slave trade. Tocqueville argues that equality is dangerous because it reduces human motivation since every man believe they are in equal in every aspect. I believe there are necessary benefits to inequality existing because it creates healthy competition between citizens. In addition, everyone adds to society in their own role, therefore not everyone can be equal in all aspects.

In order to understand Tocqueville’s perspective, we must look back at the works of Plato and Montesquieu. According to Tocqueville, equal social conditions foster and shape human passions in ways that may be incompatible with freedom. First, equality lowers human aspirations. In democratic times, as the differences between men become smaller, the notion of honor grows feeble, and when these differences disappear, “honor will vanish too.” Generally, “heroic devotion and any other very exalted, brilliant, and pure virtues” become rare, there is neither a desire for great learning nor genius. Tocqueville’s critique is restrained than that of Plato, who tells us that equality will spread so far in democracies that it will destroy virtue entirely by making equality the standard of all social relations: children will have no shame or fear of their parents, students will not respect their professors. But while Tocqueville’s critique of democracy is fairer than Plato’s, he agrees with Plato on the subject of equality’s force. In his discovery, equality may lead to two kinds of overarching ailments that will lower human aspiration: “One must admit that equality, while it brings great benefits to mankind, opens the door…to very dangerous instincts. It tends to isolate men from each other so that each thinks only of himself. It lays the soul open to an inordinate love of material pleasure.” The questions posed here are, why does democracy favor the desire for physical pleasures and why is materialism such a dangerous disease at the time? Tocqueville answers by explaining that desire for material goods increases in democracies because of the instability and anxiety of such times. The aristocrat, whose tastes and needs for physical comfort are “satisfied without trouble or anxiety,” and turns his attention to other pursuits. Democratic citizens live in an age when fortunes are always won and lost. Tocqueville writes, “the poor conceive an eager desire to acquire comfort, and the rich think of danger losing it…the owners [of fortunes] never win them without effort or indulge in them without anxiety.” Again, Tocqueville’s claim seems incomplete. While his claims about anxiety seem reasonable, his argument about democratic attachment to material goods is a larger issue. For instance, Montesquieu, on the contrary writes that healthy democracies are characterized by frugality, due to equality’s tendency to promote distributive policies because equality makes impossible the acquisition of great fortunes. While Montesquieu acknowledges that laws are necessary to promote these habits, his explanation of equality’s natural tendencies is different than Tocqueville. Plato again is instructive, for he provides a theory explaining Tocqueville’s account that democracy leads to materialism.

While equality tends to lower mankind’s hopes and aspirations, it is also dangerous for its tendency to isolate and separate. Despotism is the exercise of absolute power, especially in a cruel and oppressive way. Despotism, as Tocqueville learned from Montesquieu, demands above all such separation of human beings because isolation is the best guarantee of powerlessness. Isolation is a necessary feature of despotic government since equality has a tendency to lead to it, it becomes dangerous. Tocqueville’s argument is not simple, because equality can divide but also unite at the same time. On one hand, as social hierarchies end, democratic citizens become far less divided than ever. Equality of social circumstances leads human beings to identify emotionally and intellectually with each other. There are also economic reasons for this increased self-attention. Equality destroys privilege but brings alone competition, insecurity and anxiety, and thus greater self-preoccupation. For “when all men are more or less equal and are following the same path it is very difficult for any of them to walk faster and get out beyond the uniform crowd surrounding and hemming them in.” As the principle of equality spreads into institutions and manners of the country, the rules of advancement become more inflexible making advancement slower. This arises because competition naturally demands more from people and produces advancements. For this reason, citizens lives are constantly filled with worry, Tocqueville describes Americans as serious-minded people.

According to Tocqueville, equality strengthens one of the strongest passions: vanity, or pride. Equality appeals to pride, since equality of social conditions teaches that everyone is as good as anyone else. Sovereignty strengthens this notion because every person is given an equal say in governing, confirming he is just as valuable as everyone else. Individual pride also strengthens due to the philosophical underpinning of the dogma of popular sovereignty: teaching that all are equal in the capacity of reasoning and judgement. A democratic citizen begins to assume he is equal to everyone else in every respect. In reality, he has far from equal: some are more successful, wealthier than others. Equality feeds his hopes that he really is equal to everyone, creating perpetual dreams that will remain unfulfilled. Citizens will never get the equality they desire. They will continuously come close to their dream, but it will retreat and as it retreats it creates desire for citizens to continue following their dream. This explains why Tocqueville claims that democratic peoples will always be restless and why equality is taxing: the “constant strife between the desires inspired by equality and the means it supplies to satisfy them harasses and wearies the mind.” Tocqueville’s report of democratic equality describes a world of restless desire after desire ending only in death. However, he does not argue the possibility of acceptance of these differences. While not ideal, some citizens would be forced to accept their societal standing based on the role they play.

Equality is defined as the state of being equal, especially in status, rights and opportunities. It is the belief that no one should have poorer life chances because of the way they were born, where they come from, what they believe, or whether they have a disability. Equality recognizes that historically certain groups of people with protected characteristics such as race, disability, sex and sexual orientation have experienced discrimination. Although inequality benefits a society, once could argue that Tocqueville is trying to justify privilege. Tocqueville was privileged himself as a white man, so he benefits from a society that is inequal. In addition, the belief that inequality is necessary is one that is created from a privileged point of view considering if there were any societal changes, nothing would change in the role of the white man in America.

Tocqueville supports his claim that equality lowers human aspirations and has a tendency to isolate citizens. Equality destroys privilege but brings with its competition, insecurity and anxiety, thus creating greater self-preoccupation. A society cannot exist without healthy competition because without it no one will seek out to improve themselves. Humans have a natural desire to strive to a goal which requires another person having more in order to motivate the people who have less. Unfortunately, there is no perfect equal society in existence. In general, diversity is a necessary for societies to progress. In our time, we are having a new conversation about equity versus equality. Equity is giving everyone what they need to be successful while equality is treating everyone the same. I believe most citizens recognize certain inequalities are necessary in a community, however everyone should be given the opportunities to succeed.

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