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Democracy in America: Tocqueville

Despotism of the majority appeared in the two-party system from the staert..Under the flag of sovereignty of the people, the majority of the citizens become a silenced degraded mass.. In democracy, people become increasingly equal; in industry, people become increasingly unequal.

An Early Warning. Expert Opinions on the World Assembly to Renew Democracy

By Werner Rugemer

[This article originally published in: junge Welt, 1/29/2005 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://www.jungewelt.de/2005/01-20/004.php.]

After the Second World War, a book was widely read in West Germany that was regarded worldwide as a praise of US democracy. Its author was considered a classical author of democracy for over a century. The book was reprinted in new editions and used in instruction at schools and universities. That the US army appeared as a great liberator and was seen as a liberator by the ruling circles like the other liberators France, Great Britain and especially the Soviet Union was obviously enough for the good image of US democracy. This view strangely continues up to today.

The book is actually a shrewd and merciless evaluation of democracy according to the US model. The young French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville was its author. Commissioned by the French government, he traveled through the United States in 1832. His report "On Democracy in America" appeared in 1835, was translated in many languages and became a worldwide success. In the decades following the French Revolution, a great longing to be liberated from different forms of oppression and champion democracy prevailed in many countries. The criticism of its own political system was eagerly taken up in the United States itself.


Tocqueville described the democracy of the United States as the most progressive democracy at that time. The future of democracy all over the world was central to him. "I wanted to know", he wrote, "what we can hope for or fear from democracy." In Europe, Tocqueville said, democracy was still fettered by monopoly and old riches. America was different. "The immigrants who settled in America at the beginning of the 17th century divested the democratic principle from everything opposing it in the old European states and transplanted it in a pure form to the coasts of the new world. There the democratic principle could thrive in freedom."

Tocqueville was delighted to see how equality of social conditions was realized. "Nearly all Americans must practice a calling", he observed. "People there have equality of powers and intellectual cultivation." While some persons become rich, "most rich persons were first poor." Thus he identified what we have described as a performance-oriented society and a principle of democracy.

Tocqueville admired the "sovereignty of the people". All men have the right to vote irrespective of their property and assets. While he did not mention the nonexistent franchise of women and the extermination of the original population, criticism has by no means decreased for us today. As in Europe, the men choose the legislative assembly and vote for their administrative authority in open town meetings or city assemblies. Every official is chosen for a certain function for a year, the police officer, tax collector and school superintendent. Tocqueville praised the federal state system, community freedom and local self-government. He observed with joy the freedom of association and spontaneous assemblies known today as citizen initiatives and other associative forms of union.


The observer from France who sought models for renewing democracy after the July revolution of 1830 in the commission of the "citizen king" Louis-Philippe did not lose himself in eulogies. He identified a new "despotism of the majority." The majority that prevails in elections does not allow any other group or party to get back on its feet again. A "legal despotism of the lawmakers" results. The violence of the princes in Europe was directed against critics. In America the majority simply says: "You have the freedom not to think like us. You can keep your life, assets and everything but from this day you are a foreigner among us. You will keep your civil rights but you wont be of any use to us any more. We let you live but it is worse than death."

This "despotism of the majority" appeared in the two-party system from the start. No third party could become established in the long run. For a long time the two parties have been hardly distinguishable. At best one can connect them with different capital groups and military clans. As a prestigious German newspaper like the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung noted, the republican presidential candidate is near the pharmaceutical- and weapons industries while the democratic candidate is close to the real estate branch and the biotech industry. "This is the best democracy you can buy for money", the US journalist Greg Palast writes today.

Under the flag of "sovereignty of the people", the majority of the citizens become a silenced, degraded mass, Tocqueville concluded. "A powerful guardianship is raised over these citizens that insures their comfort and watches over their fate. This guardianship is glad when the citizens do well, assuming they only think of their own well-being. It looks after their security and sees and secures their needs and pleasures. In this way the guardianship makes the use of free will increasingly superfluous." Given the fact that this statement was made 150 years ago, doesn't it have a greater spine-chilling ring when one sees what our people should have become after one-and-a-half centuries?

The independence of judges is also leveled by the two-party rule, Tocqueville suggests. From federal judges to district judges, all are called by the respective governing party. Freedom of the press was ruined since the large media were appendages and profit generators of mammoth corporations. This is true today for all the large television stations: NBC is owned by General Electric, CDS by Viacom, ABC by Disney and CNN by AOL/Time Warner.

Tocqueville saw that the constitution is theoretically but not practically in effect for all persons. He predicted that American democracy would not grant equality of social conditions to black persons. His friend and companion during the nine-month journey in the US, Gustave de Beaumont, wrote his own report about this imperiled equality. He said a new aristocracy was arising from the realm first made possible by democracy, industry.


Equality spreads more and more in the political process in the US according to Tocqueville. However a new inequality arises from the economy. "The more the majority of the nation turns to democracy, the more aristocratic becomes the special class managing industry. In democracy, people become increasingly equal; in industry, they become increasingly unequal." He could not know how this would develop up to today. However the rights of workers in relation to social wealth are not as meager in any other state with a democratic constitution while the rights and incomes of the top executives and business owners are nowhere as great and unrestricted as in the US. This is true today more than ever.

Thus Tocqueville noticed the first forms of a mass phenomenon in the US as the first democratic state of developed capitalism: the working poor. One has work but is still poor. Not accidentally this legal and financial humiliation of physical and intellectual labor began in the richest state of the world. This development strikes more and more persons in Europe and worldwide.

The internal social and ethnic conflict goes along with an unparalleled internal armament. The constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to bear arms originally spared the state a costly standing army. In the meantime the US has the most expensive army of the world while the constitutional amendment has become perverted. 44 million Americans carry guns out of fear of fellow-citizens and ghosts. This is legally legitimated. Thus the US is the state with the greatest violence potential, the death penalty and the highest worldwide rate of murder- and incarceration. Should we trust this state to establish worldwide security?


The anti-democratic violence potential was directed outwards early in history. A few years before Tocqueville's visit, Central- and South America were declared the "backyards" of the United States. Democracy is out of the question there. The insertion of agreeable dictators and authoritarian regimes has been a routine practice of US foreign policy. The right to preventive intervention has been part of that policy. In its tendency, US foreign policy is still anti-democratic today. Preventive interventions against dictators like Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, Salazar, Shah Reza Pahlevi, Marcos, Papa Doc, Duvalier, Mubutu, Pinochet or Abacha did not occur. On the other hand, there were numerous preventive interventions against democracies and democratic movements.

"Backyards" in the US democracy were created out of the same logic. Whatever violates its own laws is shifted to a territory outside its borders. The extra-legal area in Guantanamo is a well-known example. Numerous "backyards" also arose in the interior of the US where popular sovereignty is almost inaccessible. The well-known secret service CIA and the proliferating number of additional secret services are examples. Army divisions and government departments maintain their own secret services. More backyards arise behind the backyards. These secret services use private mercenaries and security services for "very delicate" assignments.

The same principle is also true for the economy and finances. Analogous "backyards" have been built in distant exotic islands. For many decades, large US banks and corporations have processed a growing share of their financial transactions through financial havens like the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas and Bermuda. US banks and corporations set up mailboxes with creative names and anonymously own a large part of the land in their own country and in foreign countries.

"The majority lives in constant self-admiration", Tocqueville noted. What was central to him was not a concern in American democracy: spreading democracy all over the world. In no state with a democratic constitution was the nationalist friend-enemy thinking so arrogantly and fundamentalistically carried so far as in the US. The acknowledgment of sovereign people with equal rights and a corresponding international mechanism do not exist in this logic. Out of this unilateralism, the US is the state that participates least in international agreements: the Kyoto protocol, treaty on the prohibition of land mines, nuclear test ban treaty, agreements on biological and toxic weapons, UN convention against discrimination of women. The US elites do not pay attention to any of these agreements.


This arrogance is strengthened by the firm belief of "God's own country." "In God we trust" is printed on the most widespread worldwide currency, the one-dollar bill. "We trust in God." In the dome of the capitol, the fresco shows how President George Washington guided by two angelic virgins arrives in heaven. Every US soldier receives a Bible in his or her field kit. Priests of all Christian denominations are in uniform with officers' rank. The US constitution, the Declaration of Human Rights" or Tocqueville's "On Democracy in America" are not part of the field equipment.

"And you will know the truth and the truth will set you free." This inscription from the Gospel of John adorns the lobby of the CIA headquarters. The fundamentalist regression in the name of Christianity leads to pre-democratic ways of thinking and acting. At the same time US governments promote fundamentalist religion when it serves their own interests that are hardly religious interests. In Israel they promote fundamentalist Zionism. In Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bosnia, fundamentalist Islamists are promoted by the CIA and a hidden Marxist-Leninist party in the Netherlands. Thus Christianity denies itself.

Tocqueville clearly revealed the dangers in the most developed democracy of the 19th century. To the reproach of pro- and anti-Americanism, our far-sighted chief witness' response is very appropriate today. He described himself as America's friend, above all a friend of democracy and declared: "This book does not follow anyone. When I wrote it, I did not intend being agreeable to one party or attacking one party. I only wanted to see differently than the parties. While they were occupied with tomorrow, my attention was focused on the future."

Democracy in America and the world has certainly assumed a very different form than Tocqueville could predict or fear. However one thing is certain. Whoever regards the present political system in the US as exemplary or suited for leadership of the world represses elementary facts. Other states buy in to the self-abasement of the superpower and endanger democracy, general welfare and security with themselves and worldwide.

Something else is also certain. The democratization of democracy is necessary along with a worldwide democracy movement. When we free ourselves from our congealed, bad-tempered and outrageous relations, we will see that we are less alone than we fear. We will also find friends in the United States of America whose voices did not reach us in the past.

homepage: homepage: http://www.mbtranslations.com
address: address: http://www.commondreams.org

add a comment on this article

book is apt 31.Jan.2005 12:28


read it should do so again.

one point of note is the consideration of the secret police. tochy explains that of europe an contrast

to the US at that time. What is of interesting are those comments in todays light.

I liked it 31.Jan.2005 19:42

Politicalscienceboy politicalscienceboy@yahoo.com

The origional reason for De Toqueville comming to America was to write on the prison system at the time. His own parents were jailed in France. The guy was way ahead of his time - a genious. The book "Democracy In America" came about from what he saw in America, and portrayed it as as a marvelous experience - from the first moment he arrived.

Another point to note 31.Jan.2005 21:52


Toqy make remarks upon many thing. a case in point was the fear in a slave he met, hopelessness in the native peoples suffering their natural economies being distroyed.