The Divided Political Culture of Today and Tocqueville

Written by Gregory Blackie 


Alexis de Tocqueville was a master observer, able to put into words the many aspects of American life, culture, and government he experienced while on this side of the Atlantic. Only a state of fascination and absolute curiosity could have inspired and compelled Tocqueville to write his thoughts down in such depth and clarity. He gave, and gives, Americans a description of the way in which they, at the time, and perhaps we, now, live from an outsider’s perspective having grown up quite differently and quite far away. One thing he observed as a danger of democracy was the inevitable tyranny of the majority. He noted that a mixed government cannot exist. He carefully mentions that he is not implying a mixed government in the sense of having different chambers, but rather that there cannot exist a government that has “mixed” ideas, principles and cultures. He declares that one will attain a majority and that one culture or philosophy will dominate over the other. This is okay, he thinks, so long as there is a force acting upon it so that it may not achieve its goals entirely or too quickly.Tocqueville

“The form of government which is usually termed mixed has always appeared to me to be a mere chimera. Accurately speaking there is no such thing as a mixed government (with the meaning usually given to that word), because in all communities some one principle of action may be discovered which preponderates over the others.” (Tocqueville)

What Tocqueville observed must have compelled him to make such a claim, and I believe it to be true, however I believe what he observed is far different and far better than what we observe today. Tocqueville came to America at a time when people were Tennesseans first, Americans second. State came before country, community before state. There was a strong tie between the people and their community. One majority didn’t rule over the entirety of the country, rather thousands of different majorities “ruled” over thousands of different communities. The one community wasn’t concerned with what the other did so long as their sovereignty was respected as well.

Democracy in America today is quite different. Instead of thousands of communities respecting the sovereignty of the others, we all fight on a national stage sending representatives to the House and the Senate as well as a representative to the executive. The majority, in theory, gets to rule both the Legislative and Executive branch of the federal government and since Tocqueville came in the 1830s, those two branches have slowly been infringing on the sovereignty of the localities, conglomerating most power in the District of Columbia.


“When a community really has a mixed government, that is to say, when it is equally divided between two adverse principles, it must either pass through a revolution or fall into complete dissolution.” (Tocqueville)

Communities then, and even today, tend to be quite homogeneous in culture. When an issue arises, it lends to logic that the people in communities have some sort of connection with the others in the community and so the majority isn’t too different from the minority, and the fight for power won’t be very violent. However, with so much power given to the federal government, a hundred million different people are fighting a hundred million people they have never met in their life, who they will never meet in their life, and who grew up very, very different than them. Rural farmers in Tennessee are forced to fight with urban people from L.A, thousands of miles apart from each other, with entirely different cultures. Why should the way of life of the Tennessean be forced upon the Californian, or vice versa? It shouldn’t, and when it is the fight for a majority, for power in government becomes very divisive as we see in our political climate now. I don’t think the theoretical Tennessean wants to force his way of life on the Californian, or the Californian on the Tennessean, but with the state of American government, the Tennessean knows he must fight for that power to protect his way of life, and the Californian does the same.

If, as Tocqueville claimed, mixed government cannot exist, power must be localized or the divisiveness we see today will only continue to intensify.

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2 Responses to The Divided Political Culture of Today and Tocqueville

  1. Anonymous says:

    Tocqueville’s point of view is very interesting to me. I think that its extremely hard to compare the early America that the saw to the America we know today, but somehow Tocqueville’s assessments aren’t that far off. Imagine trying to predict which factors will affect the success of a government over a span of 183 years, which is how far we are removed from his Democracy in America.

    Some of his opinions are dated, and didn’t survive the test of time because the world’s view fundamentally changed. He claimed that he was astounded by the level of equality in America, but that very obviously is not including slaves or natives as “Americans”. His views concerning the tyranny of the majority are close, but I think he underestimated how successful protesting can be.

    In his world, free speech led to violence, and protesting with violence was the way to achieve reform. I think the world was a fundamentally different place before and after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, when Martin Luther King proved that massive change could come from peaceful protest. The demonstrations we have seen since, including the marches from yesterday, Tocqueville probably would have dismissed as impossible or at least ineffective.

    I think that very pissed off groups of people do incite change in modern America, because political pressures can lead to politicians going through with some surprising reform in the name of national peace. I think you make a very good point in the article you linked at the end. Great post!

  2. Anonymous says:

    You made a lot of great points regarding Tocqueville and the institutional differences between America in his time, compared to America present day. I agree when you said that back then, the majority of people identified with their state first, and their country second. I also agree with the fact that people today are fighting and arguing with someone who has been raised completely different which in turn makes progress as a whole a whole lot more difficult.

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