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Alexis de Tocqueville, 1850, by Theodore Chasseriau



These days, we’re reckoning with the seeming naturalness and apparent precariousness of democracy. It seems as if democracy is here to stay, but a handful of populist strongmen and a few misjudged votes appear to throw us off. In such times, I suggest we turn to the wisdom of Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), who noted the precariousness of liberty within democracies. Democracy is probably here to stay, but is it in crisis?

Before we lose hope for free democracies, I question whether Tocqueville would consider a populist wave to be such a great threat. He was more concerned with how a gentle tutelary power threatened free and flourishing democracies.

Tocqueville popularised the notion of the tyranny of the majority and worried that it threatened free democracies. According to Tocqueville, “if liberty is ever lost”, the tyranny of the majority will be the culprit, having “brought minorities to despair”. This “tyranny” may resonate with our concern for the position of Scotland and Northern Ireland following the Brexit referendum, or the position of American manufacturers following Trump’s trade renegotiations. This is the component of populism, rather than populists, or “men of violent character”, that really worried Tocqueville.

However, as a democrat, Tocqueville believed that “however annoying the law” we submit because there is “a kind of personal interest” in knowing “the one who is not part of the majority today will perhaps be among its ranks tomorrow”. Tocqueville believed democracies could temper the tyranny of the majority through associations and the absence of administrative centralisation. Free associations are “a necessary guarantee against the tyranny of the majority”. As long as active groups of minorities can amplify their opposition through associations, this form of tyranny can be kept at bay while popular sovereignty is maintained. Additionally, if the scope of the administrative state is restricted, the power of the majority can be circumscribed. The majority cannot wield a stranglehold on every aspect of our lives if procedural administrative means are not readily available.

What did Tocqueville fear more than tyrants and majorities? Democratic despotism is the greatest threat to free and flourishing democracies. Administrative centralisation is a component of this. Though he worried about the effects of a majority married to an overbearing administrative state, he most feared a mediocre, apathetic population that turns to the centralised state to resolve all its choices and woes. Tocqueville thought that sensibilities are generally mild in democracies, and “this universal moderation” limits even opportunistic tyrants. The most pressing danger is not “tyrants, but rather tutors”.

This “tutelary power”, a gentle despotism known only to democracies, “is absolute, detailed, regular, far-sighted and mild”. It is similar to “paternal power”, but it does not raise children, it keeps them “irrevocably in childhood”. This tutor “attends to their security, provides for their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, settles their estates, divides their inheritances; how can it not remove entirely from them the trouble to think and the difficulty of living?” Such despotism leaves us no room to exercise our liberties.
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