In his book, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville expresses his concerns regarding the emergence of despotism in the new democratic age of New England. For Tocqueville, despotism does not solely reside in one man. Despotism is a form of power that does not abide by the laws or rules. According to Tocqueville, despotism is not the rule of a single person; it does not lead to the rise of a single tyrant. Rather, despotism is an arbitrary form of power, which exists to oppose popular sovereignty. From where does despotism rise? The root cause of despotism, in the new democratic age, is the spreading of the idea of equality.
The promising new democratic age gave birth to the concept of equality. Equality is a concept cherished by the New England Americans. Unfortunately, equality is also the reason why the citizens are separated from one another. This separation breaks bonds formed by man. Where on the one hand, aristocracy linked the citizens to the past and the future. On the other hand democracy cuts off the link between the past and the future. In democracy each is for himself. There are two tendencies of equality. The first tendency “leads every man’s thought into new paths” and the other is “would force him willingly to cease thinking at all” (502).
Through these tendencies intellectual liberty would be suppressed and the people of the state would be tied down by the general wish of the majority. Equality sets people side by side without a common link. Each man is isolated and is left to think solely for himself. Once isolated, the man’s “children and personal friends are for him the whole of the human race” (805). Once the seed of equality has been planted in the mind of man, it does not take long for the idea of equality to grow into the desire for isolation.
Equality paves the way for isolation; isolation is the road to despotism. The groups of men, who consider themselves equal to the rest, are all in search of “petty, vulgar pleasures,” to satisfy their souls (805). Although each man yearns for the same pleasures, each man is living apart and is ignorant of the fate of the rest. Blinded by his fascination for equality, man stands alongside his fellow citizens but fails to notice them. This attitude leads him to merely think and exist only for himself. These men are the children of a vast and protective power that watches over them.
That invisible power acts as a parent whose responsibility it is to consider the enjoyment of the citizens. This invisible power is better known as the democratic state. The democratic state acts as a father to the citizens. It takes care of the one’s needs such as: providing security, directing concerns, supplying pleasure, and many more. This power takes care of every basic need of the citizens, but this very power acts as a despot controlling every aspect of the common man’s life. With the constant interference of the democratic state, the value of the utilization of free choice is reduced.
Because the democratic state restricts the exertion of free will “within a narrow range,” it also slowly removes autonomy from the citizens (805). In the name of equality the citizens are tolerating the limits placed on their potential. The ruling power, the democratic state, has already limited the citizen to the extent that he does not realize that he is being oppressed by the state. According to Tocqueville, the oppressive nature of the idea of equality has been successful in suppressing those with original minds and energetic spirits.
The gifted cannot rise above the crowd and are therefore forced to compromise with their abilities without even being aware of it. The idea of isolation within equality gives man hope that he is a free man but he fails to realize that at every step he is being forced to bend his will. If at every stage of life man is being forced to compromise, then an outside force rules over him. He then becomes merely a speck in the “flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as shepherd” (806).
If the idea of equality paves the way for the idea of isolationism, then the idea of isolationism clears the way for individualism to thrive. The systematic use of oppression has infiltrated the society to the extent that Tocqueville named the situation peaceful enslavement. The citizens are unknowingly taking part in a new slave democracy in which the government acts as the master or, in this case, the despot. Individualism is a specific ethos Americans cherish. Modern despotism works through isolation, massification, and self-interest.
Self-interest, according to Tocqueville, is synonymous with individualism. These interest driven individuals are produced by a competitive, capitalist society. The main concern with individualism is that the run for riches knows no boundaries. As soon as people become isolated they tend to turn more individualistic. This causes their self-interest to run-a-muck. This never ending appetite for self-interest causes one to only focus on their passion for physical occupation. That is, they only care about their materialistic objects and eventually get caught up in the competitive society.
Once man starts focusing more on the materialistic things, he soon turns away from the common good. He stops thinking about what is good for the rest of the citizens with whom he shares a common lifestyle. As man stops thinking about the common good, he eventually begins to hold his interest above the common good. He becomes greedy and begins to want more, including what’s not rightfully his. As man’s greed grows, it begins to create a restless ambition. The race for more becomes expeditious. All these things make room for political domination and also take us away from the common good.
Through Tocqueville’s explanation of despotism in the new democracy, it is evident that there is not a real sense of equality because the government has placed limitations on the citizens. This new kind of despotism which Tocqueville speaks of is “more widespread and kinder; it would debase men without tormenting them” (804). The road to despotism, in the new democracy starts off with equality. Equality breaks bonds across generations and is, therefore, successful in isolating us. Isolationism is the road to despotism. As isolationism grows, individualism emerges and self-interest takes over.
Once there is an attitude of indifference to public virtue, despotism arises. This despotism does not take the form of a single person. Rather, the government, or the state, takes charge of the citizens. The government rules over the citizens like a father would rule over his family. According to Tocqueville, the new democracy has a different kind of despotism to face. This new kind of despotism is a form of power that does not abide by a law or rule. The main concern is that despotism is inevitable in the new democracy because it is the very concept of democracy, equality for all, that breeds despotism.