Some Yale friends and I are doing a reading group for Tocqueville’s Democracy in America this summer, and I’m posting a response I sent to our listserv on the chapter, “On Political Association in the United States”:
Let me first say that these chapters of Democracy in America are some of my favorites and really show Tocqueville at his most perceptive and subtle. I want to focus on two chapters—4 and 6—which I think are especially revealing of Tocqueville’s quite radical ideas about democracy. For citations, I will use the page number in the Mansfield/Winthrop translation. Someone really needs to create a standard format for Democracy in America like the Stephanus numbers, and I apologize to people using other translations.
Chapter 4, “On Political Association in the United States,” discusses the right of free assembly. We very often make no distinction in our contemporary political lexicon between freedom of speech and freedom of association, but as Tocqueville notes, the distinction is quite important. Association meant something much closer to “faction” in Tocqueville’s time, and he explores in this chapter similar themes found in Federalist 10 about the dangers of factions and various prophylactics against its risks. He writes, “One does indeed associate with the purposes of speaking, but the thought of acting next preoccupies all mind (italics mine). An association is an army (!!!) ; one speaks in it so as to be counted and to be inspired, and then one marches toward the enemy” (p. 184). Associations form not solely for the purpose of speaking and coordinating a political message, but also to influence and affect political affairs. Tocqueville thinks that this difference makes the freedom of association riskier than freedom of speech—an association he argues is a “government inside the government” (p. 181). While we think of political associations today primarily as lobbies or PACs, associations in Tocqueville’s time were comparatively more powerful and assertive. He was no doubt affected, as he notes, by his experience of the tariff debates of 1831-32 that culminated in the nullification crisis. Tocqueville thinks we should take seriously the factional and potentially subversive danger associations pose to political order. The risk comes from the intersection of political associations with political demagoguery, as he elaborates:
“Between proving that one law is better in itself than another, and proving that one ought to substitute it for the other, it is undoubtedly far. But where the minds of enlightened men still see a great distance, the imagination of the crowd no longer perceives it…. If, near to the directing power, a power comes to be established whose moral authority is almost as great, can one believe that it will long limit itself to speaking without acting?” (p. 182)
Tocqueville recognizes, rightly I think, the importance of the speech/act distinction, and also the fact that associations did not confine themselves merely to persuasion and legal means—they employed threats of violence as well. The primacy of persuasion, Tocqueville observes, “is born of experience” only after education tempers the inclination of a party man to use force (p. 185).
However, he countenances the risks of a right to association in the face of an even greater risk from majority rule: “The omnipotence of the majority appears to me such a great peril for the American republics that the dangerous means to limit it seem to me even a good” (p. 183). Freedom of association, particularly under the spoils system in which majorities enjoyed such a small voice in administration, provided an important avenue for dissent against the rule of the majority.
Furthermore, Tocqueville argues that the dangers posed by minority factions are really dangers of people with extreme views who feel they have nothing to lose. These partisans feel they can gain nothing by persuasion and thus resort to force. As he puts the point,
“the exercise of the right of association, therefore, becomes dangerous to the degree to which it is impossible for great parties to become the majority” (p. 185). Tocqueville discusses the difference between “great” and “small” parties in chapter 2, where the former are defined by ideas and the latter by self-interest.
This observation connects to one of Tocqueville’s most interesting claims—that universal suffrage has served to moderate political discourse. Suffrage for all (white men) means fewer disenfranchised men, which undermines the claims of extreme factions to represent the voiceless and the powerless. They lose their “sacred character that attaches to the struggle of the oppressed against the oppressors” (p. 186). This claim is precisely an extension of Madison’s claim in Federalist 10 that the way to manage factions is to “extend the sphere” of governance—create an extended republic where the extreme factions will counterbalance each other. Democracy, Tocqueville writes, prevents the danger of democracy.
It is worth reflecting again on how novel Tocqueville’s claim was. For about 2,000 years, people had argued that, with Plato, that democracy’s weakness lay in its “hidden shallows”—democracies were superficially polished and put-together but ignorant and rotten underneath. In Chapter 4, and elsewhere, Tocqueville is turning that argument on its head—democracy is superficially noisy, shallow, and always on the brink of anarchy, but it has a hidden robustness. In the case of association, the idea of majority rule and the extended sphere serve to disarm the violent and anarchic tendencies of faction. Democracy prevents the danger of democracy. But this strength is hidden from view of the average person and the daily life of a democracy.