The Maimonides of Democracy

12 July 2022

**This is the last of four reviews of Olivier Zunz’s The Man Who Understood Democracy. Last week, we published the first review: Voyage dans les arcanes de la pensée Tocquevillienne” by Baptiste Gauthey, and the second review: “The Limits of Tocqueville’s Understanding” by Jeremy Jennings. Yesterday, the third review was published: “Tocqueville : Penseur et acteur de la démocratie” by Madeleine Rouot.

Tomorrow, Zunz will respond.**

I once participated in a memorable conference in Paris focused on comparing French and American views of political freedom, occasioned by the hundredth anniversary of the gift from France to the United States of the Statue of Liberty. But surely the greatest gift from France to America was Alexis de Tocqueville, a thinker who has been explaining Americans to themselves and stimulating Europeans to reflect on democracy and liberty for almost two centuries. So this learned and lively new intellectual biography, written by a French-American historian who straddles the American/European context, is especially welcome: yet another gift from France to America.

I first consider how Olivier Zunz’s narration of Tocqueville’s life might bear on some of the perennial conundrums of Tocqueville scholarship. Then, following in the footsteps of countless others, I ask whether the gaze of a nineteenth-century aristocrat, however penetrating, can help dispel the miasma clouding our own political anxieties.  If Tocqueville was the “man who understood democracy,” how might this understanding help us to diagnose our contemporary democratic crises, quite different from those that he faced?

Like Zunz’s earlier Tocqueville Reader and his critical English edition of the Recollections, this biography never loses sight of the richness, diversity, and complexity of Tocqueville’s thought. It resists the temptation to paper over conceptual twists and turns in favour of a meticulous reconstruction of the interaction of life and work. And Tocqueville above all wished his work to inform his own political life and those of his contemporaries. His ambition to gain the public eye emerged early and influenced his choice of subject—America as a laboratory incubating a “wholly new” democratic world—and his method—a selective but perceptive narration of facts that would make vivid for Tocqueville’s readers the unsuspected benefits as well as the frightening dangers inherent in this new world. It is one of the strengths of Zunz’s book that he allows us to see Tocqueville applying his subtle intelligence to this task in real time, as it were. As an historian of nineteenth-century America who also understands the French context, Zunz is well placed to re-live the experience of discovering America and thus discovering “democracy” with Tocqueville. We gain a real sense of the interplay among the drivers of Tocqueville’s thought: what he took from his American observations and interlocutors, what came from his underlying worries and moral concerns about France, and what came from his own brilliance as a psychologist and theorist able to dissect new connections among people in an imagined democratic universe. We always knew that these three sources—the stimulus of America, anxiety about France, and his own fertile imagination—shaped Tocqueville’s writing deeply, allowing him to put his own distinctive stamp on the many ideas he shared with other French liberals of his time. But Zunz’s account allows us to see how these sources of Tocquevillian thinking came together in specific cases.

The theory of associations presented in Democracy in America, one of Tocqueville’s most celebrated contributions to democratic political theory, provides one example. Tocqueville rejected the nearly universal view that social and political groups would destabilize political democracy and undermine its success. Rather he painted a picture of associations as the vital building blocks of a healthy democratic civil society and as bulwarks against an overweening state.  Zunz shows us the genesis of this theoretical innovation. It was based on extremely modest empirical observation, since Tocqueville in fact missed the significance of most of the emerging religious, educational, and charitable associations in Jacksonian America as well as the presence of secret societies like the Masons.  Rather he combined sketchy input about associations from a few sources in Boston and Philadelphia with ongoing concerns about the repression of associations in France. But the biggest contribution came from his own hunch that the power of human connection in groups could spill over into political efficacy under the right conditions. From this alchemy of observation and intuition came a protean idée mère that influenced his description of America as a source of democratic hope as well as fear.

A steady focus on the evolution of Tocqueville’s thought and the complex interaction of his concerns, however, does not mean that Zunz cannot make larger and bolder claims. One of the payoffs of his careful contextualization is to allow him to argue persuasively that the aristocratic Tocqueville decisively cast his lot with a democratic future. Much ink has been spilled over the ways in which Tocqueville’s theory is poised between aristocracy and democracy, or secretly smuggles in aristocratic values, or builds aristocratic barricades to the democratic onslaught, or is deeply conflicted and ambivalent about democracy. Without ignoring these hesitations and nuances, Zunz argues that Tocqueville’s commitment to democracy was sincere and based on deep conviction, not only because he was resigned to the inevitable, but also because he was in his own distinctive way attracted to the normative power of a democratic vision of universal justice. It is this attraction, Zunz insists, that explains what has inspired subsequent readers, whose circumstances are quite different but who share the ideal of negotiating a more just democratic future. This way of putting things will seem right to many of Tocqueville’s interpreters and will need to be considered seriously by those who doubt Tocqueville’s democratic bona fides.

Tocqueville scholars, then, will find much in Zunz’s impressive account of his life and work against which to measure and weigh their own interpretations. But what of Tocqueville’s larger role as a writer who provides a perennial “guide to the democratically perplexed”?  Does this account of a public figure steeped in specific nineteenth-century challenges make him less useful to those general readers who inhabit a very different social and political landscape? On the contrary, the Tocqueville that emerges in The Man Who Understood Democracy continues to suggest new ways to view our own predicaments. Let me mention three:  debates over the role of religion in democracy, the issue of deepening economic inequality; and the problem of how to foster change in political cultures that are increasingly polarized, paralyzed, and prone to political violence.

Tocqueville is famous for his analysis of the ways in which democracy in the United States was entwined with religion; its citizens, he wrote, were both energized and politically restrained by shared religious convictions. It is usually the case, however, that commentators focus on the legacy of New England Puritanism, or the influence of a generalized Protestantism, or on the presence in America of a civic religion. These readers will need to reckon with Zunz’s claim that Tocqueville got a lot of things wrong about American Protestantism (for example its necessary slide into a kind of anemic Unitarianism or disbelief) and that he completely ignored other aspects crucial to understanding the subsequent role of religion in American democracy (like the Second Great Awakening). But a different question arises if one takes seriously Zunz’s account of Tocqueville’s own religious sensibility: what role does and should a hierarchical and doctrinal religion like Catholicism play in a democratic society?

The extent to which Tocqueville was always attuned to what we might call the Catholic voice, despite his own loss of faith, is a theme of this biography.  Zunz decisively cuts through old debates about why Tocqueville agreed to take the sacraments before he died with the very reasonable judgment that—whatever his private thoughts, which, of course, we cannot know—Tocqueville’s attempt to be at peace with his wife and “to affirm the faith to which he aspired” is completely consistent with his private and public life. Zunz argues that Tocqueville’s religious sensibility is one of the most important sources of his sincere commitment to democratic universalism and thus to the normative superiority of democracy over aristocracy. He also shows how Tocqueville always filtered his concerns with social justice through a particular Catholic view of benevolence and charity.  Finally, Tocqueville’s dismay at Catholic subservience after Louis Bonaparte’s coup—by clerics and his own brothers—prompts him to bemoan a lost opportunity to draw on a spiritual tradition of speaking truth to power.

The complex confrontations and accommodations between Catholicism and modernity are subjects of increasing interest and innovative historical scholarship.[1] Given its complicated political role in the twentieth century; its prominent place in many contemporary democracies; and its growing, contentious, and polarizing place in American political discourse, the relationship of Catholicism to democracy is an important question. For those with these concerns, Tocqueville’s struggles to show how Catholicism could practically support democracy in regimes that separate church and state, and the ways in which it might be problematical, are worth revisiting.

Another set of worries about the future of politics in the twenty-first century concerns whether democracy, as an ideal and a practice, can survive deepening structural inequality. In this case, Tocqueville stimulates thought more through provocative indirection than through his own emphases. In The Man Who Understood Democracy, Zunz argues that Tocqueville missed prominent signs of commercial and industrial development in America, learning about modern poverty only later after his time in England and Ireland. Nevertheless, he integrated that knowledge into his more general speculations in the second volume of the Democracy.[2] Tocqueville recognized that if material inequality solidified into cultural and class stratification, isolating elites from responsibility to the general population, a successful political form of democracy would be impossible. However, he did not think this scenario—one might call it aristocratic despotism, in contrast to democratic despotism—would emerge on a society-wide scale. The dynamic workings of democracy itself would inhibit the creation of an unaccountable closed elite.

Tocqueville himself worried less about the possibility of aristocratic injustice than about unruly have-nots who might foment revolution and hasten the dominance of a powerful state, thus ushering in a new form of democratic despotism in which all were equal in their loss of freedom. Nevertheless, the category of aristocratic despotism —a situation in which the dominant group has no responsibilities to the subordinate group, but merely makes use of them—appears sporadically in his work: in his analysis of America’s racialized democracy, of British rule in Ireland and India, and even of the French dominance over Arabs in French Algeria, which Zunz unflinchingly explores. These cases have generated much interest among scholars who try to reconcile Tocqueville’s complex and conflicted views on structured ethnic or imperial inequality with his larger democratic themes. But it is true that Tocqueville largely ignores the possibility that a closed aristocracy could arise within a democratic society of theoretical equals. Hence those who worry about the emergence of impermeable cultural elites and a solidifying stratum of working poor with little mobility might easily conclude that Tocqueville is irrelevant to their concerns. Here it may be useful to bring Tocqueville’s implicit category of aristocratic despotism more directly into the conversation. His insightful consideration of the dynamics of what he thought were anomalous or temporary cases of racial and colonial tyranny might be instructive models for unjust domination more generally. And it is also worth remembering Tocqueville’s recommended cure for any emerging despotism: elevating and institutionalizing elements that push back against forms of dominance. Today those balancing forces are unlikely to resemble the ones touted in Democracy in America, i.e., democratic simulacra of aristocratic restraints on centralized governmental power. The need is rather to create a different kind of balance, to infuse practices and institutions embodying the democratic value of universal justice into a calcifying aristocratic despotism.[3]

Finally, one of the lessons of both Democracy in America and The Old Regime is that stable political democracy works only when it is supported by values, ideas, and customs that are engrained in a culture: namely, a sense of common citizenship, respect for law, awareness of mutual rights, practical political experience, and a sense that one’s own self- interest is linked to the collective good. These lead in turn to certain political virtues: pragmatism, the ability to cooperate and compromise for some long-term goal, and humility about what is possible. But such values and virtues were precisely what was missing in Tocqueville’s France and what are in short supply in both the United States and Europe today. Despite profound differences from mid-nineteenth-century France and each other, the political cultures of many western liberal democracies share troubling features that Tocqueville would recognize and deplore. Publics exhibit very little trust in political elites and national institutions. Inequality fosters unrest and support for authoritarian populists. Legislative bodies are deeply divided by partisan enmity, mirroring deep social divisions. Mutual tolerance is rare. The habit of painting one’s rivals as enemies or traitors is common. If it ever existed anywhere, the healthy political culture that Tocqueville celebrated in Democracy in America has clearly decayed, even or especially in the United States itself. It seems that western democracies now face what he feared: a lack of shared values and norms, little sense of civic efficacy, and a polarized politics often on the brink of violence.  What is to be done?

It is a sobering lesson of Tocqueville’s work that social and political moeurs are “sticky” and very difficult to change by political and legal means.  One of the virtues of Zunz’s focus on Tocqueville’s political career, however, is to remind us that using politics and law to transform a toxic culture was precisely the herculean task that Tocqueville set for himself. Unlike some accounts of Tocqueville in politics, Zunz takes his efforts as a politician quite seriously and recognizes some modest successes around social reform.  But what also emerges from the account of Tocqueville’s actual political career is the difficulty of trying to use one’s place in a dysfunctional and corrupt system to transform it. One sees him at once attempting to guard his moral independence, by keeping those with whom he disagrees at arm’s length, and trying to combine with those same others to create a collective force for change. This is a balancing act that recurs frequently in modern legislatures, especially ones in which existing patterns of cooperation and horse trading have broken down. It seems that Tocqueville never squared the circle, but neither did he give up until he was sidelined by Louis-Bonaparte’s coup d’état.

It is also noteworthy that in his efforts to shift French political culture on to a different track, Tocqueville did not push for many of the solutions he had found in America:  decentralization or empowering local levels of government or widening the suffrage. The divisions in the country were so great, he thought, that these measures would backfire. Rather, he hoped to educate the political elite to provide exemplary leadership, to develop their proper role as the moral and deliberative center of politics, and to push for gradual change by taking a bipartisan reform agenda to the people, an agenda that would help to moderate inequality and defuse revolutionary passions. If we lead, he argued, they will follow. None of this worked out in the short run, and in his Recollections he blamed the political class for spinelessness and cowardice.

One may wonder whether there was any chance of successfully nudging elite French political culture in a more civic direction in the 1840s. Perhaps the demise of such efforts in revolution and then an authoritarian coup is further cause for pessimism about rote calls for bipartisanship, cooperation, and reform. What is not in doubt is that Tocqueville’s political failure sparked a brilliant analysis, in The Old Regime and the Revolution, of how French political culture had come to such a sorry pass. In that work, Tocqueville perceptively redescribed the previous hundred years—spanning the Ancien régime, the Revolution, the Empire, and subsequent French political regimes—to identify the rise of a new set of social and political moeurs embedded in the administrative state, new configurations of action and meaning that explained why he and his concitoyens had such an uphill battle in creating stable liberal democracy. Perhaps what The Man Who Understood Democracy suggests to us most forcefully is that we need such a creatively historical Tocquevillian diagnosis of why and how we have come to our own sorry pass, in which the most urgent political issues of our day are met only with bewildering blocages and ritualistic rhetoric.[4]

“Comme disait Monsieur de Tocqueville,” Antoine Redier commented in 1925 in his book of the same name, had by the early twentieth century become an oratorical flourish, a reference to what every French politician vaguely knew: there was a nineteenth-century prophet of democracy, and his name was Tocqueville. And an obligatory nod to Tocqueville’s putative authority on all things democratic is still de rigueur in American popular political writing and speechifying.  Olivier Zunz’s new biography helps to set the record straight on what Alexis de Tocqueville said, but also—at least for this reader—helps to show why “comme disait Monsieur de Tocqueville” will and should continue to provoke and stimulate deeper analytical thinking about democracy and its discontents.

[1] See, for example the Tocquevile 21 Book Forum on Sarah Shortall’s Soldiers of God in a Secular World: Catholic Theology and Twentieth-Century French Politics, ed. Christopher Schaefer (January 21, 2022).

[2] See Part 2, Chapter 20, of the 1840 Democracy, “How an Aristocracy May Be Created by Industry.”

[3] Alan Kahan also concludes on this note in  “And What if Tocqueville was Wrong,” The Tocqueville Review/la revue Tocqueville 39:1 (2018), 244.

[4]Arthur Goldhammer made this point to me in one of our many conversations about the man who understood democracy.


Cheryl Welch is senior lecturer and director of undergraduate studies at Harvard. Among other works, she is the author of De Tocqueville (Oxford, 2001) and is the editor of The Cambridge Companion to Tocqueville (2006).

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