Tocqueville, Violence, and the Contemporary Crisis of American Partisanship

28 July 2021

At the end of Volume I of Democracy in America, in a section entitled “On Republican Institutions in the United States: What Are the Chances of Their Survival,” Alexis de Tocqueville offered his readers some optimism. While the particular form of the Union was a historical “accident,” he wrote, “the republic seems to me to be the natural state of the Americans.” Compared to Europe, where republicans claim to speak for an imagined “people,” in the United States the term republic refers “to the tranquil reign of the majority.”


Tocqueville’s optimism came with a warning, however. It was possible that “a long series of circumstances all tending in the same direction could replace this combination of laws, opinions, and mores with a contrary one.” Tocqueville concluded that “If republican principles are to perish in America, they would succumb only after a long, frequently interrupted, repeatedly renewed period of social travail.” At the time he saw “no harbinger” of this on the horizon. Unlike in Europe, where parties disagreed on the very principles of society and government, in the United States, free white Americans agreed on their constitutional principles and debated instead “secondary laws.” In America, Tocqueville was confident, “the constitutional foundation is respected.”


Some years ago, I wrote a review essay on Tocqueville and the American Civil War. In that piece, I explored how Tocqueville slowly lost confidence in the capacity of America’s institutions and mores to resist the divisions and violence that resulted from sectional disagreements over slavery in the decades after the publication of Democracy in America. Near the end of his life, as he read about violence in Kansas and on the Senate floor, Tocqueville wondered whether Americans’ constitutional foundation remained secure. In an 1857 letter to Theodore Sedgwick, Tocqueville noted “the almost revolutionary agitation” in American politics. Such “a high level of violence,” he wrote Sedgwick, “would be the infallible sign of civil war in Europe” and might signify the same “even in America.”


As in the antebellum era, the United States is today facing a political crisis that has already spurred outbursts of violence, from attacks on houses of worship and on Asian Americans to the unprecedented insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6. As Thomas Friedman recently wrote, if Republican efforts to establish minority rule are not stopped, the American political system will lose legitimacy. “[It] is going to feel like a new civil war,” warns Friedman. Although Tocqueville may not have expected to see this kind of crisis in the United States when he was writing Democracy in America, he would have had an explanation for it. Though Tocqueville saw divergent political parties as crucial to a democracy’s wellbeing, he also understood that when parties no longer respect the country’s “constitutional foundation,” they become threats rather than assets. Tocqueville raises some uncomfortable questions about what is to be done when this happens.


In Volume 1, Part 2, Chapter 4 of Democracy in America, Tocqueville explores “political association in the United States.” He was aware that many of his European readers would consider political parties inherently dangerous to order and liberty. And he no doubt knew that many Americans had shared that position. Indeed, President George Washington himself had condemned parties in his Farewell Address:

All combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels, and modified by mutual interests.

President Washington blamed Jeffersonian party organizations for inspiring the violence of the Whiskey Rebellion. In turn, Jeffersonian leaders condemned violence, celebrated the importance of open public debate, and helped create the conditions essential for the peaceful transition of power in a democracy.


Tocqueville shared Washington’s concerns about allowing groups to organize in opposition to the government, but he ultimately embraced political parties and inverted Washington’s logic. Because Tocqueville worried about the “tyranny of the majority,” he believed that there had to be a way for minorities to challenge elected leaders. He thus admitted the need for political parties— which he warily described as a “ dangerous means”—to challenge majority tyranny. In American democracy, he wrote, when “a political party becomes dominant … all public power passes into its hands.” The majority may then conclude that it speaks for all the people and has a mandate to do as it pleases. That is why it is essential that minority factions be allowed to “assemble.” Their collective existence grants them “moral force.” They then seek to convince enough others to join them that they might become a majority. In this way, minority parties ensure that there will be a check to the tyrannical tendencies of majority rule.


Tocqueville’s conceptualization of partisanship as a “dangerous means” to protect democracy from majority tyranny depended on certain conditions, none of which persist today. Tocqueville argued that American parties differed fundamentally from their European counterparts. “Most Europeans,” he posited, “still look upon associations as a weapon of war,” a means to forcefully resist the state. In contrast, in the United States, “citizens of the minority associate primarily to ascertain their numerical strength” and “to promote competition among ideas in order to discover which arguments are most likely to make an impression on the majority.” In other words, American political parties relied on peaceful efforts to change public opinion in their favor.


Why were American parties different than those in Europe? First, “in Europe, there exist parties so different from the majority that they can never hope to gain its support.” In the United States, by contrast, both major parties believe that they can win elections. Parties become dangerous “only to the degree that it is impossible for a great party to become the majority.” Fortunately, in the United States, where “secondary” laws are at issue, “the right of association may remain virtually unlimited.” Second, Tocqueville pointed to “universal suffrage.” (Of course, we know that that the franchise in the United States was far from universal.) Because almost all white men could vote, the “majority is never in doubt” and thus “no party can reasonably portray itself as the representative of those who did not vote.” In short, no party can claim to represent the true voice of the people without earning that claim in an election.


One can already see some concerns that Tocqueville might raise about American politics today. For starters, although the evidence is mixed, many commentators on the right and left have argued that Republicans are becoming a permanent minority. As President Trump put it, if all eligible Americans could vote, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” In such a situation, democratic processes do not provide partisans confidence that they can gain political power. Second, parties agree to the outcomes of elections because elections leave no doubt about who won. But Americans are witnessing Republicans purposely circulating falsehoods—especially the Big Lie— about the integrity of American elections and President Joseph Biden’s victory. At the same time, Republicans’ election reforms seek to limit suffrage and could also foster confusion about future outcomes.


Together, these changes could lead members of both parties to question the legitimacy of elections. Tocqueville understood that such a situation would be very dangerous, but he did not expect it to come to pass because Americans shared a commitment to democratic ideals and processes. In the Europe of Tocqueville’s time, on the other hand, the conservative and liberal parties disagreed fundamentally on the very basic questions of political order. Yet Tocqueville asked his readers to consider that “a time may come…when the nation is almost equally divided between the two parties, each of which claims to represent the majority. If, alongside the ruling power, another power of almost equal moral authority gains a foothold, is there any reason to believe that it will limit itself to talk without action for very long?”


If Tocqueville were to visit the United States today, might he conclude that America’s current parties have become much more like his portrayal of their earlier European counterparts? Today, Americans are divided into two rival groups—two “great” parties—who disagree on fundamental moral and political questions. There is significant evidence, documented in detail by historian Michael Klarman in the Harvard Law Review, that Americans’ partisan identities now overlap with our other identities. Members of the two parties now form distinct moral orders. These divisions are exacerbated by geographic segregation. Many Americans look upon their partisan opponents less as political rivals than as foreigners. During the Trump presidency, many Democrats considered Trump and what his followers stood for as illegitimate, as “un-American.” In the wake of Trump’s four years in office, Republicans have raised the stakes by making clear that they do not intend to accept rule by Democrats and will destroy democracy to maintain power. Not even a pandemic could overcome Americans’ mutual distrust. Americans are no longer debating “secondary rules,” but the very cultural and political foundations of the country.


Today’s Republicans meet Tocqueville’s definition of a European party. They are a large party that may not be able to win a majority, and as a result they have turned against the system. They seek battle. Indeed, it has become requisite for leadership in today’s Republican party to downplay Trump’s and his supporters’ violent attack on the Capitol and, by extension, on the Constitution. And this is the crux: the parties do not agree on the rules of the game. Republicans have raised doubts about their commitment to something as foundational to the regime as elections. They have trampled norms that enabled bipartisan governance. The differences between the parties are no longer just about policies but who can hold power legitimately. If Republicans are not committed to the Constitution and to democracy, then the debate we are having is existential.


Many Republicans know this. Even as it has relied on gerrymandering and federalism to maintain political power, the Republican party has been losing members. Today, there are more independents among registered voters than Republicans. A breakaway group of Republican leaders has even gone so far as to call for the formation of a third party. These disaffected Republicans reflect Tocqueville’s understanding of democratic politics. They are calling for a new party that is committed to the rules of the game and will check the dangers of majority tyranny. “Some no doubt will urge us to join the Democratic Party,” they wrote recently. But, they continued, “we believe that inching toward a single-party system would be dangerous and would fail to represent the diverse viewpoints in our nation. America cannot have just one party committed to preservation of its democratic institutions.” Tocqueville could not have said it better.


Tocqueville argued that America’s secret was a shared agreement on democratic norms, which in turn sustained democratic institutions and the rule of law. We Americans accepted the rules of the game. In such a context, both parties could be competitive, both had a chance to win, and both accepted their losses. In Tocqueville’s Europe, on the other hand, partisans could not hope to gain power legitimately and disagreed about fundamental principles. Reading Democracy in America today, one cannot help but conclude that Tocqueville would have been less sanguine about contemporary American parties than he was in the 1830s.


Tocqueville leaves us with some difficult questions. If America’s parties have become more like Tocqueville’s European parties—divided upon basic principles—and if that means that the conditions that enabled safe, peaceful partisan contest are no longer in place, what can or should Americans do? If we Americans wish to protect our Constitution and democratic values, should we treat the Republican party as a dangerous conspiracy rather than a democratic political party? Doing so would no doubt further inflame the tensions that exist in America today, and it is of course dangerous for elected majorities to silence moral and political minorities, as Tocqueville knew. But how far can a democracy withstand a “great party” opposed to the regime’s basic principles? For Tocqueville, political parties were a “dangerous means” rendered safe only because of Americans’ shared commitment to constitutional principles. Absent that commitment, we Americans may discover that we have divided into two great parties unable to resolve their differences without violence.


Photo Credit: Colin Lloyd via Unsplash

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