- The March of Equality
Alexis de Tocqueville virtually begins his Democracy in America with the apparently unqualified assertion that the advance of democracy is inevitable. This striking passage from the Introduction is worth quoting at length:
The various occurrences of national existence have everywhere turned to the advantage of democracy: all men have aided it by their exertions, both those who have intentionally labored in its cause and those who have served it unwillingly; those who have fought for it and even those who have declared themselves its opponents have all been driven along in the same direction, have all labored to one end; some unknowingly and some despite themselves, all have been blind instruments in the hands of God.
The gradual development of the principle of equality is, therefore, a providential fact. It has all the characteristics of such a fact: it is universal, it is lasting, it constantly eludes all human interference, and all events as well as all men contribute to its progress(I, 6). 1
Tocqueville notes that his book has been written “under the influence of a kind of religious awe produced in the author’s mind by the view of that irresistible revolution.” Thus “to attempt to check democracy would be . . . to resist the will of God; and the nations would then be constrained to make the best of the social lot awarded to them by Providence” (I, 7).
Unlike his slightly older contemporary Hegel, Tocqueville is not primarily known for being a philosopher of history. Yet it is hard to read the passage above and not recognize in it a very strong statement [End Page 11] about human history and its inexorable march toward democracy. Indeed, the categorical historical determinism suggested by the quoted passage makes Tocqueville sound a bit like Marx and Engels. Why did Tocqueville make this assertion, what did he mean by it, and how did he understand the historical inevitability of democracy? And of the forces that he saw making democracy inevitable, which ones will still operate in the twenty-first century?
Drivers of Democracy
Tocqueville’s explicit answer to the question of what is driving mankind towards ever-increasing equality and democracy is the hand of God. As we will see, the Christian religion plays a particularly important role in Tocqueville’s understanding of democracy’s spread. Yet there are a number of reasons for thinking that Tocqueville’s full understanding of democracy’s inevitability goes beyond the simple assertion that it is the work of God. The primary audience for Tocqueville’s book, as he makes clear, is not Americans and partisans of democracy but rather Frenchmen who are likely as not to be democracy’s enemies. In the second part of the Introduction, he explains how the French Revolution has led gentle and virtuous men to oppose civilization and innovation, and men of religion to become enemies of freedom. Tocqueville’s appeal to the providential nature of democracy would presumably appeal most to this audience, who might thus be dissuaded from their belief that the broad march of democracy could be reversed through the activities of a “single generation.”
The providential account of the advance of democracy is not as straightforward as it may seem for another reason. Tocqueville is clearly no simple partisan of democracy. Throughout Democracy in America, he points to the greatness of spirit, the love of liberty, and the sheer human excellence that characterized aristocratic societies (consider, for example, the famous passage where he doubts that Pascal could have been the product of a democratic society). His own time had been morally upended by the French Revolution, with bad people espousing good causes and vice versa. It is not evident, in other words, that historical inevitability is the same thing as historical progress, and thus it is not clear that a benevolent God is necessarily behind the steady move toward democracy. Even if God is ultimately responsible for History, His purposes are less than clear.
This suggests, however, that for Tocqueville there were other, more proximate reasons why democracy should advance over time. In the Introduction he gives at least six possible explanations for the march of democracy.