Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America

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Alexis de Tocqueville's visit to the United States in the early part of the nineteenth century prompted his work Democracy in America, in which he expressed the ability to make democracy work. Throughout his travels Tocqueville noted that private interest and personal gain motivated the actions of most Americans, which in turn cultivated a strong sense of individualism. Tocqueville believed that this individualism would soon "sap the virtue of public life" (395) and create a despotism of selfishness. This growth of despotism would be created by citizens becoming too individualistic, and therefore not bothering to fulfill their civic duties or exercise their freedom. Tocqueville feared that the political order of America would soon become aimed at the satisfaction of individual needs, rather than the greater good of society. Alexis de Tocqueville viewed participation in public affairs, the growth of associations and newspapers, the principle of self-interest properly understood, and religion as the only means by which American democracy could combat the effects of individualism.

Given that despots have every interest in keeping people isolated, the individualism resulting from equality makes despotism a great danger to equality. "Despotism… sees in the separation among men the surest guarantee of its continuance, and it usually makes every effort to keep them separate" (399). Exercising freedom through participation in public affairs is therefore extremely vital because it gives people a personal interest in thinking about others in society. Local self-governments are important because they draw people together, and it is therefore more likely that they will exercise their liberty. Tocqueville states that "as soon as a man begins to treat of public affairs in public, he begins to perceive that he is not so independent of his fellow men as he had first imagined, and that in order to obtain their support he must often lend them his cooperation" (400). When...
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