Monday, August 01, 2011

Tocqueville: Democracy Requires "Equality of Conditions"

My annual Theory Camp began this week. We are reading Tocqueville's Democracy in America.

Tocqueville launches his discussion of American democracy from this point:

“I therefore came increasingly to see the equality of conditions as the original fact from which each particular fact seemed to derive. It stood constantly before me as the focal point toward which all my observations converged.”
The students, naturally, asked how Tocqueville could see in America "equality of conditions" when some were rich and some were poor. Tocqueville's answer is that, unlike in aristocratic societies, citizens of a democracy regard themselves as all the same kind of being. The differences, especially of wealth, did not touch the essence of the person.

Now Tocqueville was well aware that slaves were not treat as equal in condition, nor were the Indians. He treats these themes as conflicts inherent in American democracy. But the principle of equality of conditions is the starting point for the new idea of democracy. The fact that this point seems to obvious now is testimony to the overwhelming success of the American experiment.

1 comment:

Victoria Wheeler said...

I am quite jealous that I am not there! I've been considering reading that book anyway. Perhaps this will be the impetus I need!