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.
1) It was driven by economic growth. In recent years there has been something of a revival of a weak version of modernization theory, based [End Page 12] on the growing consensus among social scientists that there is a correlation between economic development and democracy. In Adam Przeworski's updating of this hypothesis, countries can make the transition to democracy at any level of development, but they are much more likely to remain democracies as they become wealthier, with $6,000 per-capita GDP representing something like a "takeoff point" for democratic stability. However Tocqueville might have understood the inevitability of democracy, this could not have been what he had in mind, since no country had reached that level of per-capita income in his time.
Yet while virtually all societies in Tocqueville's time, including the democratic United States, were primarily agrarian, many of them had become what Adam Smith labeled "commercial" societies, with extensive internal and foreign trade. Tocqueville argues that the growing complexity and the need for stability in such societies encouraged the growth of law and lawyers, and of a division of labor that allowed for the growth of a bourgeoisie with independent sources of wealth and power. Kings and lords, preoccupied with fighting one another, suddenly realized that they had to share at least some power with wealthy commoners. So even if a large commercial society could not sustain what we would recognize today as a democratic polity, it still produced a higher degree of social equality than societies that were poorer and had fewer avenues for social mobility.
2) It was driven by property rights. Anticipating Douglass North, Tocqueville argues that the growth of personal property and the decline of feudal land tenure stoked the fire of invention. Once property rights gave them an incentive to create, innovators could satisfy the human desire for luxury, war, and fashion and thereby gain power for themselves. War, which had been the exclusive domain of the aristocracy and the source of its power, could then be pursued by the non-noble.
3) It was driven by technology. Tocqueville points to the development of firearms, printing, the post, and sea travel (which opened up the riches of the Americas to those without power) as technological innovations that tended to disperse power to common people. He could, of course, have mentioned many other inventions that had a comparable effect, such as the bow and arrow (which dethroned the mounted knight) and the stirrup (which allowed commoners to ride horses).
4) It was driven by war and conflict. Closely related to the previous point, Tocqueville lays out a version of what has been called "defensive modernization" as an explanation for the spread of democracy. The need to raise revenues for war impelled monarchs to seek money from financiers and those who had grown rich through trade, and to give them a share of power. Conflict decimated the nobility, encouraged military and political innovation, and forced monarchs to call on the [End Page 13] common people to man their armies. Implicit in this view is the contention that the political decentralization of Europe, compared to the continental empires that prevailed in India or China, contributed heavily to the advance of democracy in the West.
5) It was driven by enlightenment. Tocqueville suggests that the spread of enlightenment and the growing importance of what is now called "human capital" in affairs of state aided the spread of democracy. He suggests that the "graces of the mind" and the "fire of imagination" are rather evenly spread out throughout society, rather than being the monopoly of a particular elite. This being the case, the self-interest of states dictated the opening of careers to talents.
Tocqueville's complete view of the role of reason in human history is very complex, however. At other points in Democracy in America, he goes out of his way to attack a simple-minded idealist view of history according to which democracy is somehow a rational or self-evidently just form of government that arises from a more scientific understanding of human things. At several points, in fact, he expresses great pessimism about the very possibility of philosophical knowledge, noting how often thought is constrained by historical circumstance. Early in Volume II, for example, Tocqueville notes that the greatest minds of earlier generations have been misled on the question of human equality. The writers of classical Greece and Rome, for example, justified slavery as natural, while it did not occur to a modern thinker like Descartes to apply his skepticism to the political world around him. 2 Elsewhere he argues in a general way that even the most enlightened minds must rely on authority lest they be paralyzed by the need to analyze and experience everything for themselves. Hence no degree of enlightenment will free human thought from the assumptions guiding the age that the thinker lives in--an historicist view of human rationality that is reminiscent of Hegel.
Yet if human thought is bounded by a historical horizon, is there the possibility, as in Hegel's system, of an "end of history," that is, a moment when philosophy can transcend the bounds of historical determination and see things as they truly are? In particular, does Jefferson's assertion that "all men are created equal"--the guiding principle of modern democracy--have the status of a transcendent truth that philosophy has progressively come to comprehend, as opposed to being merely the latest in a series of historical horizons (something we would today relegate to the category of "culture")? And if so, is the historical progress of democracy then driven by the progressive uncovering of this timeless truth?
Tocqueville's view on this question is extraordinarily complex. Pierre Manent explains that in Tocqueville's view democracy is in certain obvious ways more natural than aristocracy. 3 The latter depends on a host of artificial conventions and bizarre notions of honor that serve to [End Page 14] distinguish some men from others. As nations become more democratic, relations between people are put on the basis of principles that are more general and universal, but also weaker. These natural democratic principles have the effect of separating people and making them less capable of collective action, while also dulling the part of their souls that desires excellence. The human desire for excellence is also natural and in some sense a "completion" of human nature, but paradoxically it is called forth most often in aristocratic societies that are dependent on artifice and arbitrary convention. And Tocqueville makes clear that, in terms of human intellectual capabilities, all men are not created equal.
6) It was driven by Christianity. This brings us to the sixth and most important driver of History. It is worth noting that the modern belief in human equality is not the product of philosophy but comes out of religion. According to Tocqueville, "the advent of Jesus Christ upon earth was required to teach that all the members of the human race are by nature equal and alike" (II, 15). This suggests that revelation, not reason, is the driving force behind human history. Tocqueville makes repeated references throughout Democracy in America to Christianity as the source of the belief in human equality and to the sociological impact that the Christian church had on the spread of democracy over the centuries. For example, Tocqueville is very specific about the date of the beginning of mankind's inexorable progress toward democracy; he states that its march began some 700 years before his own time. The first volume of Democracy in America came out in 1835; counting back 700 years puts us in the year 1135, a date whose historical significance is far from obvious. Tocqueville seems to have something specific in mind from French history; according to him, at around that date the clergy opened itself up to all people, poor and rich, and insinuated itself into the government, enabling people of humble origins to reach the top ranks of power. Tocqueville appears to be referring to the Cistercians, a monastic order that was founded in Burgundy in 1098 but grew enormously in the middle years of the twelfth century after St. Bernard of Clairvaux joined it with a number of his followers. By the time of St. Bernard's death, the Cistercians had founded 338 abbeys, accumulated great wealth, and been responsible for much of the material progress made in France during that century.
This particular incident is, of course, purely sociological: There is no essential connection between Christian doctrine and the behavior of St. Bernard or the Cistercians, who may have been motivated by worldly ambition. As indicated in the passage about Jesus quoted above, however, Tocqueville makes clear that Christianity had arrived at an essential insight about human equality and that it was therefore no accident that democracy grew first on Christian soil. Again, Tocqueville's position seems to be very close to that of Hegel: The principle [End Page 15] of equality is apprehended first through religion, and democracy is basically a secularized form of Christianity. Protestantism, in particular, paved the way for democracy by giving believers direct access to God and undermining the authority of an autocratic church. Tocqueville makes it very clear that the long march toward democracy that he describes is primarily a characteristic of the Christian nations; the Introduction is replete with references to the Christian world as the outer boundary for his generalizations about the spread of equality.
It is perfectly possible for an important insight about the human condition to be apprehended through religion rather than philosophy, and for it to spread across the world through cultural means rather than as a result of progressive enlightenment. As we have seen, democracy's teaching about human equality has a basis in nature but also violates human nature by pretending that unequal men are in fact equal. Christianity's great insight is only partly true. The question that remains is whether this partial truth will become plausible to non-Christian peoples, who must necessarily apprehend it not on the basis of faith but as a secular doctrine.
Tocqueville does not to my knowledge explicitly address this question in Democracy in America. If the force driving the Christian world to democracy is as powerful and inexorable as Tocqueville claims, and if it is at least in part grounded in human nature, it may seem improbable that it will simply come to a halt at the borders of this particular religious community. On the other hand, aristocracy is also grounded in nature. In other cultural systems, hierarchy is supported by dogmatic religious belief--consider Hinduism, with its elaborate system of social stratification. It is hard to detect a comparable movement toward human equality in other world civilizations over the same 700-year period that Tocqueville describes; perhaps Tocqueville's vision is limited by his European perspective.
The issue of democracy's relationship to Christianity and its potential universality is of key importance to the future of democracy in the world. The universality of the democratic principle is the very issue that today divides those who insist, for example, that China observe certain basic human rights from those who argue that the West has no right to impose its values on a country with a different cultural heritage. In The Third Wave, Samuel Huntington, like Hegel and Tocqueville, notes the close historical association between Christianity and modern democracy. Many of the "third wave" democratizations of the 1970s and 1980s took place in Catholic countries that arrived at democracy just a bit later than the Protestant ones. In a theme that is further developed in The Clash of Civilizations, Huntington suggests that democracy is a cultural outgrowth of Western Christianity, with the implication that it may not be a political system with potentially universal validity. The apparent correlation between democracy and [End Page 16] development may actually mask an underlying correlation between democracy and Western Christianity, due to the great overlap between countries that are developed and those that have a Protestant or Catholic cultural heritage.
Tocqueville would clearly not subscribe to Huntington's thesis, for he sees the principle of equality as too powerful to be bottled up within the boundaries of a single civilization. (Indeed, Christianity itself, being a universalistic doctrine, has never been bottled up within a single ethnolinguistic group.) How Tocqueville expected the democratic revolution to play out beyond the boundaries of Christian Europe, however, is a question at which we can only guess.
Whatever its ultimate ambiguities, Tocqueville clearly does have a theory of history that goes well beyond the assertion that the march of democracy is providential. Indeed, his theory anticipates almost all of the other theories of modernization and political evolution that would follow him. It is a mark of his genius that he accomplishes this in a chapter of no more than a dozen pages.
Francis Fukuyama is Omer L. and Nancy Hirst Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University and author of The End of History and the Last Man (1992), Trust: Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity (1995), and most recently, The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order (1999).
1. For an explanation of references to the text of Democracy in America, see p. 9 above.
2. What applies to a great thinker like Descartes is even more true of lesser minds like Mme. de Sévigné; Tocqueville quotes from some of her letters showing how this sensitive woman was completely indifferent to the torture of a tailor simply because he came from a lower social class (II, 164-65).
3. Pierre Manent, Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, John Waggoner, trans. (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996), ch. 7.