Tocqueville and Illiberalism

As a keen observer of both France and the United States, Alexis de Tocqueville worried that democracy would lead to despotism. Does the contemporary rise of illiberalism confirm his fears?
© Antoine Moreau-Dusault

We need to reread Tocqueville. Some may argue that he describes an America that no longer exists, the America of the pioneers, the Frontier trailblazers, the aristocracy of Virginia plantation owners, the influential Puritans – of farmers more than industrialists and local assemblies more than the federal government. The America he discovered in 1831-1832 was still British, and Tocqueville saw it as an extension of Britain’s taste for freedom and fulfillment. But Tocqueville’s intuitions are relevant to our time, too. He did not view himself as a prophet, unlike his contemporary Karl Marx, but possessed a rare gift for observation that enabled him to anticipate the future. We are witnessing it now as our democracies, in the United States, France, and elsewhere in Europe, are being tempted by what is now known as illiberalism.

A democracy is illiberal when people vote yet any government that comes to power progressively destroys everything that could oppose it, including the judiciary, the media, local authorities, and minority groups. By its very nature, a democracy is defined by its respect for minority rights and the fact that any political majority is a temporary state between two elections. Illiberal governments and candidates to office can also be identified by how they manipulate voting systems to avoid relinquishing power. Hungary, Poland, and Turkey are already illiberal democracies, and their leaders even boast about it. In the United States and France, several parties and leaders who are preparing to govern or attempt a return to power – Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, for example – use the entire illiberal playbook to ensure that the machinery of democracy crushes minorities.

Tocqueville anticipated this threat to democracy from within. But what exactly did he mean by “democracy”? In his work, the term is used ambiguously. It generally refers to the tendency of all societies to demand equality – a tendency he saw as unavoidable and “the work of Providence.” Tocquevillian democracy is based on the “equality of conditions.” This appeared revolutionary and pioneering, especially in France, where aristocracy and privilege still reigned alongside an enormous gap between the rich and the poor. But for Tocqueville, democracy is also defined by political institutions, both national and local, that help create equality. Yet far from celebrating egalitarianism and what he sees as a universal and unavoidable shift towards democracy, the author is concerned about it. After all, in this pursuit of equality, what will remain of freedom? The desire for equality, according to Tocqueville, is so powerful within our societies that “if we cannot obtain equality [in freedom], we will still want equality in slavery.” Tocqueville’s entire work is therefore a feverish search for institutions that could reconcile equality and freedom.

Tocqueville’s fear, which he had not yet identified as such, was the rise of illiberalism within democracy. To resolve this tension, he looked to the United States, believing that it was better organized than France. Federalism, local powers, an independent judiciary, freedom of expression, a constitution limiting state powers, and the vast number of independent churches are all obstacles to the despotism that he believed would rise under the cover of equality. In this respect, France is not as well equipped. Its constitution is weak, local powers and intermediary authorities – starting with the nobility – were destroyed along with the churches by the Revolution and Napoleon. All that remains in France, both in Tocqueville’s time and today, are vulnerable individuals facing an omnipotent state that promises equality if granted absolute power. What Tocqueville did not foresee was that egalitarianism would be joined by identity politics, and contemporary illiberalism feeds on this latter movement.

In Tocqueville’s time, almost all Americans were British. African Americans and Native Americans were seen as separate groups. In France, everyone was French, speaking one language with local variations, with one religion even if it was not practiced, and no or very few immigrants. Today, a wave of non-European migration and the economic consequences of globalization are flooding over our two countries. Customs have also been transformed by such exotic influences. As a result, the weakest and most affected cling to their only immutable asset: identity. This means their language, their religion, their traditions, their history. They alone are the nation; the others are merely savages. Identitarians expect the state to protect them, even if it means sacrificing freedom – their own and especially those of others. They certainly demand equality, but only between real Americans, real French. Of course, the identity celebrated is nothing but a myth, particularly in France and the United States, where the modern population is massively from elsewhere. Everyone in the United States knows this, but the French are less aware that a third of children born today have at least one parent from outside the country.

As Tocqueville tells us, democracy is ambiguous and the future is not written. In the conclusion to Democracy in America, he writes: “It depends on nations whether equality is to lead to servitude or freedom, knowledge or barbarism, prosperity or wretchedness.”

Editorial published in the September 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.