Alexis de Tocqueville (1805 – 1859) was a French diplomat, politician and a historian who believed that ‘democracy will be world’s future’. To find out what this future would be like, he travelled for nine months in USA and published (1835) his famous book Democracy in America which is regarded as a ‘great work in political philosophy’. Some of his findings are very interesting and still very pertinent in how politics and democracy drag forward in countries like Pakistan.
The dark side of democracy that significantly stands out in his work is a food for thought and though there is ‘immense goodness’ that democracy brings, as sufficiently highlighted by Francis Fukuyama in his 1992 book The end of history and the last man, it will still not be pertinent to see the impression Tocqueville formed about democracy 184 years ago.
Five issues stand out significantly as Tocqueville highlights the problems of democracy. The first is that ‘democracy breeds materialism’. For him ‘money was the only achievement that Americans respected’ and democracy and capitalism had created seemingly ‘equitable but flat and repressive ways for humans to judge each other’. In democracy ‘poor have no chance of acquiring wealth’. When we also look at the ‘wallet-will equation’ in Pakistan, average people always had and still have more will than wallet. For them, life has remained poor but what has significantly changed is the ‘bulge of the wallets’ of all those who have utilised democracy only to increase their personal wealth and fortunes.
The second dark side of democracy that Tocqueville pointed out was after his analysis between ‘expectations and dissatisfaction’, between ‘political equality and envy’.
He suggested that only after all prerogatives of birth and privileged fortunes have been abolished, any profession would become open to envy, else it would remain the personal sphere and realm of the privileged class. His analysis was that democracy would hardly do anything to bridge the prevalent inequality in society and the reason for such an assessment was that ‘if inequality is the general rule in the society the greatest of inequalities attract no attention but when everything is more or less levelled than the slightest variation is noticeable.’
To maintain this gap, Tocqueville believed that an upward social movement is unjustly denied to the poor and on the lower run only offers ‘one noticeable freedom’ to them — to take the achievements of very few beneficiaries of the democratic system as the reference point and find themselves as ‘severely wanting in status and importance’ and thus remain the subjects of a privileged class.
The third darker side of democracy he explained as ‘tyranny of majority’. He explains that tyranny of majority throws up a political culture that demonises the cultural superiority of the minorities and the majority in democracy acquires ‘aggressive levelling instinct’ that it terms ‘civic virtue’ yet it viciously attempts to ‘cut down to size anyone who attempts to get above himself’.
Democracy thus can be autocratic, authoritarian and fascist as well, depending on whom the majority has agreed to cut down to size. In Pakistan, what has been cut down to size is not those ‘who tried to get above themselves’ but the morals, principles, ethics and democratic values that should have been promoted and sustained.
The true display of these values could be witnessed in the language and the actions of the legislators who demonstrated their rowdy behaviour during the National Assembly sessions on May 9. The combined opposition (most fighting the charges of corruption in accountability courts) is only ‘levelling up’ to create that majority which would be able to execute the tyranny of cutting this government to size — not because this government ‘is not well intended’ and ‘lacks objectivity, purpose or direction’, but only because it no more acts like an insider (the brand of democracy that exercises total control on all the institutions and cannot be made accountable and answerable to anyone except itself). This government, the opposition believes, projects ‘outsider intent’ and thus must be cut to size.
The fourth darker side of democracy that Tocqueville highlights in his works is that ‘democracy is fatally biased towards mediocrity’. His assessment during his tour of the US was that democrats refused to think that ‘anyone could be better than them’. Yet he saw that ‘people generally in a society could be much wiser, more intelligent, and kinder and more mature than others.’ He suggested that many could do better than them — trained doctors, lawyers or any other specialists in the field. Taking a lead from Tocqueville’s assessment, one finds very reasonable argument in why a ‘mediocre legislature’ whose only specialty is ‘siassat’ (politics) cannot be expected to lead specialised work as a minister. In Pakistani politics, we call their replacements as ‘technocrats’ but wouldn’t it be really appropriate to call them ‘specialists’ instead just to remind the ‘siassatdans’ (politicians) of what they are not and why they are unsuitable for the given specialist task.
Lastly, Tocqueville almost accuses democracy of ‘undermining the freedom of mind’. Ideally he says democracy should encourage people to have open mind, however he came to the opposite conclusion that, ‘one could find few places with less independent mind and true freedom of discussion than America’. The reason for that, he describes, is the Americans thinking that their system is just and fair and thus they gave up critical thinking.
They put up their faith in the ‘newspapers’ and the so-called ‘consumer sense’ instead. Now, for Pakistan and in the information age that we live in our ‘independent minds’ have been penetrated by real as well as fake news, the distinction between which is extremely difficult to make.
Resultantly, we all are carriers of some mindsets and mentalities controlled by the promoters of information that we surround ourselves with. Critical thinking is the virtue of the past and since it still is, we play right into the hands of those that still want us to remain the beneficiaries of the ‘darker sides of democracy’ and thus remain more filled with our wills than our wallets.
Tocqueville said lots of grim things about democracy yet he was not an anti-democrat and only showed ‘how living in a democracy in some ways could be very annoying and frustrating’.
Democracy is not something wrong — it is actually a price we pay when we give the ultimate authority to everyone.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 12th, 2019.