Many famous authors have discussed the weaknesses of democracy, among them the 19th-century philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville. In “Democracy in America,” he pointed out how easy it is for a democracy to turn totalitarian if it becomes the tyranny of the mob, characterized by extreme peer pressure. It would be an ochlocracy, as the ancient Greeks called it, an extreme egalitarianism breeding political forces that gradually quench individual freedom in society. In essence, such a development represents a system that is strikingly similar to the balance of power prior to the French Revolution. Tocqueville foresaw the rise of the welfare state, where a state rule promises to ensure the economic rights of citizens but demands a rigid obedience and conformity to the opinions of the prevailing political elites.
In history, the respect for diversity and plurality has always been a core conservative value. If individual freedom is an ideal, diversity is desirable and encouraged. Tocqueville believed that when democracy sacrifices its historical ideals, it may easily be reduced to the opposite of a free society – and turn into a culture of tyranny led by the popular mob and its leaders. It will be no different from any form of totalitarian dictatorship. The anxiety is the same: expressing an unpopular opinion or simply being different from the majority can have frightening consequences, both in a democracy and in dictatorships.
Tocqueville was especially worried about democracy decaying under strong governments. He felt that strict collectivist discipline is far worse than the most blatant stupidity of the traditional, pre-modern social structures. Modern democracies may easily become worse than previous forms of government if allowed to develop into an authoritarian system of conformity. He viewed the idea of limited governmental authority as essential, along with independent institutions and the need for a separation between church and state.
His criticism of socialism was profound, stating that while “democracy extends the sphere of individual freedom, socialism restricts it. Democracy attaches all possible value to each man; socialism makes each man a mere agent, a mere number. Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.”
Conservatives believe that the task of the government is not to make decisions for people, but to facilitate a society with as much individual freedom as possible, while still safeguarding collective interests. This implies that each person should be made aware that he or she has a duty and a moral responsibility to do their best to better society. As Mark Levin states, to be conservative is to fight for the rights of the individual to make his own choices and not be choked by a custodial state.
When democracy turns totalitarian without the respect for plurality in ways of life, it can be likened to capitalism without the Protestant ethic. When trust and honesty no longer is an ideal, narcissism and lack of solidarity become legitimate ways of life. Morality goes down the drain.
Toqueville is famous for quotes such as “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great” and “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.” The misuse of power in democracies deeply worried him. In the ancient Greek democracies, political leaders had to be responsible for their decisions and resign from office if they did not solve the nation’s challenges. Corrupt and incompetent leaders were exiled, some even executed. When they entered into office, they knew this could be the outfall if they did not perform. Today we stand far from the early ideals of Greek democracy and demand little accountability from our political elites.
Alexis de Tocqueville deeply admired the father of the modern conservative movement, Edmund Burke, who firmly believed that religion is one of the main foundational pillars of society. Tocqueville stated: “Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.” Society has to be based on a certain set of values and ideals that unify the nation. One of the lessons of the French Revolution was that the revolt of the people occurred precisely because contemporary elites lost the ability to solve the problems of the people adequately. If being a politician becomes a question of rising to wealth in an elitist camaraderie within a capitalist structure that only makes the few rich, “democracy” turns into an oligarchy where the people are ruled by the interests of the very few.