[FOUNTAIN]Democracy and the rule of tyrannyAlexis de Tocqueville published “Democracy in America” in 1835, the year he turned 30. The book was an immediate sensation and critics praised de Tocqueville as the second Montesquieu. The young writer would become one of the most celebrated intellectuals in 19th century Europe with just one book, because it was full of passion for democracy.
De Tocqueville was born to a French aristocratic family in 1805. Immediately before his birth, his family had been broken apart by the French Revolution. His father was to have been executed in the Reign of Terror, but was eventually spared. Becuase de Tocqueville lived through the turbulent times of the French Revolution, which turned into the Reign of Terror and into an absolute monarchy, the center of his philosophy was democracy. At age 25, he left Europe for the New World in search of answers.
When he first arrived in America, he said, he was surprised at how competent the masses were and at how incompetent their rulers were.
In European society, the ruled were serfs and servants, but in America, they were free, equal humans except for the black slaves. In Europe, the job of the aristocrats was politics, and they learned a complicated court culture and dabbled in international politics. In contrast, any American could seize power through an election. With that freedom and equality, he said, it was apparent that the New World was the future of democracy.
De Tocqueville traveled 12,000 kilometers (7,200 miles) in ten months and searched for the roots of American democracy. In the course of his journey, he also discovered its faults, the biggest being the possibility of a “tyranny of the majority.” A political leader elected with support of the majority could hold autocratic power: not the oppressive despotism of an absolute monarch but a softer tyranny that protected the interests of the majority. When the citizens chose leaders through an election, they would obey that leader.
Under the protection of authority, citizens are comfortable and become politically indifferent. Faced with an external crisis, a democratic government might turn violent, but the citizens would show an amusing unity, de Tocqueville observed.
The 160-year-old book’s timelessness is the reason why it is called a classic.
by Oh Byung-sang
The writer is the JoongAng Ilbo’s London correspondent.
More in Columns
A new epicenter of social conflict
Lessons from a president
Tales of Chairman Lee
Chinese way of tackling challenges
Time to step up climate action