Democracy in America Must Be a Commitment to Equality

A remarkable work of the nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville’s four-volume Democracy in America is widely regarded as one of the world’s great political texts. Its daring conjectures, elegant prose, formidable length and narrative complexity make it a text that is often interpreted in many different ways. Its most basic claim is that the democracy he observed in the United States is subject to a permanent revolution. Democracy, he argued, has unleashed a continuous struggle for social and political equality, resulting in an era of ‘restless equality’ that erodes the old certainties of life.

Tocqueville’s vision of American democracy is a powerful one, and his insight into the workings of its dynamic is still with us today. But a careful reading of the text reveals that it is far more than a simple warning about democratic erosion. It is also a reminder of the core principle that democracy must be a commitment to equality among citizens. This is a central point that seems to be missing from much of the debate about democracy, inequality and inequality in the United States.

In the past, when people have argued about the state of our democracy, they have usually focused on its pathologies. They have complained about the way the governing system fails to reflect popular opinion and the way it fails to respond to public needs. They have argued that the system is plagued by corrupt politicians, excessive special interests and an imbalance of power between the government and the population.

There is, of course, a good deal to be said about all these concerns. But there is another point that is often overlooked in the debate about the future of our democracy: the vast majority of Americans do not see democracy as anything other than a positive force for society. For most, the most important measure of democracy’s success is the fact that it enables them to express their views in a free election.

Most people also think that it is very important to vote, pay taxes and obey the law in order to be a good citizen. And on 23 specific measures that are rated by majorities of the public as critical for democracy, the political system and elections to be successful, six-in-ten Americans say that they are doing well or very well. But on the key measure of whether our democracy is delivering on its promise of equality, just a third of Americans say that it is doing very well or very well. This article originally appeared in the February 2024 issue of The American Prospect. It is republished here with permission. The American Prospect is a nonpartisan, nonprofit, online journal of politics and policy published by the University of Chicago. Subscriptions are available to individuals and institutions. Visit our subscriptions page for more information. Copyright 2000 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. Reproduction of this material in whole or in part without permission is prohibited unless authorized by the author and the publisher.