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Why We Should Reread Tocqueville During the Lockdown

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Apotheosis of Democracy, United States House of Representatives
Apotheosis of Democracy, United States House of Representatives
(Image by Unknown Owner, Author: Photo: Andreas Praefcke)
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What long-term effects will the lockdown have on our democracy? How will this new form of soft violence affect our social interactions? And what changes will the "democratic man" undergo?

Alexis de Tocqueville is commonly said to be among the greatest nineteenth-century political thinkers. His masterpiece Democracy in America remains a useful work for those who seek to better understand our democracy and the drifts that threaten it.

Wouldn't the answers to our three questions be in his work, particularly in Democracy in America?

The dangerous isolation of citizens

"Despotism, which is of a very timorous nature, is never more secure of continuance than when it can keep men asunder; and all is influence is commonly exerted for that purpose". (Democracy in America)

What struck Tocqueville most in his study of American society is the propensity of Americans to participate in civic life. In being engaged through associations of all kinds, people play a part in the flourishing of democracy.

Associations permit to combat individualism: they offer concrete learning about social and civic life. This importance of association, as emphasized by Tocqueville, is at the heart of a complex and ambivalent concept: "social capital".

Social capital refers to the collective value of all the "social ties" that people experience and to the tendencies that flow from these networks. Robert D. Putnam, Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University, popularized this concept. In his best-selling book Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000), he presented his work on civic engagement in the United States. He used a wide range of indicators: voting, newspaper reading, political participation, participation in community groups... According to Putnam, there has been a decline in social capital that has had critical consequences for the country.

But what about the extreme isolation experienced by citizens? Can't we speak of "anti-social capital"?

Lockdown: the "anti-social capital" par excellence

"Individualism is a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellow-creatures; [...] so that, after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself." (DA)

The civic disengagement leaves the field open to individualism and the soft despotism, so dreaded by Tocqueville. Working online from home and social distancing increase the dangers of individualism. They are all the more perilous as the resulting practices are likely to turn into habits.

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Marguerite Morantin is a French student who lives in Paris. During the lockdown in France, she produced a website entitled « Tocqueville Effects » ( Through this site and the blog associated, (more...)

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Why We Should Reread Tocqueville During the Lockdown

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