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Tocqueville and Totalitarian Democracy in America

In recent days, as they learned that the political establishment, the mainstream media, Big Tech, and other elites had conspired to get the presidential election result they wanted, while the judicial branch recused itself from protecting the electoral process, many Americans have began to wonder whether American democracy can still guarantee individual liberty and constitutionalism. But Alexis de Tocqueville warned us in 1840 that this is exactly the America we would get because of the very nature of democratic peoples.

Perhaps totalitarianism is the very name that Tocqueville would have given to the kind of despotism he foresaw:

“So I think that the type of oppression by which democratic peoples are threatened will resemble nothing of what preceded it in the world; our contemporaries cannot find the image of it in their memories. I seek in vain myself for an expression that exactly reproduces the idea that I am forming of it and includes it; the thing that I want to speak about is new, and men have not yet created the expression which must portray it. The old words of despotism and of tyranny do not work. The thing is new, so I must try to define it, since I cannot name it.”

No previous tyranny or dictatorship has been willing or able to exercise so absolute, so penetrating, and so expansive a power: a power that destroys everything in society that is spontaneous, autonomous, and pluralistic, and that takes over anything that is private or social by the political. No dead autocrats ever attempted to “subject all his subjects indiscriminately to the details of a uniform rule.” As autocratic as Caesar’s rule of Rome was, for instance, his subjects preserved their diverse customs and mores, and although all Roman provinces were subjected to the emperor, most of them ruled themselves independently. Caesar and other autocrats were satisfied with exploiting (mercilessly sometimes) a few while leaving the rest alone.

What I observe in America today is the development of the kind of totalitarian democracy about which Tocqueville warned. I do not make this observation easily or lightly. It is based on 30 years of living in China under the totalitarian rule of the Communist Party, and more than four years of witnessing in America a cultural, social, and political situation shifting rapidly towards an experience with which I am all too familiar.

Democracy can be autocratic when decision-making is concentrated at the apex of the official hierarchy, the decision-making process is not accountable to anyone else, and other authorities who are supposed to share power in the government come to exist in name only. How is it not autocratic and tyrannical when New York lawmakers are mulling a bill (Bill A416) that would allow the state to remove and/or detain any person or a group of persons who are carriers of communicable diseases? This is a policy that the Chinese government has been implementing nationally since the outbreak of COVID19. The difference between the two regimes is merely procedural in that the same policy in the China case was made behind closed doors whereas in the New York case its decision-making process will be transparent to the public. But the difference does not matter because insofar as the explicit ruler or group of rulers possesses absolute power in deciding what is in the public interest and acts upon that decision in unquestionable authority, the public must obey.

Tyranny can be the rule of the one, the few, the well-born, or the many. A privilege to select leaders through voting via a democratic system is not equivalent to the people ruling themselves. I observe that Americans are bound by a gigantic and intricate web of regulations formulated with almost no reference to the public will. Not only does government prescribe uniform, public conduct, governors now even mandate masks in private homes amid the pandemic.

Whether crude or subtle, violent or coercive, governmental terror is real when it succeeds in terrorizing people into conformity and obedience. Chinese will be left alone wherever their action poses no threat to the Communist Party (though you will be jailed by posting pictures of Winnie the Pooh online, hinting at the character’s resemblance to the President.) But no officials would bother to mold your behavior through a Title IX office or anti-harassment training, or to mold your thinking through critical race theory. In America, totalitarians are more humane and refined, and yet at least equally tyrannical and frightening. A call for “anti-racism” can be intellectually mis-guided and worse, morally tyrannical, even if well-intentioned. When the official doctrine of “diversity, inclusive, and equity” dictates that white society constantly checks its “privilege” (however that term is defined) and participate in self-criticism and re-education, the aspiration to nourish a genuine civic affection—the foundation of a civil society—is destroyed.

Much of the totalitarianism of the 20th century was steeped in terror and mass killings committed by a handful murderous dictators. But do not for a second infer that totalitarianism must be acute, brutal, or bloody. It can be mild. More significantly, it can be seductive and hence insidious. The democratic dictatorship does not aim at killing or torturing like those of Mao, Hitler, or Stalin, or exploiting people like those of China or North Korea; instead it seeks to equalize and infantilize its citizens.

This is a totalitarianism that does not decimate the population or torment the people, but truly “degrades” men (in Tocqueville’s apt word). It softens the will. Lionel Trilling, a spokesman of the American middle class, lamented in his 1950 book The Liberal Imagination that the “mass of educated people” developed a vulgar, conformist, and acquisitive culture. Trilling would have been horrified to see that children of the middle class are now crying out for safe spaces on college campuses. Meanwhile, the new totalitarianism mysteriously nurtures in today’s American youth a cheap passion for petty causes. Following “pseudo-events” (to use Daniel Boorstin’s term) flooding our consciousness, pseudo-concepts such as “white fragility” or “body positivity” now reign supreme over the conscience in the world of education and pop culture. It rarely forces action, stated Tocqueville, but it frequently forces the correct speeches and instills the right thoughts.

So, this is a tutelary totalitarianism that seeks to protect its tutees from harming themselves or each other, to take care of their needs and provide them pleasures, to relieve hardships and shield them from danger, to train them in the right manners and thoughts formulated by the moralistic “schoolmaster” (in Tocqueville’s word) who knows better, and to secure for them an equal footing, provided that they accept the master’s unquestionable authority and obey all his decisions.

In the end, all men are equally well-fed and well-sheltered, but tamed, timid, and never daring to leave their “schoolmaster.”  Meanwhile, they are hyper-sensitive, easily outraged, extremely fragile, unreasonably entitled, and profoundly ignorant. Worse still, they are stupid. By that, I do not suggest anything about their intelligence, but simply an unwillingness and inability to think for themselves. What is the use of free will when you are told every day how to live your life by officials, experts, and influencers, and when the “schoolmaster” eliminates for you the difficulty of thinking and the suffering of life?


Totalitarian democracy is a term that might seem oxymoron at first, but in truth democracy by its very premise is especially vulnerable to a totalitarian solution to politics. Democracy presumes and preaches that every man is equal and alike. Democracy, therefore, eventually demands a power that must be centralized and absolute so that it can constantly engage in distribution and redistribution of resources in society, shaping and reshaping reality, in order for the presupposition to hold. In a way, democracy is a mild but never-ending revolutionary movement in the sense that it constantly engages in overthrowing the status quo—a status quo that naturally ensued from spontaneous and autonomous human actions in society. The more advanced the democratic society has become, the more quickly the status quo is overthrown.

A case in point. It took a few decades for same-sex marriage to become a constitutional right, while it took only a few years for transgenderism to become mainstream. Thus, modern democracy slowly but surely drives politics to take over society in its entirety. But this is not a real goal that can be achieved by a certain form of governance but only by an incessant movement orientated towards a phantom destination where all men are supposed to be equal and alike. Totalitarianism, seen in this light, is a never-ending revolutionary movement.

Besides the democratic assumption, there is a second force, equally significantly, that fostered totalitarian democracy in America: liberalism, American democracy’s founding ideology. Compared to the other two totalitarian ideologies, fascism and communism, liberalism is less obviously an ideology. Mussolini once defined ideology as a “complete, harmonious and synthetic doctrine.” As will be argued below, though more nuanced than fascism and communism, liberalism consists of three elements central to ideology: the ideal, the doctrinal, and the practical.

Liberalism, just like its rivals, preaches a myth about human nature and society that its celebrants take as a self-evident truth, and it aims at transforming all aspects of human existence according to a utopian scheme. Liberalism conceives man as an individual who is independent of pre-existing associations, and a pre-political animal who is free and bears natural rights in the state of nature. Though being false narratives of reality, all three ideologies are seductive because they offer some irresistible idealization that either appeals to humans’ righteous mind or covetous heart. Just as the fascist state ingratiates its subjects with membership and the communist state with egalitarianism, the liberal state purchases loyalty with a cheap version of liberty and rights (instead of civic duties).

At the first glance, liberalism seems to be a powerful check on totalitarian impulse. Whereas totalitarianism is autocratic rule that is absolute, penetrating, and expansive, liberalism speaks the opposite language: liberty, limited government, and individual sovereignty. So, how do we arrive at totalitarianism from liberalism? Three things connect the two.

In the first place, by having liberated (only conceptually) humans from pre-existing constraints, disassembled “unnatural” and “irrational” ways of living such as religion and custom, and unshackled unchosen associations and binding relationships, liberalism has transformed man from a historical being into an existentially naked individual. The individual is naked because he is reduced to his natural essence: a rational being, stripped off any accidental attributes. This naked individual is, according to Rousseau, happiest and good in the state of nature—capable of justice, according to Rawls, behind the veil of ignorance. The naked individual is said to be the building block of society; the individual’s well-being (however defined) is therefore the supreme concern of the state. This is individualism in a nutshell.

Individualism is a stepping stone for statism, first as vividly delineated by Hobbes in his thought experiment Leviathan and later empirically proven with Barack Obama’s progressive political campaign, “The Life of Julia.” The connection between individualism and statism is plain and simple: In the absence of such intermediate institutions as family and church, the state becomes the only community in which the individual can situate himself, and the power of the state is the only resource upon which the individual can rely to advance his well-being. In the liberal state, we are indeed independent of one another, but we are also forever chained to the state.

Meanwhile, liberalism conjures up a cheap version of liberty understood as the absence of restraints from arbitrary forces, in distinction to the ancient understanding that treats liberty as a self-discipline in limitation of human desire for the purpose of self-government. Liberals like Locke romanticize “a perfect freedom” in the state of nature and argue that government is subsequently created, by consent, for the sole purpose to protect and expand individual liberties. Locke is wrong. Reality does not mirror his theory. By assuming that self-limitation is impossible, aspiration to virtue unrealistic—as famously argued by Machiavelli and Hobbes—the state becomes the sole arbiter of conflicts that ensue when individuals freely employ their liberty. In the absence of self-rule, power and authority must be concentrated in the sole arbiter (i.e., the state) to produce peace and order. This is the theory of the modern state in a nutshell.

The state accomplishes this task by issuing laws; legislation becomes the authoritarian limitation on individual liberty. After law is introduced into the equation, liberty now exists, as Hobbes pithily puts it, “where there is silence of the law.” Liberty has thus become a political creation—a license issued by the state. Hence, in actuality, it is the state that creates liberty. Not only does the liberal version of liberty fail to expand individual liberty, it actually injures them.

In the last place, liberalism claims the existence of natural rights. Again, this is wrong. As argued above, there are no such things as natural rights, only political rights. More significant than its falsehood is the moral degradation it engenders, when liberalism preaches the protection of rights in the political realm and maximization of self-interest in the economic realm as the primal goals of the state, in distinction to ancient political philosophy’s advocacy of the cultivation of virtue in the citizenry.

This premise of natural rights can be distilled into two propositions that have been carried out in the experiment of American democracy: the first is utilitarian liberalism and the second is Kantian liberalism. The utilitarian school posits that the highest moral principle is the maximization of the general welfare. Far worse than merely being a precarious moral philosophy, it fails to respect each individual person as an end in himself because insofar as one is in the minority, one’s well-being can be sacrificed for the better good.

The Kantian school tries to save liberalism from the utilitarian calculation that essentially treats humans merely as a means to the happiness of others (be that a majority or minority) by proposing a value-free framework in which the right is prior to the good, so that individuals, being free moral agents, can choose their own goods. This value-free ethics does not offer liberalism much leeway because it offers no theoretical foundation for debate on public policy. After all, being independent and sovereign as we are, we are also citizens of a polity. Without referencing common good and ends, no public policies can be properly justified; whoever has the power to coerce then has the final word. Society then is merely a battle field where individual preferences and desires compete for dominance.

Rights-based politics fails to give a full expression to our citizenship and the community in which we reside. As the literature of totalitarianism has demonstrated, when common meanings have lost their binding forces in a mass society, naked and atomized individuals lie vulnerable to the totalitarian solution of politics. Not only does a rights-based politics negate the common good and obliterate the distinction between beauty and ugliness, nobility and debasement, it also inflates an unwarranted sense of entitlement, turning citizens into consumers of government—an insidious way to degrade the citizenry as well as demoralize private individuals.


Tocqueville notes that such a totalitarian democracy did not happen in the past because of “insufficiency of enlightenment, the imperfection of administrative procedures,” and above all, “the natural obstacles that inequality of conditions created.”

He is absolutely right; this kind of rule rises only in a democratic nation where people are more equal and look alike. As Tocqueville reminds us, “the more equal men are, the more insatiable will be their longing for equality.” Since “democratic institutions awaken and flatter the passion for equality without ever being able to satisfy it entirely,” democratic people easily get frustrated, anxious, and above all, indignant, whenever encountering real or perceived inequality. Consequently, they are more prone to demand an aggressive interference from the “schoolmaster” to level the playing field or to produce social justice. It is no accident that the word “equity” has now been smuggled into campus and academia, supplanting “equality.” This is a natural trajectory charted by equality of condition.

Willfully or not, the cause of equity will eventually meld the country into one territory where each citizen has “the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests”—the second expedient to get rid of faction that James Madison identified in Federalist Paper 10. Madison deemed this method “impracticable” as long as man “is at liberty to exercise (his reason).” But it is practicable when a totalitarian mind, overcoming the “insufficiency of enlightenment,” views the first object of government as no longer to protect “the diversity in the faculties of men,” but to establish a uniformity of interests; it is practicable when the mass media apparatus  no longer aims to inform but indoctrinate the public; and it is practicable when the public mind is constantly monitored by information and communication technology and shaped by elitist cultural institutions.

The vulnerability to totalitarianism is amplified especially when democratic people have become more and more secular, materialistic, and bored. When humans stop grappling with deep questions, the mind tends to become fixated on immediate and superficial concerns. When the meaning of life becomes solely material-based, enjoyment becomes corporeal-centered, and satisfaction is transient while dissatisfaction is accentuated, individual gains and losses become the dominant force.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt offers harsh criticism of “bourgeois individualism,” attributing the rise of modern totalitarianism largely to the “acquisitive society of the bourgeoisie” who were habitually apathetic and even hostile towards public life, putting private calculations over civic duties. They at first willfully ceded their power to the autocracy and later demanded a monopolistic foreign policy, both of which prepared Europe for the rise of dictatorship in which a “strongman” took upon himself the trouble of conducting public affairs. These “bourgeois attitudes” eventually led to the demise of their own class; the masses emerged in the ashes of the breakdown of the class society.

Arendt identified the masses as people who “cannot be integrated into any organization based on common interests” or lack “specific class articulateness which is expressed in determined, limited, and obtainable goals.” Moreover, they are indifferent to political endeavors that require meaningful participation. Totalitarianism, says Arendt, is essentially a mass movement—be it of the Right or Left—driven by ideology and seeking the domination of society by perpetuating the movement.

Arendt notes that the success of modern totalitarian movements in Europe exploded the chronic delusion that democratic nations had been run by the majority of the people, who actively participated in government. American democracy seems to have progressed under the same delusion. Paradoxically, as voting privileges kept expanding, majority rule has become less real and more ceremonial. The history of American governance manifests a course along which more and more public affairs are governed by regulations created by an administration in which a few representative “kings” and “queens” hold sway, without accountability to “we the people.” At this point, the polity has evolved into a system that is, in Tocqueville’ words, a republic only “at the head, and ultra-monarchical in all the other parts.”

Sometimes, I’d like to flatter myself by imagining that I am the modern Tocqueville visiting 21st century America. I’m very sad to see many of his insights becoming. Today, I don’t see much difference between China and America except that here the sky is bluer, the water cleaner, and people better-behaved and friendlier. But meanwhile, it seems to me that there is more voluntary submission.

American democracy has proven to be a success in its representation of interests but a failure in cultivating citizenship; it has protected some civil liberties while allowing others to erode away, especially in recent decades. One lesson we can draw from its 250-year history of successes and failures is this: For a true republic (in the sense of a shared public life) to succeed, institutions are not enough and may not even be necessary. What is necessary is civic virtue.

Thus, the nature of democracy itself, in tandem with liberalism’s 500-year ascendancy in the West, has prepared America for the coming rule of the totalitarians.


This was originally published in The Imaginative Conservative on February 24, 2021.

Habi Zhang

Habi Zhang is a doctoral student in Political Science at Purdue University. She holds a master's in public policy from Pepperdine University. Her main research interests are political thought, political culture, and quantitative methods. She is currently researching totalitarianism, political tolerance, and public opinion.

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