Conflicting Forms of Equality in Our Current Political Moment: The Main Threat To Democracy - by Katie Tyner
Alexis de Tocqueville observes that equality was one of the most important—if not the most important—tenet of early American democracy. However, there are two ways in which to view equality among citizens, and these interpretations are fundamentally at odds with each other. One can interpret equality as an equalizer of ability, intellect, and talent among all citizens, or as a guarantor of the same rights, protections, and liberties for all citizens. Eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth century American democracy seemed to favor equality as an equalizer of ability, as evidenced by Tocqueville’s discussion of equality which serves as a strong precursor to Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of slave morality. The civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, as identified by American political scientist Theda Skocpol in relation to civic reorganization, marked a shift in the American discussion towards equality as a guarantor of rights; however, the current approbation of relatability over expertise in the political realm poses a threat to equality as a guarantor of rights precisely because this approbation reflects the renewed romanticization with equality as an equalizer. Therefore, by utilizing Tocqueville, Nietzsche, and Skocpol (in addition to historical evidence) to explore the conflictual relationship between equality as an equalizer of ability and equality as a guarantor of rights throughout American history, one can deduce that the main danger of (and to) American democracy is the confrontation of these two incompatible forms of equality—a confrontation which is rapidly unfolding in present-day America, and threatening the stability of American democratic institutions.
In discussing the democratic social and political condition of early America (pre-1776 to 1835, the year of publication of “Democracy in America), Tocqueville begins with an explanation of equality among the colonists, and the assertion that equality was the chief priority of American democracy; however, his observation of Americans’ desire for equality must be recognized as a desire for an equalization of ability and intellect rather than a desire for the granting of equal rights. Tocqueville states: “But liberty is not the chief and constant object of their desires; equality is their idol…nothing can satisfy them without equality, and they would rather perish than lose it.” He proceeds to elaborate upon his definition of equality, observing (1) that, in America, men are seen “on a greater equality in point of fortune and intellect, or, in other (2) words, more equal in their strength, than in any other country of the world, or in any age of which history has preserved the remembrance.” This observation reflects equality as an equalizer because Tocqueville references equal “fortune,” “intellect,” and “strength” among men, rather than equal rights and protections. (3)
This distinction between the forms of equality is crucial because the American Revolution did not represent a push for equality of rights among citizens—wealthy, white, male elites ran the Revolution, and the Founding Fathers did not desire to grant women, African Americans, or even poorer white men the same rights as they granted themselves and those like them. Even the time during which Tocqueville visited America (early 1830s) did not reflect a desire for equality of rights among all; though Jacksonian Democracy espoused the rise of the ‘common man,’ this definition was still quite narrow and restricted to land-owning white men.
However, Tocqueville implies that equalization of abilities among Americans which he observed to be evident in early American democracy would inevitably diffuse into the political realm, resulting in the equality of rights. Tocqueville establishes that there are only two methods (4) by which to establish equality in the political realm, and both are based on this concept of equal rights, the two methods being: “every citizen must be put in possession of his rights, or rights must be granted to no one.” While this logic does not appear to be contradictory at first, (5) Tocqueville’s next assertion demonstrates the inherently conflictual nature between equality as an equalizer of ability and as a guarantor of rights. He states: “There exists also in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to attempt to lower the powerful to their own level, and reduces men to prefer equality in slavery to inequality with freedom.” This (6) quotation reflects how Americans desire equality in that they do not want to feel inferior— politically, socially, economically, or intellectually—to the next citizen. This compulsion towards equality with one’s neighbor stems from the Hobbesian-imagined desire for glory inherent in human nature; the desire does not, on the other hand, reflect a human desire for equal rights among all. In fact, if one group of people feels threatened by another, the easiest way to drag the ‘enemy’ group “to their own level” would be by stripping the group of equal rights in order to more easily exploit them. Therefore, the process of equalizing abilities does not lead to the granting of equal rights, despite Tocqueville’s claims, and equal rights—such as the rights to life, liberty, and property—do not necessitate equal abilities among citizens.
When analyzing Tocqueville’s observation of man’s preference of “equality in slavery to inequality with freedom,” it is hard to ignore the striking parallels to Nietzsche’s concept of (7) slave morality. Slave morality is rooted in the concept of ressentiment, or, the resentment on the part of the weak towards the superiority of the powerful. Nietzsche imagines that the powerful may have greater inherent capacities for strength, intellect, and ability. Rather than viewing these traits as goals to reach, the weak who prescribe to slave morality view the powerful as evil, and therefore they (the weak) view themselves as good because they are not the powerful—it is a fundamentally reactive lens through which to view morality. The weak, in this situation, desires to drag the powerful down to their level, rather than aspire to reach the level of the powerful. Therefore, Nietzsche claims that when society is based in slave morality, the possibility for ‘great’ individuals to emerge becomes extremely limited. Tocqueville’s exploration of equality in democracy—through the observation that men prefer “equality in slavery to inequality with freedom” —aligns nearly perfectly with Nietzsche’s explanation of slave morality. Tocqueville (8) and Nietzsche seem to concur that democracy is rooted in the notion of slave morality, and therefore democracy itself decreases the chances for greatness in society. In describing the (9) advantages of democracy in America, Tocqueville admits that democracy results in a lack of “genius,” “heroism,” “brilliance,” and “glory” in society; instead, democracy brings “general well-being,” “peace,” “prosperity,” and “insures the greatest enjoyment, [while] avoiding the most misery, to each of the individuals who comprise it.” (10)
Tocqueville’s observation that American democracy favors equality as an equalizer of ability highlights a self-destructive strand of democracy, as it leads to the American public’s tendency to suppress and undervalue individuals with expertise, experience, and ability in the political realm. Tocqueville reaffirms that American democracy maintains that “the number of legislators is more important than their quality. The theory of equality is thus applied to the intellects of men…” Again, this reflects the notion of equality as an equalizer of intellect. In (11) America’s current political moment, it seems that much of American society no longer values knowledge, expertise, and fact-based assertions in the political sphere. Rather, Americans have romanticized the ‘likable’ and relatable politician who removes sophisticated and intellectual political jargon from their speeches—the politician that the voter can ‘get a beer’ with. Tocqueville would assert that this romanticization of the legislator as the citizen’s equal has its origin in the fundamental American democratic desire for the equalization of ability. This interpretation of equality poses serious threats to American democracy. A democratic legislator is not of the same political status as a common citizen because legislators must decide on (12) political, economic, and social policies which can dramatically affect the present and future of the country. In order to do their job, these legislators must be knowledgeable and experienced regarding policy-making. In desiring to place the ‘common man’ in office, the American public has created a dearth of ability, expertise, and insight in American governance which poses a serious risk to the nation’s stability, protection of rights, and national security.
Thus far, the discussion regarding equality in American democracy has focused on the interpretation of equality as an equalizer; however, in the 1960s and 1970s, a fundamental shift occurred with the rise of civil rights movements, as more citizens began to interpret equality as a guarantor of rights. Skocpol emphasizes that, “over the past four decades, in sum, American associational life has become more pluralistic and less business-focused.” By pluralistic, (13) Skocpol is referring to the increase in women, African American, and minority groups’ participation in associations which has taken place since the 1960s. With the emergence of the voices of those who have been marginalized in society came a newfound emphasis on the importance of rights and liberties for all. To counter political scientist Robert Putnam’s dismal view on the decline in civic participation, Skocpol seems to infer that people are not bowling alone, they are just bowling in new ways; these new ways emphasize the role of all citizens, not just those who have played the dominant role in American history.
To return to the original proposition that the confrontation between the two main forms of equality—equality as an equalizer of ability and equality as a guarantor of rights—poses the most substantial threat to American democracy, one can turn to America’s current political moment. America is currently extremely divided along partisan lines and suffering from debilitating polarization. One possible explanation for the root of this polarization is the contrasting views on equality; those who believe equality should serve as an equalizer of ability and intellect most likely were the ones who voted for Donald Trump, while those who believe equality should serve as a guarantor of rights most certainly voted for Hillary Clinton—whether the voters realized this or not. This conflict was particularly pressing during this election, considering the threat to the rights of African Americans, women, and LGBT citizens which the Trump administration has posed (both verbally and based on the past actions of members of Trump’s administration). Politics today are especially contentious given the nature of the election result—the majority of Americans did not vote for Trump. While the majority of Americans today might view equality as a guarantor of rights for all, the President and his administration in office—and the voters who put them there—seem to prefer the notion of equality as an equalizer of intellect, as evidenced by the repeated appraisals of Trump’s ‘relatability’ (despite being a multi-billionaire). It will be fascinating—and perhaps a bit concerning—to observe how this conflict between the two forms of equality play out over the next four years and beyond, keeping Tocqueville, Nietzsche, and Skocpol in mind.
1. Tocqueville 56
2. Tocqueville does mean “men” here as in men and not women, rather than a reference to ‘mankind’
3. Tocqueville 55
4-5. Tocqueville 55
6-8. Tocqueville 56
9 This has been explored by Paul Franco (professor of government at Bowdoin College): https://
10-11. Tocqueville 123
12. This is true in American democracy and most democracies in the world today. However, there are a few exceptions (for example, a democratic legislator in Athenian direct democracy would be of the same political status as a common citizen)
13. Skocpol 6