Tocqueville several times argues in Democracy in America that the social structures people inhabit — aristocracy or democracy most notably — affects the social and personal possibilities people can conceive or imagine. I term this Tocqueville’s theory of “social semiotics,” meaning how social relationships construct the cognitive world in which people think and live.
It sounds more complicated in the abstract than it is in application. Tocqueville’s implicit deployment of the theory, however, is absolutely fascinating.
Tocqueville applies the theory at different times throughout Democracy in America. Perhaps the clearest application comes toward the end of Volume 2. Here he discusses several topics, including, importantly, “secondary” or mediating powers. Tocqueville writes,
The idea of secondary powers, placed between the sovereign and the subjects, presented itself naturally to the imagination of aristocratic peoples, because these powers contained within them individuals or families who were elevated above all others by birth, enlightenment, and wealth and who seemed destined to command. This same idea is naturally absent from the minds of men in times of equality for opposite reasons; it can only be introduced there in an artificial way, and it is only retained there with difficulty, whereas they conceive, as it were without thinking about it, the idea of a unique and central power that leads all the citizens by itself.
Aristocrats are a secondary power between “the sovereign and the subjects.” But the implications of their existence in a society — or their absence — goes beyond their direct mediatorial influence. It primes people psychologically to see some social and political possibilities, and to be blind to others. In the absence of an aristocracy, “in politics . . . as in philosophy and religion,” Tocqueville writes, “the mind of democratic peoples takes in general and simple ideas with delight. Complicated systems repel it . . .”
For example, as a result of democratic equality, “the idea of a unique and central power . . . presents itself most spontaneously to the minds of men.” This, for example, invites the administrative centralization Tocqueville famously warns against. (Interestingly, however, Tocqueville also suggests the semiotics of democratic equality also changes “the imagination of princes” in Europe. In particular, it allowed royal sovereigns to conceive of an omnipotence and ubiquity to their own powers that they did not imagine previously.)
The semiotic world created by one set of social structures or the other — aristocratic or democratic —are so powerful, and so invisible, that they lead to legal, political, and social outcomes in ways people are not aware. So powerful are these implications that they overpower other ways of framing issues, providing ostensibly solutions to problems that don’t really exist.
These opposite penchants of mind [aristocracy versus democratic uniformity] end up, on both sides by becoming instincts so blind and habits so invincible that they still govern actions even in the face of exceptional cases. . . . [I]n our day governments exhaust themselves in order to impose the same practices and the same laws on populations who are not yet alike.
Initial steps down the path of equalitarianism in turn create their own momentum, picking up speed and insisting on ever more conformity. “These ideas take root and grow as conditions become more equal and men more alike; equality brings them into being, and they in their turn speed up the progress of equality.” (Tocqueville also discusses how the power of aristocratic semiotics resulted in artificial inequalities being imposed upon “alike” people in the Middle Ages.)
It is, as so many of Tocqueville’s observations, a trenchant hypothesis. And one seemingly with explanatory bite even today. For example, the rapid spread of the idea of “marriage equality.” This could hardly have been called even the glimmer of an idea in the 1970s. Yet within one generation it moves from barely being even conceived to being enshrined in the U.S. as a matter of constitutional law. Legal recognition of heterosexual couples became legal privileges, and so were necessarily flattened by the intrinsic logic of equality as it gathered momentum.
More than that, the example illustrates the power of the idea. Increasingly today, many Americans cannot even think of permissible difference regarding marriage equality: Hence, if someone deigns to distinguish between heterosexual and homosexual marriage, the distinction is ascribed to animus, the possibility of an alternative explanation that is not hateful is rejected. Hence intolerance toward the Colorado cake maker, Jack Phillips, all in the name of equalitarian tolerance.
Tocqueville’s hypothesis holds the possibility of numerous other implications and applications. What is fetching about his notion, however, is that that it accounts for how socially compelling ideas arise so naturally out of our social experience that we are not even aware of how they shape and control our thinking.