Brandeis Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (BOLLI)

Tocqueville and the Pathologies of American Democracy

Course Number


Study Group Leader (SGL)

Yiyang Zhuge


This course will take place virtually on Zoom. Participation requires a device (ideally a computer or tablet, rather than a cell phone) with a camera and microphone in good working order and basic familiarity with using Zoom and accessing email.

10-Week Course

Feb. 29 - May 9. No Class April 25.


The upcoming 2024 election will occur amidst intense political polarization and growing concern about the future viability of our democracy. What better time to turn to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, widely regarded as the best book ever written on American politics. Although this book was written over 200 years ago, we will see that Tocqueville’s analysis of the viability of institutions of self-government is still pertinent today. We will discuss the novelty of the American experiment, the status of this “democratic revolution,” and the needs for “a new science of politics” for the American republic. We will use Tocqueville as our guide in studying perennial issues in American politics: democracy and aristocracy, liberty and equality, individualism and “self-interest well understood,” law and mores, tyranny of the majority and “soft despotism,” local government and the art of association, religion, race and family.

Group Leadership Style

Roughly the same amount of lecture and discussion.

Course Materials

Democracy in America by Alex de Tocqueville translated by Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop ISBN #0226805360. (There are other great translations, but this is the translation that stays most faithful to Tocqueville’s French text.)     

Preparation Time

Potentially 2 hours. 


Yiyang Zhuge is a PhD Candidate at Boston College, where she is writing a dissertation comparing Tocqueville’s and Hegel’s science of the modern state. In the past, she has taught a class on the political theory of Jane Austen at BOLLI, and she is currently teaching a class on classical political philosophy at Boston College. Yiyang speaks Mandarin and German and is passionate about the arts and the cuisines of both cultures.