The Incredibles and Tocqueville: The Dangers of Democratic Excess
Americans love democracy. We credit it for our success as a nation and attribute many international problems to a lack of democracy. Most American pop culture takes it for granted that democracy is unequivocally good and anything else is inherently bad. It was therefore quite surprising to find an articulate critique of democratic tendencies in a popular superhero movie. Disney’s The Incredibles illustrates the difficulties that democracies have with great men and the dangers that arise in societies that become too democratic.
The movie begins in an America protected by a large group of superheroes, including the main character, Mr. Incredible, who are able to protect society because they possess abilities that most others do not. Although they earn the respect and admiration of their fellow citizens they also attract jealousy and fear. This leads the United States to outlaw superheros early in the movie and Mr. Incredible and his family are forced to go into hiding and pretend not to have superpowers.
This is the kind of reaction Alexis de Tocqueville predicted Americans would have to great citizens. Tocqueville observed that democratic people fell a much stronger love for equality than they do for freedom. Citizens who experience equality become extreme attached to that equality because the benefits it brings are readily apparent “Equality furnishes a multitude of little daily enjoyments to each man. The charms of equality are felt at all moments, and they are within reach of all.” These enjoyments are simple, such as being able to give a friendly greeting to strangers on the street to seeing a former president report for jury duty.
Although there is nothing inherently wrong with this love of equality it becomes dangerous when citizens become willing to sacrifice their liberty for the sake of equality. Tocqueville warns that, for equality, democratic people have “an ardent, insatiable, eternal, invincible passion; they want equality in freedom, and, if they cannot get it, they still want it in slavery. They will tolerate poverty, enslavement, barbarism, but they will not tolerate aristocracy.”
In The Incredibles, the powers of the superheros allows them to develop into a kind of aristocracy. They are honored for their abilities but also mistrusted because these abilities are beyond the reach of the average citizen. The viewer sympathizes with the position of the movie’s villain Syndrome, who, after being rejected as Mr. Incredible’s sidekick, develops an intense hatred for superheroes and goes to great lengths to ensure their destruction. Although most people do most share Syndrone’s burning passion for revenge against the superheros, they are willing to compel superheros to give up their liberty in order for equality to be preserved.
This decision nearly proves disastrous in the movie. After fifteen years of being forced to live undercover most superheroes have disappeared (or secretly been killed by Syndrome). Therefore, when Syndrome attacks the city it is left nearly defenseless. The people had so jealously guarded their equality that they had nearly eliminated those capable of protecting their liberty.
The movie ends happily, however, because Mr. Incredible and his family are able to return in time to save the city. After this they are allowed to once again be heroes. However, the last scene of the movie reminds viewers of the constant threat to greatness in democratic societies as a new villain emerges, the Underminer. Although this character was not developed in the movie, he serves as a reminder that democracies have a dangerous tendency to undermine their best citizens. This does not necessarily mean that democracies are bad but it is a threat that concerned citizens of a democracy must always be vigilant against.