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February 17, 2009
Tocqueville's Democratic America, and Ours
By Christopher Oleson *

By Christopher Oleson *

*Father Thomas Berg, L.C. will resume his column in a few weeks. In the interim, please enjoy the weekly essays written by guest columnists for "With Good Reason."

 

Aristotle, in the fifth book of his Politics, noted that political revolutions sometimes take place unobserved due to the fact that they occur over a long period of time through slow incremental changes in the constitution of a political community.  This happens, he noted, "through gradual relaxation" of the principles ordering a community such that "even a small change can be a cause of revolution.  For when they give up one of the details of the constitution, afterwards they also make another slightly bigger change more readily, until they alter the whole system."  Thus, in the end, there comes into being a noticeably different political order without any outward subversion of the official system of government. 

 

Rereading Tocqueville's magisterial account of the American democratic experiment recalled this passage to me, for after having put down Democracy in America, I could not quite shake the feeling that something like what Aristotle was describing must have taken place with respect to our own political institutions.  I say this because the life of republican self-government Tocqueville observed and described in the early 1830's unavoidably suggests some very striking dissimilarities with the form of American democracy as it is lived in 2009.

 

We certainly use all of the same terms to describe our present constitutional order ("freedom," "self-government," "democracy"), but in at least one profound aspect of our common political life, the referential meanings of those terms, which is to say, the political realities that they actually signify, are noticeably different.  For us, unlike for the earlier Americans described by Tocqueville, almost the entire substance, drama, and fate of American democratic politics is played out between the three branches of the federal government.  

 

To "follow politics" is, for us, to follow national politics and the battles taking place in Washington, for that is where the outcome of almost every significant political decision is determined.  Thus, for us contemporary Americans, to be politically active is almost entirely summed up by paying attention to the beltway debates, perhaps writing a letter or signing a petition or two, and then taking half an hour out of our day every two to four years to vote in national elections.

 

Tocqueville's America looked somewhat different, and this difference, he argued, was a crucial bulwark of American liberty.  I am referring to the importance of the reality of local government if the people are to be authentically free and self-governing.  Tocqueville referred to local government as "that fertile germ of free institutions."  "The strength of free peoples," he wrote, "resides in the local community.  Local institutions are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they put it within the people's reach; they teach people to appreciate its peaceful enjoyment and accustom them to make use of it."

 

In other words, the experience of local and participatory self-government, of citizens of a local community governing and ordering their own affairs in matters truly significant to their common good, is the seedbed of a free society.  It is the primary place where a free people exercise their liberty, form socially significant associations, and deliberate together so as to rule themselves in accord with what they think it means to live well. 

 

This is the meaning, for Tocqueville, of free and participatory democratic politics.  And it was precisely because he saw Americans living this kind of local and substantive political life, first in their townships and then in their individual states, that Tocqueville came to regard the citizens of the United States as a genuinely free, self-governing people, and not the passive subjects of a distant, bureaucratic, and centralized power. 

 

Speaking of New England townships, Tocqueville wrote, "In that part of the Union, political life was born in the very heart of the townships; one might almost say that in origin each of them was a little independent nation...In all that concerns themselves alone the townships remain independent bodies, and I do not think one could find a single inhabitant of New England who would recognize the right of the government of the state to control matters of purely municipal interest." 

 

These are truly remarkable words for a 21st century American ear.  What citizen of New Haven, for example, would now think it preposterous for the state of Connecticut or the federal government to try to regulate his city's internal affairs in significant matters relating to education, public health, standards of public decency, or economic policy?  What citizen of Hartford, Concord, or Providence still thinks of their political life and identity as primarily bound up in their town?  And who would now regard their town or city as a kind of independent political community whose right to govern its internal affairs in these matters is both substantive and protected?   The answer, of course, is "no one today," and yet Tocqueville could write that, in America, where the instinct for independence was especially pronounced, "every village is a sort of republic accustomed to rule itself."

 

Further highlighting the political distance separating us from earlier Americans is the way in which Tocqueville describes the nature and role of the individual states.  Summing up their political status, Tocqueville says succinctly, "In a word, there are twenty-four little sovereign nations who together form the United States."  The uniting of these states in the federal, national Union is a secondary political reality to the more substantive political communities of the individual states, which comprise "all the American republics."

 

Note the use of the plural - the American "republics."  Tocqueville frequently employs expressions such as "The American republics have..." instead of "the American republic has" because the individual states are the primary thing, whereas the federal Union is a secondary, and politically less significant, thing.  Tocqueville is so struck by the decentralized nature of politics in America that he could write, "If today the sovereignty of the Union was to come into conflict with one of the states, one can readily foresee that it would succumb; I even doubt whether such a struggle would ever be seriously undertaken." 

 

Tocqueville could make this astounding statement because, for our earlier American brothers and sisters, "interest, custom, and feelings are united in concentrating real political life in the state, and not in the Union," for the latter "is in the peculiar position that it only forms one people in relation to certain aims; for all other purposes it is no such thing." 

 

It is hard to think of a politically more foreign notion to contemporary American experience.  Whereas for John Adams and Thomas Jefferson the phrase "my country" referred, respectively, to Massachusetts and Virginia, for us it refers to the Federal Union, with the states being only relatively insignificant municipalities. For this reason, patriotism, as Tocqueville witnessed it in 1831, had a slightly different connotation: "Public spirit in the Union is, in a sense, only a summing up of provincial patriotism.  Every citizen of the United States may be said to transfer the concern inspired in him by his little republic into his love of the common motherland.  In defending the Union, he is defending the increasing prosperity of his district, the right to direct its affairs."  This is of course not a claim about the weakness of earlier American patriotism.  Rather, it serves merely to point out that it had a noticeably different connotation.

 

The stark contrast of this portrait of a local and decentralized democracy to the highly centralized, national regulatory machine in Washington (currently nationalizing major industries, curing all our ills, and giving us "hope") is what suggests to me that perhaps Aristotle's remarks about subtle revolutionary changes in a constitutional order are applicable to us.  Tocqueville himself was not unaware of the centralizing drift inherent in democratic peoples whose passion for equality outstrips their love of freedom and thus continually increases the centralization of state power.  The problem with such centralization is that it robs people of their freedom, saps them of their capacity for self-rule, and reduces them to passive and needy subjects of a vast bureaucracy.

 

Tocqueville saw this dynamic at work in the dangerous version of democracy that had taken shape in his own beloved France and warned that it was unfortunately the perennial temptation of every democratic nation.  If not vigilantly resisted, he foresaw the emergence of a novel form of benevolent, democratic despotism, "an immense, protective power which is alone responsible for securing [its citizens'] enjoyment and watching over their fate.  That power is absolute, thoughtful of detail, orderly, provident, and gentle...It gladly works for their happiness but wants to be sole agent and judge of it.  It provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, makes rules for their testaments, and divides their inheritances...Thus it daily makes the exercise of free choice less useful and rarer, restricts the activity of free will within a narrower compass, and little by little robs each citizen of the proper use of his own faculties..."

 

Lest we maintain any illusions that our electoral process would make such a fate impossible for us, Tocqueville continues, "I have always thought that this brand of orderly, gentle, peaceful slavery which I have just described could be combined, more easily than is generally supposed, with some of the external forms of freedom, and that there is a possibility of its getting itself established under the shadow of the sovereignty of the people [whose] imagination conceives of a government which is unitary, protective, and all-powerful, but elected by the people.  Centralization is thus combined with the sovereignty of the people...They console themselves for being under schoolmasters by thinking that they have chosen them themselves...Under this system the citizens quit their state of dependence just long enough to choose their masters and then fall back into it."

 

If this portrait sounds a little too chillingly like the regnant version of democracy currently saving us from doom and supposedly bestowing meaning on our lives, then perhaps it is time for us to reread Tocqueville and recall to mind the changes our political order has undergone, the commitments we have lost, and the threat we face now in a looming, omnicompetent nanny state.  Rereading Democracy in America is of course not a blueprint for a way forward, but it is certainly a worthwhile first act of resistance.   

Christopher Oleson is associate professor of philosophy for the Legion of Christ at their Center for Higher Studies in Thornwood, New York.  He is a Senior Fellow at the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person.
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