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."
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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."