Victor Nuovo: Tocqueville and governance
20th in a series
“Democracy in America” is the title of a book that has become an American Classic. Its author was not an American, but a French aristocrat, Alexis Charles Henri Clérel, comte de Tocqueville (1805–59), Tocqueville for short (pronounced toke/vil, with the accent on the first syllable).
He was the most observant of men, and his book is a record of his observations of America a half-century after Independence. It is a great rambling work, better read in bits and snatches, rather than as one continuous work, and over time digested.
Which is not to say that his book lacks unity. In the very first sentence, Tocqueville announces his theme and he stays with it through almost 900 pages. “Of all the novel things which attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, none struck me more forcefully than the equality of social conditions.” For Tocqueville, the American revolution and its aftermath, the creation of the American republic, was a great moment in modern world history; a watershed, which created democratic currents that flowed forth in all directions infusing the inhabited earth and its human inhabitants with a sense of liberty. As one scholar has put it: It started “the great shift from aristocratic to democratic regimes” throughout the world.
Among the topics Tocqueville gives special treatment is town government in New England, which he believed best exemplified the principle of popular sovereignty, a pure expression of government by the people. This impressed him so much that he declared that “the strength of free nations resides in the town. Town institutions are to freedom what primary schools are to knowledge: they bring it within people’s reach and give them the enjoyment of using it for peaceful ends.” Participation in town government in all its branches is open to all the people, on its various committees and boards, by petition, and most of all at Town Meeting. And he concludes: “Without town institutions, a nation can establish a free government but it lacks the spirit of freedom itself.” And it may be that we are especially free in New England because of town government, not only in our actions, but in our hearts and minds. In the town, our social life is nurtured, it becomes political and reaches toward perfect freedom.
This spirit of freedom in America is not a spirit of license but of order that perpetuates freedom by preventing it from going awry. “In the United States, it was never intended that free persons in a free country should do whatever they liked; rather social duties were imposed on them more various than anywhere else. It never occurred to the people to challenge the principle of government authority (the rule of law) or contest its rights; they simply divided the exercise of power in order that the office should be strong and the officer weak and that society should be free and well governed.” And this is the genius of democratic government in America. Tocqueville was a very good observer. He looked beneath the surface of things, and his glance penetrated to the very essence of things. This paradox: strong offices, weak officials may be the key to the American system.
This is a paradox, but not a contradiction. What makes the offices strong is the body of law that limits them; town charters, state and federal constitutions, embrace all the offices of government, and tying these all together in one unbreakable union are the People, who ordained and established the fundamental law; the People are sovereign; but Law is supreme, it is what makes us a People and not a mere mob.
The democratic society in America that Tocqueville described was one dominated by white men. But he observes, the population of America is not white, but mixed: white Europeans, Black Africans, and Native Americans. But, as he observed, only the whites rule, and then only men, all the rest are subject to their rule, and with respect to Black Africans and Native Americans, they rule as tyrants; and their practices have tended towards the genocidal. White men supposed they ruled by right, but they were deluded. And that delusion is still with us today. This would not have surprised Tocqueville. It also worried him. It should worry us. For the same injustice, towards Blacks, Native Americans, and women persists today; it is woven into the fabric of our culture and practice, in the way we practice of democracy.
Which leads to my final point. Tocqueville worried that the practice of democracy in America did not always tend towards a benevolent union of the People, encompassing their hearts and minds in a sentiment of good will. The elective process causes factions, breeds hostility, and irreconcilable divisions. He worried that frequent elections have an adverse effect on governance, forcing elected officials to govern in ways that will better insure their reelection even if this perpetuates injustice. If elections are infrequent, public discontent can build up and lead to violence and revolution. Among his worries were the great leveling of the people would become a breeding ground for new forms of economic and social inequality; instead of landed aristocrats the emerging democratic society would have the rich and famous, and the nauseating stream of celebrity and their fashions that dominate the media and deform our culture.
Tocqueville foresaw that democratic society would become a breeding ground for a new form of tyranny. Lacking a nobility, he feared that the people would degenerate into a mob, in thrall to their resentments and prey to opportunists and their demagoguery, to megalomaniacal fanatics driven by personal ambition and delusions of grandeur, malignant personages like Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump. His worries were not extravagant, as should be evident to anyone who keeps up with the news. He ends his great book with a warning. “Nations cannot stop social conditions from becoming equal within their land but they can determine whether equality can lead to slavery or freedom, to enlightenment or barbarism, to prosperity or wretchedness.” The choice is ours.
Postscript: While preparing this essay, I developed a great respect for Tocqueville as a thinker. He was a great personage and public philosopher to whom one might devote a life of study. This is not only because of “Democracy in America,” which counts as a great American work, but because of his writings on European politics and society, and his studies of poverty and social justice. He was observant, prescient, prophetic. Read him.
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