Into the Canon: Democracy in America

For reasons important to my fiction, it was good to read this defense of localism from De Tocqueville which, I imagine, has often warmed the hearts of conservatives. Please forgive the lengthy quote:


Centralization easily succeeds, indeed, in subjecting the external actions of men to a certain uniformity, which we come at last to love for its own sake, independently of the objects to which it is applied, like those devotees who worship the statue and forget the deity it represents. 

Centralization imparts without difficulty an admirable regularity to the routine of business; provides skillfully for the details of the social police; represses small disorders and petty misdemeanors; maintains society in a status quo alike secure from improvement and decline; and perpetuates a drowsy regularity in the conduct of affairs which the heads of the administration are wont to call good order and public tranquillity; 49 in short, it excels in prevention, but not in action. 

Its force deserts it when society is to be profoundly moved, or accelerated in its course; and if once the co-operation of private citizens is necessary to the furtherance of its measures, the secret of its impotence is disclosed. Even while the centralized power, in its despair, invokes the assistance of the citizens, it says to them: "You shall act just as I please, as much as I please, and in the direction which I please. You are to take charge of the details without aspiring to guide the system; you are to work in darkness; and afterwards you may judge my work by its results." 

These are not the conditions on which the alliance of the human will is to be obtained; it must be free in its gait and responsible for its acts, or (such is the constitution of man) the citizen had rather remain a passive spectator than a dependent actor in schemes with which he is unacquainted. 


It is undeniable that the want of those uniform regulations which control the conduct of every inhabitant of France is not infrequently felt in the United States. Gross instances of social indifference and neglect are to be met with; and from time to time disgraceful blemishes are seen, in complete contrast with the surrounding civilization. Useful undertakings which cannot succeed without perpetual attention and rigorous exactitude are frequently abandoned; for in America, as well as in other countries, the people proceed by sudden impulses and momentary exertions. 

The European, accustomed to find a functionary always at hand to interfere with all he undertakes, reconciles himself with difficulty to the complex mechanism of the administration of the townships. In general it may be affirmed that the lesser details of the police, which render life easy and comfortable, are neglected in America, but that the essential guarantees of man in society are as strong there as elsewhere. In America the power that conducts the administration is far less regular, less enlightened, and less skillful, but a hundredfold greater than in Europe. In no country in the world do the citizens make such exertions for the common weal. I know of no people who have established schools so numerous and efficacious, places of public worship better suited to the wants of the inhabitants, or roads kept in better repair. 

Uniformity or permanence of design, the minute arrangement of details,50 and the perfection of administrative system must not be sought for in the United States; what we find there is the presence of a power which, if it is somewhat wild, is at least robust, and an existence checkered with accidents, indeed, but full of animation and effort. 

Granting, for an instant, that the villages and counties of the United States would be more usefully governed by a central au authority which they had never seen than by functionaries taken from among them; admitting, for the sake of argument, that there would be more security in America, and the resources of society would be better employed there, if the whole administration centered in a single arm--still the political advantages which the Americans derive from their decentralized system would induce me to prefer it to the contrary plan. 

It profits me but little, after all, that a vigilant authority always protects the tranquillity of my pleasures and constantly averts all dangers from my path, without my care or concern, if this same authority is the absolute master of my liberty and my life, and if it so monopolizes movement and life that when it languishes everything languishes around it, that when it sleeps everything must sleep, and that when it dies the state itself must perish. There are countries in Europe where the native considers himself as a kind of settler, indifferent to the fate of the spot which he inhabits. 

The greatest changes are effected there without his concurrence, and (unless chance may have apprised him of the event ) without his knowledge; nay, more, the condition of his village, the police of his street, the repairs of the church or the parsonage, do not concern him; for he looks upon all these things as unconnected with himself and as the property of a powerful stranger whom he calls the government. He has only a life interest in these possessions, without the spirit of ownership or any ideas of improvement. 

This want of interest in his own affairs goes so far that if his own safety or that of his children is at last endangered, instead of trying to avert the peril, he will fold his arms and wait till the whole nation comes to his aid. This man who has so completely sacrificed his own free will does not, more than any other person, love obedience; he cowers, it is true, before the pettiest officer, but he braves the law with the spirit of a conquered foe as soon as its superior force is withdrawn; he perpetually oscillates between servitude and license.

This is about the most eloquent defense of "State's Rights" that I've ever read. You can see how, crudely rendered, this thinking becomes a "Ya'll Yankees stirrin up the good nigras" defense of segregation--"gross instances of social indifference and neglect," to put it euphemistically. But the fact that an ideology can be used as a tool to defend base prejudices, or as a mask for bigotry, does not, in and of itself, doom the ideology. 

I want to observe that a Ron Paul-style localism has often been used as a cloak for white supremacy. But it also seems to be the same ideology that takes one to community schooling, or community policing. If you read William Stuntz book The Collapse of Criminal Justice, you see a very Tocquevillian\localist critique. The problem, in Stuntz view, is that the enforcers of the law are too distant from those subject to the law--"The greatest changes are affected without his concurrence." The young black male in Harlem is thus, when confronted by the cops, a stranger in his own country.

And of course you see this same thinking in conservative talk of an ownership society. Conservatives can correct me, but the basic theory seems to be that a society of stakeholders, citizens with skin in the game, will ultimately prove to be wise stewards, since they actually have something at stake. I think about Jack Kemp and tenant ownership of public housing. There is also the critique of health-care reform, and indeed, the entire welfare state--the fear of the vigilant authority protecting the tranquility of your pleasures, and making itself "absolute master" of your life and liberty.

I think it's important to remember the age in which Tocqueville is writing. The Napoleanic Code is in effect (I think) by now. There are very few actual functioning democracies in the world. When Tocqueville attacks the "absolute master," he is not simply addressing a federal government, but the absolutism of Louis XIV and monarchy itself.

Finally, a quick note on coversating. We are, in the main, liberals here. I don't think we lack for places to expound on the evils of conservatism--some of them on this very blog. But I think it's important to allow the text to breathe, to not see it, purely, as ammo, or fodder to explain why Romney is the Antichrist. 

Again, let the text breathe. 
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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