Searching for the Spirit of Democracy

Weekly Article / Orhan Cam
Dec. 14, 2017

After the 2016 election, I decided that I needed to understand my country better. What better place to start than with Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America? Not the excerpts we all read in high school, about how Americans simply love associations of all kinds, but the actual book—or two books, rather, since he published the first volume in 1835 and the second in 1840. It definitely qualifies as a “long read”—723 pages worth—but reading on my Kindle, I try to read 1 percent of the whole most mornings with my first cup of coffee, before looking at either the news or my email.

Some mornings I seem to be highlighting almost every passage I read; the book is a classic for a reason. Not so much of history but of political science; he is contrasting democracy in America with the tumultuous efforts to establish democracy in France. I will select here his celebration of the American township, or more precisely, the townships of New England, a “part of the Union [in which] political life was born in the very bosom of the townships; one could almost say that each of them at its origin was an independent nation.” De Tocqueville’s analysis of the foundations of American democracy in the 1830s—the ways in which township government bred both trust and responsibility—bears directly on the crisis of American democracy almost two centuries later.

Citizens in a township govern themselves without interference from any higher government on all “interests that are purely the township’s.” Within this sphere, the township “unites two advantages that, everywhere they are found, keenly excite men’s interest, that is to say: independence and power.” Here is the heart of self-government. On township issues, men (and they were all men) have the power to make things happen and the independence to decide what should happen. Without power, they learn that the promises of democracy exist only on paper. Without independence, they are forced to use their power to implement decisions made at a higher level of government and thus become subjects rather than citizens.

The combination of power and independence means that they must in fact participate in decision-making and take responsibility for the decisions they make. Moreover, de Tocqueville notes that the townships distribute this power as widely as possible, with many different public offices divided according to different functions: selectmen, constables, assessors, collectors, clerks, cashiers, overseers, inspectors, parish commissioners, and many others. He sees this arrangement as artful design, that the architects of township government “scatter power in order to interest more people in public things.” (Emphasis in original.) Equally important, with power also comes duty—the obligation to participate, such that “life in a townships … manifests itself each day by the accomplishment of a duty or the exercise of a right.” Citizens are continually aware of their political as well as social existence.

How very far that description is from town life in contemporary America. Most citizens, except perhaps in the smallest towns, have almost no awareness of participation in the decisions that govern them. Indeed, all those positions de Tocqueville describes are now not held by fellow citizens but by the black box of city hall, the faceless bureaucracy of “government.” Or at least so they are perceived. “We the people” does not include the people who actually hold government positions.

Hollie Russon Gilman and K. Sabeel Rahman diagnose the crisis in American democracy as a combination of a community’s distrust of government and the government’s distrust of the community. They advocate reconceptualizing “democracy, power, and responsiveness as about more than winning particular policy outcomes. Rather, democracy requires building capacity to exercise power and influence, to partake in the challenges and opportunities of exercising political judgment.” The best way to build that capacity is to practice an “inclusive populism,” building not only civic engagement but civic capacity to engage in self-government.

That looks much more like the idealized township of self-government that de Tocqueville describes. Many members of those townships had the direct experience of exercising power and influence. Where are those spaces today? Will they still be physical, rebuilding our democracy from the townships of today? Will they be virtual—creating communities broad enough to contain a cross-section of citizens but small enough to make the exercise of power meaningful? Will they be composed only of government officials, elected or appointed from the citizenry for a defined period of time? Or will they be composed of a broader group of leaders from multiple sectors?

De Tocqueville thought that the “spirit of the township” was the spirit of democracy itself. Reading him makes me think long and hard about where and how we can find and cultivate that spirit today.