Alexis de Tocqueville on modern democracy’s gentle suffocation of the human spirit and the importance of local government
While Germany just installed a new government and Italy just went to polls resulting in a victory for the Five Star Movement, on March 21, the Dutch go to the polling stations for their local municipal elections.
There’s a sad undertone to the story about local elections in The Netherlands. Whereas in the seventies and eighties about seventy percent of voters showed up, in the last decade this declined to about half of the voters (58,3 % in 2006, 53,8 % in 2014). This constitutes a considerable disinterest and lack of involvement in local government. Hardly any Dutch person knows who his or her local counsellors are. While most of them will be able to name a few members of parliament, a handful of government ministers and probably all would know the prime minister, the question to name a counsellor – or even worse – members of the provincial legislature – would probably be met with a pause and a long silence. Almost half of the voting populace would not be able to name a single one, and there is a fair chance the same goes for comparable European societies.
But this wasn’t always the case.
In 1840, the Kingdom of the Netherlands counted 1220 municipalities, each with their own local council. Especially in the twentieth century, these were merged into ever fewer and larger ones until in 2018, only 380 remain, despite a nearly six-fold population increase. Both resulted in a collapse of the voter to counsellor ratio. A town of 37.000 souls currently has one counsellor for every 1500 inhabitants.
A century ago, many adult citizens would know one or more councillors, members of provincial assemblies or water authorities – all local representatives of the people in their own right – through either family or social connections, to whom they could appeal, with whom they could discuss or debate local issues or express their concerns. In the current large municipal areas, many consisting of more than one town, village or hamlet, it’s much harder for voters to get in touch with their councillor, provided they even know who he or she is. Relatively unseen and mostly unknown, these politicians claim to represent their voters’ interests and address their concerns.
Adding to this, “professionalising” local government introducing ever an increasing complexity of rules and regulations have resulted in a fairly homogeneous composition of local councils: there are hardly any tradesmen or shopkeepers on the public sector payroll. This lack of diversity further alienates local voters and causes them to identify and engage less with their local government. The result is that these politicians themselves feel relatively free of responsibility towards their electorate. They themselves are safe and secluded at a brand new town hall, a brand new steel, glass and concrete Moloch in the middle of some meadows somewhere in between the towns and villages they are supposed to govern. Safe and secluded from prying eyes and with local media one nail in the coffin away from dying, who can blame them?
It is not difficult to see how these developments could have led to a growing disinterest in local government. This crisis in local government cannot be solved without the observation and theory of the political thinker Alexis the Tocqueville (1805 – 1859).
Tocqueville, the prophet of modern democracy
Cases such as these show us how the work of Alexis the Tocqueville is still relevant today. Tocqueville was a scion of an age-old French aristocratic family whose forefather supposedly fought with William, the Duke of Normandy, at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and whose parents hardly survived the Terror of Robespierre. As a young man, he traveled through the equally young United States of America, writing down his observations on the American social and political situation in his well-known De la démocratie en Amérique, or Democracy in America (1835).
To Tocqueville, democracy is not the same as its colloquial meaning of “rule by the people”, rather it is a whole of cultural, social, economic norms and mores that all share one thing: a tendency towards equality. It is an all-embracing social order, or as Tocqueville calls it: “un état social”, a social state. Democracy is characterised by equality of class and condition. This state of equality soon encompassed all aspects of society: politics and government, the judiciary, mores and customs. Through mutual influence and interference, these in time result in an ever-increasing state of equality in education, income, tastes and customs.
As an aristocrat, schooled in the classics and as an admirer of beauty and tradition and as a person who values excellence, distinction, fine manners and style to a very high degree, Tocqueville cannot be said to have been overly pleased by this ever increasing levelling of standards, conditions and vulgarisation of manners. However, he does see this development as unavoidable, also in Europe.
His biggest concern was the political effect. In a society of equal individuals, all are equally powerful, with equal rights, more or less evenly educated and evenly wealthy. Thus also: equally powerless, especially against a majority. Every numerical majority has absolute power. In a democracy, there are no principal safeguards against the abuse of the majority will. Tocqueville emphatically warns for this “tyrannie de la majorité” (tyranny of the majority). Even if institutions, mores and the rule of law do not permit the use of violence against minorities, public discourse is all-powerful. Therefore, in a democracy, a tendency towards consensus and conformity arises.
A second danger lies in a mild form of tyranny. The absence of rank and class enables the improvement of one’s social and economic standing. Individuals in a democracy are therefore more directed towards themselves and their social status, risking the neglect of the common interest and public sphere. Should this happen, the individual will soon lose himself in the pursuit of his own little indulgences and climbing the social ladder.
Tocqueville argued that when men primarily concern themselves pursuing private status, the public sphere would suffer and lie fallow. This vacuum, in turn, would be claimed by the government, since the public sphere has to be tended by someone. The government subsequently centralises more, creating more bureaucracy to administer this new space and thereby further limiting the freedom of movement of the individual. This would result in a vicious circle of centralisation, bureaucracy, individualisation and indifference towards the common interest. A government that takes over many things that the individual is capable of organising himself — and indeed has done in the past — now forces him to comply with rules and regulations. It forces him, not by violence, but by admonishing him and by mild coercion. Hence the term mild despotism.
Tocqueville is particularly clear in his depiction of this phenomenon (De la démocratie en Amérique, 2, II, 6):
“Democratic governments will be able to become violent and even cruel in certain moments of great agitation and great dangers; but these crises will be rare and passing.When I think about the petty passions of the men of our times, about the softness of their mores, about the extent of their enlightenment, about the purity of their religion, about the mildness of their morality, about their painstaking and steady habits, about the restraint that they nearly all maintain in vice as in virtue, I am not afraid that they will find in their leaders tyrants, but rather tutors.So I think that the type of oppression by which democratic peoples are threatened will resemble nothing of what preceded it in the world; our contemporaries cannot find the image of it in their memories. I seek in vain myself for an expression that exactly reproduces the idea that I am forming of it and includes it; the old words of despotism and of tyranny do not work. The thing is new, so I must try to define it, since I cannot name it.
I want to imagine under what new features despotism could present itself to the world; I see an innumerable crowd of similar and equal men who spin around restlessly, in order to gain small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each one of them, withdrawn apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others; his children and his particular friends form for him the entire human species; as for the remainder of his fellow citizens, he is next to them, but he does not see them; he touches them without feeling them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and if he still has a family, you can say that at least he no longer has a country.
Above those men arises an immense and tutelary power that alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyment and of looking after their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-sighted and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like it, it had as a goal to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary it seeks only to fix them irrevocably in childhood; it likes the citizens to enjoy themselves, provided that they think only about enjoying themselves. It works willingly for their happiness; but it wants to be the unique agent for it and the sole arbiter; it attends to their security, provides for their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, settles their estates, divides their inheritances; how can it not remove entirely from them the trouble to think and the difficulty of living?
This is how it makes the use of free will less useful and rarer every day; how it encloses the action of the will within a smaller space and little by little steals from each citizen even the use of himself. Equality has prepared men for all these things; it has disposed men to bear them and often even to regard them as a benefit. After having thus taken each individual one by one into its powerful hands, and having molded him as it pleases, the sovereign power extends its arms over the entire society; it covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated, minute, and uniform rules, which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot break through to go beyond the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them and directs them; it rarely forces action, but it constantly opposes your acting; it does not destroy, it prevents birth; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, it represses, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupifies, and finally it reduces each nation to being nothing more than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
I have always believed that this sort of servitude, regulated, mild and peaceful, of which I have just done the portrait, could be combined better than we imagine with some of the external forms of liberty, and that it would not be impossible for it to be established in the very shadow of the sovereignty of the people.”
Local authorities merging into larger entities by claiming “efficiency” or an increased “thrust” can beforehand be judged as questionable at best. They usually empower government at the expense of the citizens, increase mild despotism, bureaucracy and weaken civic participation.
Freedom is essential
A society suffering from Tocqueville’s mild despotism can cure itself through a high degree of civil liberty, including the possibility to participate in governing. Only democracies with strongly decentralised decision-making in which the government focussed only on the bare necessities (law enforcement, justice, defence of the realm) and citizens involve themselves in organising as much as possible themselves can be judged as free — and therefore right — democracies. Acting as they do, these citizens shape their own lives, environment and fate. This, Tocqueville saw as the great difference between de United States and France: free and consisting of involved citizens versus consisting of centralised, unfree and indifferent inhabitants.
There is a parallel here with Aristotle’s idea of virtue. By acting virtuous, one could become virtuous. By acting virtuous one shapes his or her character. Applied to public virtues, this means one should participate as much as possible in exercising one’s liberty: in order to become free, one must act free. Governing, one can learn by doing. By actively participating in society and freely associating oneself to one’s neighbours, one learns to use and shapes one’s own liberty, thereby creating obstacles for a meddling government and the bureaucracy and centralisation that comes along with it.
The future is local. After a century of scaling-up, the tendency, or at least the tendency desired by populations, seems to be to scale down. People buy locally grown vegetables, locally produced meat, drink locally brewed craft beer. They support local initiatives, local tradesmen and artisans. Unfortunately, the political system has not yet caught up with this trend. Scaling-up local government is not a solution. Over the decades, the number of councillors has dwindled and merging of towns and villages has alienated people from their local authorities. A diverse representation of politically involved amateurs — in the original and true French sense of the word, “one who loves” — in a small local community strengthens the involvement of all.
For a free and fruitful democracy to function a healthy and active participation of citizens is essential. A rich and colourful collection of pressure groups, associations, political movements characterise a community in which citizens take into account both their local environment and the common interest. Self-government is key here: civic participation involving making oneself heard and taking responsibility are vital aspects in the struggle against overstretching regulations and bureaucracy.
Access to recognisable and responsible local politicians is crucial, local politics should limit itself to solving concrete issues to identifiable, local issues. Local government — and in fact, any government — should not organise or regulate what citizens can organise and regulate themselves.
What can be done? For a start, stop creating more and ever more uniform local authorities. Where possible, demerge some of the super-municipalities, especially in the countryside where they might cover a large area and include more than ten villages, each different in character and history.
Secondly, increase the policy freedom of local councils to meet the needs of their citizens better. Locally brewed government, so to speak.
Thirdly, local councillors have to make themselves available and accessible to their voters. Not just in election time, but always. Engaging with voters al year round, explaining what has been done, listening to their concerns. Local government will likely thrive if it’s conducted somewhat along these lines.
This is an adaptation of an article that Peter Riezebos and I wrote in June 2014 for Liberaal Réveil. Although it is written for the Dutch situation, the analysis and observations might be applicable in other countries as well, and to a certain extent to the EU institution as a whole.