Tocqueville on Democracy, Local Communities, and Moral Character

This guest post was authored by John D. Wilsey, editor of a new abridgment of Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville.


Once again, we have participated in a national community event that takes place every four years—we have elected a president. The new president will be our forty-fifth. It is astounding that Americans have participated in presidential elections regularly every four years since George Washington was elected in 1789. It is even more astounding when one considers that the quadrennial election for president has taken place despite the nation facing some of its most dangerous threats—the Civil War, the Great Depression, and World War II.

In every presidential election, one group of supporters is jubilant, while the supporters of the losing candidates are dejected. I can certainly relate to that—I cast my first ballot in 1988, and since then I have voted for both winners and losers. The election that has just passed was particularly shocking, because so few saw it coming. Time will tell when, how, and if the country will settle in and be at relative peace with the new administration.

It is indeed interesting how much consternation a presidential contest can achieve among the American people. In my local election, I cast a ballot for a proposed bond measure and another one on a question of whether or not stores could sell liquor within city limits. There was not any public outcry from the losing side of either of these two questions, at least to my knowledge. I can say the same for the election of our state officials. Nobody was in the streets protesting from the losing sides. I have not heard any discontent whatsoever from anyone in my community about the results of our state and local elections.

Why is that? Citizens have a direct and vested interest in their local communities. And while state government is a bit more distant from the citizens, they still have a legitimate stake in their state governments. It is interesting that people have put so much faith in their national government, and in their president in particular. The amount of faith the American people have placed in their national government in general, and president in particular, is demonstrated in the visceral reactions that many have shown in response to Mr. Trump’s victory. 

Alexis de Tocqueville foresaw such a state of affairs in his classic work, Democracy in America. He noted, with sincere admiration, how Americans in 1831-1832 were so deeply engaged with their local affairs. This was the case particularly in New England, where Tocqueville saw that citizens in their townships were deeply engaged in their communal lives because everyone had a stake in the success of their community. The center of political gravity for Americans in New England was not the national, but the local government. Because that was the case, Tocqueville believed that New Englanders were the freest of all the Americans. 

Tocqueville also saw that the Americans of his day were uniquely interested in forming voluntary associations to address issues in which the government had no jurisdiction. At one point, Tocqueville used the example of a local traffic jam—when a road becomes clogged with vehicles and there are no laws to follow and no magistrate present to bring order, Tocqueville said that Americans come together in a voluntary organization to bring order and to clear the road to make travel smooth again. This they do without prompting by the government, but on their own initiative. In the same way, Americans form local voluntary bodies to address hosts of questions and issues, and do so to further their interests independently of the government.

This is how free societies work, Tocqueville said. Laws are important in a democracy, but not nearly as important as the customs, the manners of the people. These manners—the moral character of a society—are what inform the public spirit of the people. They maintain the social integrity of the people and ultimately are the deciding factor on whether a democracy will be defined by liberty or by despotism. 

If a society’s manners are informed by Christian morals through a disestablished church, then liberty can be secured through citizen’s continual engagement with their local affairs through the townships, counties, state, and national government. But if the citizens become too obsessed with self, to enamored of materialistic concerns, and complacent in their local communities, they will rely more and more on a national government to take care of the details that they themselves would have taken care of through their local processes. When that level of complacency prevails, the democracy has become a despotism. 

As we consider our current situation, we should ask ourselves: have we allowed America to become a democratic despotism through our complacency? Have we lost our vested interest in our local communities, and put all our trust in our national leaders to take care of us? Have we allowed ourselves to become so enraptured by national public figures that we adore them or revile them as we would an emperor?

Tocqueville wrote, “For my part, I am persuaded that, in all governments, whatever their nature may be, servility will cower to force, and adulation will follow power. The only means of preventing men from degrading themselves is to invest no one with that unlimited authority which the sure method of debasing them.”

That sounds easy, but Tocqueville’s prescription requires American citizens to be vigilant in their guarding of their local interests, informed by manners that are rooted in morality. When this healthy public spirit prevails, we will find unity and peace in our national polity—even when the person we voted against wins the presidential election.