If Alexis de Tocqueville were alive today and observing the situation of America, he would probably not be surprised that the democratic ethos of civil society, the township, and the autonomous local county have been crushed by the royal prerogatives of the executive and the administrative bureaucracy built around it.
Most Americans are somewhat familiar with Alexis de Tocqueville and his magnum opus on the United States—Democracy in America. Tocqueville, who had originally visited America to report on its prison system, ended up writing one of the best analyses of pre-Civil War and pre-New Deal America. The genius of America, however, that Tocqueville described is now long dead. Conservatives must be aware of this to avoid being absorbed—as so many have—into Conservatism Inc., which veils itself with the language of “constitutionalism” and “Americanism” but is as much in bed with the bureaucratic and consolidated imperium our Founding Fathers freed themselves from and the genuine Constitution opposes.
As Tocqueville traveled, observed, and conversed, he grew in his affinity for the local dynamism of the United States: “It is not the administrative but the political effects of the local system I most admire in America.” In fact, his concentration of the township and county governments is where he begins his great work of political commentary after having ruminated on the geographic and demographic origins of the United States. It is here that we have the greatest witness to the early realities of the American Union:
It is proposed to examine the following chapter what is the form of government established in America on the principle of the sovereignty of the people; what are its resources, its hindrances, its advantages, and its dangers. The first difficulty which presents itself arises from the complex nature of the constitution of the United States, which consists of two distinct social structures, connected and, as it were, encased one within the other; two governments, completely separate and almost independent, the one fulfilling the ordinary duties and responding to the daily and indefinite calls of the community, the other circumscribed within certain limits; and only exercising an exceptional authority over the general interests of the country. In short, there are twenty-four small sovereign nations, whose agglomeration constitutes the body of the Union.
The United States that Tocqueville traversed and wrote about was an America of sovereign individual states and their dynamic townships and counties which served as the pulsating heart of the American spirit and experience. The federal government, as he later says, “is… the exception; the Government of the States is the rule.” That is, the federal government wasn’t the vibrant heart of the American Union. The individual states and their townships were. The federal government had few powers, as Tocqueville later goes on to describe, and merely existed to exercise “authority over the general interests of the country.”
When Tocqueville begins to describe the federal constitution of the United States, he observes much the same: “The attributes of the Federal Government were therefore carefully enumerated and all that was not included amongst them was declared to constitute a part of the privileges of the several Governments of the States. Thus the government of the States remained the rule, and that of the Confederation became the exception.” Tocqueville sees the same limited enumerated powers as did the Federalist Fathers who, in Federalist 45, wrote, “The powers delegated by the Constitution to the Federal Government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State Governments are numerous and indefinite.” Indeed, this near-anarchic absence of federal administration struck Tocqueville as an oddity: “Nothing is more striking to an European traveler in the United States than the absence of what we term the Government, or Administration. Written laws exist in America and one sees that they are daily executed; but although everything is in motion, the hand which gives the impulse to the social machine can nowhere be discovered.”
Part of the intriguing ingenuity of the American experience for Tocqueville was how the spirit and motion of sovereignty rested not in an administrative, consolidated, or centralized federal government, but in the small townships and larger counties to which the Americans had their most concrete loyalty and existence. All the social obligations of being a citizen were manifested at the local level. Moreover, Tocqueville recognized that this decentralized—or more properly, diffused and diminutive political system—aided in preventing an extensive centralized administration. The “two methods of diminishing the force of authority in a nation,” he noted, were “first… to weaken the supreme power in its very principle, by forbidding or preventing society from acting in its own defense under certain circumstances” and secondly “in distributing the exercise of its privileges in various hands.” It was the second method that was principally manifested in America through the townships, counties, and municipal governments. When reading Tocqueville, we begin to witness the old truth that participatory civil society keeps away the supreme power, the centralizing and administrative power, of government bureaucracy and the administrative state.
Additionally, where administrative political centers had been erected, such as in state legislatures and governments, Americans had taken careful action to ensure divided government precisely to diminish, as much as possible, centralized power. States, with the brief exception of Pennsylvania which soon followed the example of the other states, had all divided their legislatures into two bodies: A House of Representatives and a Senate (which is also true of the federal government). “The only advantages which result from the present constitution of the United States are the division of legislative power and the consequent check upon political assemblies.”
The purpose of dividing the legislature into two houses instead of having unicameral legislatures was to ensure a “check upon political assemblies.” Why? As any student of political philosophy trained before 1945 would have known, there is nothing intrinsically good about democracy in and of itself. Democracy can be good. Democracy can also be bad. This, to some extent, is playing out today when liberal elites deride “illiberal democracy” against the supposedly more benign “liberal democracy” their Manichean contrast implies. Divided government prevented the possibility of centralized power, even in a “democracy.”
The more Tocqueville pondered and observed this divisionary phenomenon of government the more he grew fond of it. “This theory [of divided legislatures], which was nearly unknown to the republics of antiquity—which was introduced into the world almost by accident, like so many other great truths—and misunderstood by several modern nations, is at length become an axiom in the political science of the present age.” In short, the genius and exceptionalism of the early American republic were in her vibrant civil society which negated the need for any autocratic, administrative, or centralized government.
America’s energetic and exuberant civil society, flourishing at the level of the township in New England and the counties in the Ohio River Valley and South, is what Tocqueville most acutely means as the basis of “democracy in America.” The “democracy” is the genuine self-rule of the people in their townships, communes, and counties without the need of overriding administrative and bureaucratic authority. True mass democracy was something local, not national.
The contrast to the diffused and diminutive democratic system which had sprung up in America is the administrative and bureaucratic model of centralism. True, Tocqueville had the foresight to see—paradoxically—how an administrative and centralized apparatus already existed in America by virtue of existing legislatures, constitutions, and organized federal apparatuses (however minor or small they may have been) and could sweep in and overtake the ingenuity and energy of the localities. But his foresight into this problem should have served more as a warning than a deterministic prophecy of the future destruction of the American experiment and democratic spirit. In fact, the wisdom of Tocqueville’s observations about centralism stands for all time and resonates with any red-blooded patriot:
Centralization succeeds more easily, indeed, in subjecting the external actions of men to a certain uniformity, which at least commands our regard, independently of the objects to which supplied… Centralization imparts without difficulty an admirable regularity to the routine of business; provides for the details of the social police with sagacity; represses the smallest disorder and the most petty misdemeanors; maintains society in a status-quo alike secure from improvement and decline; and perpetuates a drowsy precision in the conduct of affairs, which is hailed by heads of the administration as a sign of perfect order and public tranquillity: in short, it excels more in prevention than in action.
Tocqueville’s profound insight in stating that the purpose of centralized administration is more about preventing activity than allowing, or unleashing, activity is shockingly prescient. For the origins of the movement to America’s administrative and centralized—consolidated—imperium are precisely what Tocqueville noted: prevention of activity.
Abraham Lincoln’s mixed legacy tears the “new nation” he forged together in blood and war in two directions. On the one hand, the victorious Lincoln began the movement toward administrative centralization more than any other president in American history until Franklin Roosevelt. Lincoln’s actions and government prevented activity rather than allowing activity to occur. The death of Lincoln and the end of Reconstruction pushed America back toward its antebellum realities which Tocqueville had described, but subsequent industrialization prompted government regulation which mandated centralization. The America of 1861-1932 oscillated, sometimes violently, between the America Tocqueville described and the America Tocqueville feared she might become: a Union of sovereign independent states with vibrant energetic localities over and against an administrative, consolidated, and centralized government which stifled the vibrancies of individual states and local communities.
It is the essence of administrative centralized states to regulate and consolidate, to homogenize and compartmentalize, in expectation for rote, mundane, mechanical “efficiency.” The purpose of administrative states is to brush away the old forces of pluralism, particularity, and diffused inefficiency for a unitary robotic machine. This, of course, was the dream of the progressives.
Here it is necessary to take a step back to the very beginning of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America to recognize how metaphysical assumptions influence politics. Tocqueville begins his second chapter by drawing an analogy of national growth to that of a child with parents. In Tocqueville’s analogy we see an organic and generationist view of nations. This, too, was the underlying message of this chapter wherefrom he described the origins and growth of the American Union out of the Anglo-American colonists who brought with them their traditions and ideals and planted them into the North American soil. Tocqueville’s understanding of man, and nations, was organic and generationist.
The progressives, by contrast, were the true heirs of the so-called Enlightenment. Their understanding of man and nations was analogous to the materialist and mechanical philosophers of England and France who saw man and the commonwealth as a machine, an artifice, a construction to be molded and brought into working mechanical efficiency (this is the spirit of English progressivism and socialism from Hobbes to Wells). For the progressive, the vibrancy, messiness, and differentiations of civil society were a problem to be regulated and fixed rather than an activity to encourage. The progressives tried to make this a reality in the early 1900s but failed. It was only after the Great Depression, through the ideology of centralization known as the New Deal and subsequent Great Society in the 1960s, that they achieved their remaking of America and prevention of the activities of civil society under the new federal bureaucratic apparatus.
We must ask ourselves whether the America which Tocqueville described continues to exist. No doubt it exists in various places. But we must also remember what Tocqueville said about the Constitution and the American system of government.
Perhaps the vibrant Anglo-American model of civil society still exists or can be found in some places, but only the naivest idealist would suggest that the “government of the states” is still the norm. Far from it. The government of the centralized federal administrative state is now the norm, and the vibrancy of civil society is rare.
Civil society and the now fifty states are all subjected to the federal administrative state. The administrative state feeds off the energy and pulsations of civil society, small businesses, and the many states, and not the other way around. It is clear when reading Tocqueville that the individual states were also seen as part of the checks and balances against the federal government. This is something otherwise lost to most contemporary conservatives who think that retaking a federal branch of government will restore checks and balances when diffusing power and responsibility back to states and local municipalities is the truest restoration of checks and balances. (And seldom do conservatives do this when in power.)
The great parasitic irony about modern “democracy” is that it is not democratic. Not at least in the sense that Tocqueville meant it. Again, the democracy which Tocqueville saw in America was a democracy of engaged citizens through participatory civil society. This democratic ethos and spirit negated any need for an extensive administrative, bureaucratic, and centralized form of government. The rule of the township and the county, the rule of the individual states whose life is given to them by the township and county, was the normative rule of the early American political experience. Voting for a president or senator doesn’t constitute “democracy.” Nor does voting for the federal government to solve one’s problems.
Few people, to my knowledge, advocate a return to the democracy by which Tocqueville was mesmerized. Even most so-called conservatives have been so absorbed into the administrative state that they do not fight the consolidated Leviathan in Washington. They abet its expansion in the form of the Military Industrial Complex, the National Security complex, and the imperial presidency which has superseded all divided branches of government. The insistent, even messianic, concentration on the presidency reflects how far removed we are from the Constitutional Order of the Founding Fathers and the Constitutional Order Tocqueville wrote about.
There has been a revolution in America that has too long gone unnamed and undetected. We live not under the Constitution of our Forefathers but under the imaginary constitution of the centralizers. The Constitution seems to provide for so many undelegated and unenumerated powers; few people raise concern as to where such power is specified, and the best argument against such new powers and rights is to simply say “we can’t afford it.”
The problem with the economic argument is that it already presupposes constitutional legality. The Constitution is held up to us as if it still exerts itself over the administrative monster created in the wake of the Civil War, New Deal, and Cold War. In practical reality, the Constitution is dead and has been dead for many generations. Here, even self-proclaimed conservatives who claim that if the Democrats or liberals achieve X, Y, Z then “the Constitution no longer matters” are as much part of the problem as are the progressive centralizers and administrators. For this argument still presupposes that the Constitution exerts itself over the federal Leviathan (but only tenuously so). In reality, we live under a new regime where the Constitution doesn’t exert itself over anything—it is only spoken of in times of trial or crisis to give the illusion of constitutional continuity.
We live, now, under the centralized administrative state against which Tocqueville warned. In Tocqueville’s day he compared the unhappy despotism of the centralized state to China: “China appears to me to present the most perfect instance of that species of well-being which a completely central administration may furnish to the nations among which exists. Travellers assure us that the Chinese have peace without happiness, industry without improvement, stability without strength, and public order without public morality.” If Tocqueville were alive today, he might now include America as that centralized state which brings “peace without happiness, industry without improvement, stability without strength, and public order without morality.”
Many of our contemporary self-proclaimed Constitutionalists are, in fact, anti-Constitutionalists. They do not seek to restore the division of power, the rule of the states and civil society over the federal government, or the diminution of the administrative bureaucracy. The purpose of the self-proclaimed Constitutionalist, especially as within mainstream Conservative Inc.,—its media organs: television, print, and radio especially—is to create the illusion that we still live under the vestiges of constitutionality and the old order while abetting the slow growth of the administrative regime. In helping to maintain this illusion they prevent the restoration of the Constitution and the return to the democracy which so inspired the world, inspired Tocqueville, and still inspires generations of men and women to reclaim their birthright.
When we read Tocqueville, we shouldn’t be romantics thinking that the America he described still exists today. Tocqueville’s America is dead and gone, and long dead it has been. Yet Tocqueville’s prescience looms large over us. For in the seeds of this resplendent new Union he was traversing, he also saw the potential for centralized authority and royal prerogatives to emerge.
The presidency, in Tocqueville’s time, was limited—it was, as the Constitutional Fathers intended, “inferior” to the Congress—yet had the possibility of enlarging into the imperial and crypto-totalitarian monster it is today. Almost 200 years ago Tocqueville noted, “If the existence of the Union were perpetually threatened, and if the chief interests were in daily connection with those of other powerful nations, the executive government would assume an increased importance in proportion to the measures expected of it, and those which it would carry into effect.” If Tocqueville were alive today and observing the situation of America with the now globalized world and its constant invocation of perpetual threats, he would probably not be surprised that the democratic ethos of civil society, the township, and the autonomous local county have been crushed by the royal prerogatives of the executive and the administrative bureaucracy built around it.
Any truly Constitutional restoration would begin with the dismantling of the administrative centralized bureaucracy and scaling back the indefinite powers of the presidency. Furthermore, we the people should also become engaged civil citizens and rebuild the intermediate associations that should be our first order of loyalty and participation. We should stop looking to Washington, D.C. and the Beltway Bureaucracy to solve our problems and bed us into becoming Last Men concerned with cheap comfort until we die. Only a truly democratic, populist, and localist vibrancy can preserve the true spirit of democracy from being consumed by the administrative and managerial bureaucracy disguising itself as “democracy.”
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