The Corner

If Modern Democracy Has Failed, Tocqueville Has the Answer

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has an article in the British bien-pensants’ house journal, The New Statesman, that asserts that mass democracy has failed with the election of Donald Trump and that a “more humane alternative” is needed. Yet reading his piece, one can see that the answer to all his criticisms is contained in Tocqueville. His Grace is also blind to the role that the ideas beloved of The New Statesman and its readers played in bringing down exactly the sort of society he recommends.

For a start, the good prelate appears uninformed about the checks and balances of the American constitution. He says of the disaffected masses that Trump’s election “confirms that they have no part in real political processes; they can only choose their monarch.” Thankfully, the American President is no monarch. His power is checked by an independent legislature and a powerful judiciary. The President is not an absolute monarch on the model of Henry VIII (and I shall remain silent about the role that Rowan Williams’ – and my – church may have played in the creation of the absolute Tudor monarchy).

Yet if there has been a tendency towards a much more powerful Presidency, it has been the ideas of the left that have enabled it. The principle that executive agencies should have the power to control much of the average citizen’s day-to-day life is not a conservative one. Nor do many conservatives support the idea that courts should defer to the expertise of those agencies. If the President is in any way a monarch, the roots of that change can be traced to the New Deal, something that Rowan Williams would probably have supported.

And what does the former Archbishop suggest we should do instead of democracy as he defines it? The solution may sound familiar.

The learning that matters is the experience of genuine political debate and decision-making at local levels, the experience of identifying challenges, negotiating sustainable solutions, and learning to manage conflict without violent rupture or the demonising of minorities. This is the work that goes on in co-operative practice at every level – in education and industry, and through citizens’ organisations (President Obama’s political nursery), food co-ops, microcredit institutions and voluntary street pastors.

Conservatives have a phrase for what he is describing – civil society. It’s familiar because it’s exactly what Alexis de Tocqueville described as democracy in America:

When citizens can associate only in certain cases, they regard association as a rare and singular process, and they hardly think of it…When you allow them to associate freely in everything, they end up seeing in association the universal and, so to speak, unique means that men can use to attain the various ends that they propose. Each new need immediately awakens the idea of association. The art of association then becomes, as I said above, the mother science; everyone studies it and applies it.

What chipped away at this practice of association? Well, Tocqueville anticipated this:

Above [the citizenry] 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.

This is the centralized government that Roosevelt and his heirs bequeathed to America, a government that seeks to rule men for their own good. It is the direct antithesis of what both Tocqueville and Williams recommend. Yet it is also exactly the sort of government that leftists like Williams have championed and indeed enabled throughout their careers. I suggest His Grace looks to Matthew 7:3-5 for further insight.

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