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Tocqueville Reminds Us That Local Communities Make Democracy Work


In my previous column, I showed that the two roots of American democracy, as Alexis de Tocqueville sees them, are a warning sign to both conservatives and liberals. To conservatives because Tocqueville sees equality of conditions (and not just rights) as fundamental to American democracy, and to liberals because he sees religion as fundamental.

In the next section, Tocqueville mostly rebukes liberals, since he writes about the importance of local government–but, as we’ll see, there are some warning signs for conservatives too.

Tocqueville is adamant: local government is absolutely key to democracy in America. It’s what makes it work. For a whole chapter, he marvels at the extent of self-governance in the townships of New England, looking at them as the model of local self-government.

For Tocqueville, this isn’t idle social analysis: he makes very clear that looking at how local government works in America explains how all democracy works in America. As we’ll see, the picture he draws of American local government is different from what we have today, and that has dramatic consequences for democracy in America.

First of all, there is direct democracy: when some question of importance needs to be debated, the whole town gathers, debates, and takes a vote.

What about day-to-day administration? The township is “run” by a committee of “select-men” who summon these town meetings, although a small number of landowners can force the select-men to summon such a town meeting. This isn’t the public meetings we see today in most American towns (and have always seen in European towns) where the people can petition and talk but the elected officials ultimately have the final say. Instead, it’s the vote at the town meeting which carries the day. If the select-men want to do something of importance, they have to summon a town meeting, and if the town meeting rejects their proposal, that’s it; conversely, if the people want to do something the select-men don’t, they can summon a town meeting and vote for it, and that vote is binding. If the select-men are collectively “the mayor”, then the town meeting is the city council (which is why in those townships, unlike in Europe or most of America today, there was no city council). Sounds like the kind of place where mayors Quimby and Ford wouldn’t last long. The select-men are up for reelection every year, not only providing a very powerful check on their power, but also highlighting the extent to which the people was ceaselessly involved in local administration.

Second of all, there is the number of elected offices. Don’t imagine that the select-men, once they get elected and carry the day in town meetings, run the show. In fact, most of the offices of the township that run particular departments are also elected every year. In the constitutions of New England, Tocqueville counts nineteen such offices, which may or may not exist depending on the township, all of them elected every year along with the select-men, which is prodigious for 18th century small towns. Here are the main ones he cites as being there in every town:

Assessors, who establish taxes to be paid; collectors, who raise the taxes. An officer called constable is in charge of police duties […]. Another officer, the town clerk, keeps records of deliberations and maintains the town records. A cashier keeps watch over the township’s treasury. […] School commissioners, who run public schools; road inspectors.

Other, more minor offices have a nice pre-industrial flavor, such as weights and measures inspectors and harvest inspectors. Tocqueville notes that while most of these officers receive a stipend for their time, “the American system does not consist in giving a fixed remuneration to functionaries. In general, each act of their service has a certain price, and they are only paid in proportion to what they do.”

This is the American Constitution, Tocqueville writes, using that word in its proper sense: not a document, but the living tradition of a political order.

Let’s pause to look at this picture of local government in 18th century America. All of the rules are designed to do two things: divide governmental power, and increase government officials’ accountability to the people. Select-men and the other officials are up for reelection every year. Big decisions are reached at town-meetings, and the citizens can call town-meetings. This is the American Constitution, Tocqueville writes, using that word in its proper sense: not a document, but the living tradition of a political order. Down to the upkeep of roads and “harvest inspection”, the American political system is designed with limited government and popular accountability in mind.

Of course, Tocqueville notes that these local townships, not state governors (and certainly not even Washington–the idea doesn’t even occur to him!) take care of almost all of the issues that require governmental attention. The state sometimes passes laws that townships have to obey, for sure. But the way the state government most often intervenes in local government is not through the executive or legislative branches, but through the judicial—judges have review power over actions of the local governments if they do something illegal. Tocqueville sees this system working well, which indicates we are before the day of activist judges and three felonies a day.

This is a far cry from how most local governments work in the US today. You can plausibly argue the township system wouldn’t work for a big city, but today even most small towns in the US (like, say, Wasilla, Alaska), have a mayor/city council system modeled on Washington, instead of a participatory system like the townships of Colonial New England.

Now, by itself, this is already impressive. But the reason why this is so fundamental, Tocqueville writes, is even bigger than you think. Most conservatives usually sing the virtues of local government as “laboratories of democracy”–in other words, if we have decentralized government, different places can try different things out and a) find solutions that work better for their particular problems and b) help bubble up good ideas from the local level to the state and national level.

Writing after the Revolution, Tocqueville says this “educational” component of local democracy is as vibrant and as important as ever.

That’s all true enough but, Tocqueville says, local government is fundamental not so much because it’s a “laboratory” of democracy but because it’s a school of democracy. Through such accountable and democratic government, Americans learn to be democratic citizens. They learn to be involved in the common good. They learn to take charge of their own affairs, as a community. Tocqueville writes that it’s because of local democracy that Americans can make state and Federal democracy work—by learning, in their bones, to expect and demand accountability from public officials and to be involved in public issues.

Tocqueville shows this through social history: as he notes, in the Colonial Era, the state government of the colonies was, by and large, not democratic (though there were representative offices). But because the faraway hand of the King was light, the colonists set up local governments however they wanted, and those governments were intensely, thoroughly democratic. Through learning about democratic self-government at the local level, Americans went from being subjects to being citizens, until they finally could no longer resist the colonial yoke.

Writing after the Revolution, Tocqueville says this “educational” component of local democracy is as vibrant and as important as ever.

By the way, this has implications not all conservatives might like: to Tocqueville, and as American history shows, a functional democracy requires not atomized citizens who only want to be left alone. This citizenship also has an active component, where everyone feels a duty to be involved in the community. This communitarian vision of active citizenship as public service, while certainly present on the Right, is nonetheless more present on the Left, and Tocqueville tells us it’s the good one.

But the fundamental thing that Tocqueville reminds us is that local government is fundamentally important to American democracy. Not because it enables better and more accountable public policy. But because it makes us into better citizens and safeguards our democracy. How often is this picture realized in America today? Not enough, Tocqueville would surely think.

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