If one political philosopher must be named my patron saint, it would be Alexis de Tocqueville. It is hard to read a page of that he has written without coming across a gem of wisdom relevant to today’s affairs. Take this small excerpt from the second chapter of Democracy in America:
In most European nations, the initial movements of power resided with the upper echelons of society and passed gradually and always in a partial manner to the other sections of society.
By contrast, in America we can state that the organization of the township preceded that of the county, the county that of the state, and the state that of the Union.
– Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Gerard Bevan, p. 52.
This is a point Tocqueville will repeatedly return to throughout the course of Democracy in America. For him, it explains why America’s democratic experiment had been such an incredibly wild success whilst all European attempts had thus far proven to be deadly disasters. The Americans learned how to play the Democratic game in their churches and front porches. Engagement at the local level allowed each man to become a citizen capable of participating in public affairs. Like building blocks, each community of engaged citizens could then combine their efforts to create and sustain the larger whole. Local republics were the foundation on which the Union was constructed.
The approach taken by European democrats was radically different. Theirs was an attempt at revolutionary change directed from the top. Through their wisdom and virtue men of the Assemblée nationale would pull the rest of France into democratic paradise.
Events proved this approach to be dangerously flawed. As Tocqueville notes:
Never fail to remember that a nation cannot remain strong for long when each individual man is weak, and that we have still not discovered a social formula, more any political ruse, which can turn a nation of small-minded and flabby citizens into one that is full of energy.
– Ibid, p. 817.
Tocqueville’s words remain as true today as they were when first written. Democracy has expanded across the world, but we have found no magic potion capable of transforming a people into true republicans. Democracy will not come unless the people desire it. Men must demand to govern themselves, or they will be governed.*
The French were not ready to govern themselves. I believe Tocqueville would say that they were incapable of it. Not having had the experience of self government on the small scale, they were utterly unprepared for it on the large.
The experiences of France and America are worth keeping in mind when we discuss democratization today. How shall a country like China democratize? Regime change? A democratic revolution? I would not put my hopes in them. Much more comforting to me is the massive democratic experiment Chinese villages have taken part in for the last twenty years.
As did Tocqueville, Chinese reformists realize that if citizen governance is to be established in any country, it must start at the bottom.
The most enduring and uplifting social transformations are incremental in nature. They take time. The real question is if the rest of the world is willing to wait.
ADDENDUM (16/4/10): A reader forwards this essay by AEI fellow Robert Gannet. Like this piece, his essay concerns Tocqueville and Chinese village democracy. Unlike this piece, it has more than 4o citations to support the argument. I recommend giving it a read.