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democracy disappeared new england

One day my fourteen-year-old daughter came home from her part-time job at the Goffstown New Hampshire Public Library and announced at dinner that she had volunteered me to serve as a Library Trustee. Two weeks later, I received a call from Mrs. Woodbury, the Town Clerk. She informed me that I could not run for the office of Library Trustee, since I was not a registered voter. I could not tell Mrs. Woodbury that because of my Romanian gypsy heritage I was an anarchist, estranged from Middle America, and never voted in a town, state, or national election. Over the telephone, I gave Mrs. Woodbury the old gypsy charm mixed with flimflam, and she, against her conscience, broke the rules and registered me as a voter in the previous town election. After I hung up the telephone, I was on the ballot.

When I said yes to my daughter, I did not realize that I would have to mount a political campaign to get elected, although no one on the ballot was running against me. I appeared before the local chapter of the League of Women Voters, the Lions Club, and the VFW. In the town election, I received more votes than any candidate on the ballot—part of the old gypsy charm at work—and the Selectmen erroneously viewed me as an up-and-coming threat.

A Goffstown Public Library Trustee is not the most powerful political office in the country, but an excellent window on New England democracy. I attended Town Meetings, met with the Selectmen, and was present at all Budget Committee Meetings and at most Planning Board Meetings.

I discovered that the best people were always picked in public forums to head special town projects, although anyone who wished to help, could. Each year a public meeting was held in the high school auditorium to discuss the proposed town budget for the next fiscal year. At most fifty people attended; nevertheless, a transcript was made of the question-and-answer session. Mrs. Brown always challenged every line item of the proposed budget. Later, Budget Committee members would ask, “What did Mrs. Brown say?” and then seriously discuss her objections to certain proposed budget items. She was not a passive citizen, decrying that she could not affect government for the better. Every year, she helped determine how local tax revenues were spent.

Alexis de Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville

From my experience, I concluded that New England democracy must have been a marvel when Alexis de Tocqueville visited America from May 1831 to February 1832: “[New England] democracy more perfect than any of which antiquity dared to dream sprang full-grown and full armed from the midst of the old feudal society.”[1] He, then, added, “local independence” was “the mainspring and lifeblood of American freedom.”[2] In some ways, local town governments in New Hampshire and Vermont, and maybe other New England states are still a marvel. Much that Tocqueville said about town governance is largely true today: “The towns appointed their own magistrates of all sorts, assessed themselves, and imposed their own taxes. The New England towns adopted no representative institutions. As at Athens, matters of common concern were dealt with in the marketplace and in the general assembly of the citizens.”[3]

Many citizens, especially the old-timers, still have a good balance between “local independence” and the “common concern;” however, over the last fifty years, New England town government has changed for the worse.

New England democracy, as observed by Tocqueville in the early 1830s, could not remained unchanged, for Modernity rests upon three connected legs—democracy, capitalism, and science and technology; the latter two legs changed the former. Tocqueville could not imagine that technology would change the outlook of New Englanders. Because of television, the Internet, and smartphones, citizens are no longer interested in self-rule. In Goffstown, every summer evening after dinner, I would go out for a walk. Except for two elderly ladies sitting outside on their porches, just like in the old days, waiting to engage passersby in conversation, everyone else was indoors, behind pulled curtains that had a faint blue glow from a TV set inside.

Goffstown Public LibraryThe Goffstown Public Library tried to resurrect weekly concerts on the commons. Virtually no one was interested in the opportunity to know and to socialize with their fellow citizens. For the bicentennial celebration of the U.S. Constitution, I organized a series of seminars on the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers; I even used Library funds to pay guest speakers from the University of New Hampshire and Plymouth State College. Only twelve people attended out of a population of 17,500, or if you count just the village proper, 3,700.

In America of the 1830s, Tocqueville observed that “Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition [were] forever forming associations,”[4] not just commercial and political but religious, moral, and educational. When Americans unite to form associations, “they are no longer isolated individuals,” and “feelings and ideas are renewed, the heart enlarged, and the understanding developed.”[5] For democracy to work, citizens must collectively determine much of their civic life through associations, for “government can only dictate precise rules,” and “can never tell the difference between its advice and its commands.”[6] But as far as I can tell, such civic associations as the PTA, the League of Woman Voters, the Lions, the Elks, the Masons, and the Knights of Columbus have suffered drastic declines in membership since the 1950s. Undoubtedly, the numbers in support groups for alcohol and drug abuse, sex addiction, binge eating, depression, codependency, and other emotional and medical disorders have increased dramatically. But in such associations people focus on themselves in the presence of others, a way of being alone together.

Citizens, on the whole, are not interested in town government, and some towns in New Hampshire and Vermont have scrapped the annual town meeting in favor of a Town Manager. The prevailing attitude is that as long as the trash is picked up and the roads repaired, who cares about self-government?

Tocqueville identified two disturbing trends in early nineteenth-century America that if not checked would lead to the destruction of democracy.

First, what he called industry and what we call capitalism was “throwing up an aristocracy out of the bosom of democracy.”[7] Capitalism necessarily produces concentrations of vast wealth and thereby establishes a “permanent inequality of conditions,”[8] reversing the founding of America, where a landed gentry, an established church, and a class based on birth were left behind in Old Europe. Hedge fund managers, Wall Street bankers, and corporate executives now have the wealth to buy politicians, control public discourse through the ownership of mass media, and to use the government to further the ends of money-making. Reportedly, the Koch brothers will spend $889 million in 2016 to finance politically-active groups, free-market think tanks, foundations, and universities with the aim of shifting the county to the right politically.

In the modern world of politics, special-interest money is displacing voters. Money reaped through serving special-interest groups is converted into votes through what former Congressman Tony Coelho called “political technology”—polling, television advertising, and computer-driven mail.

Money and PoliticsAnd this political technology is expensive. During the 2009-2010 election cycle, for example, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid spent $22,635,642 to get re-elected, and future Speaker of the House John Boehner spent $7,451,751. The day after being elected, Senator Reid and Congressman Boehner must begin raising money for the next election. Senator Reid must raise $3,775,000 each year while he is in office, and Congressman Boehner $3,725,000; or said differently, both must raise approximately $10,200 every day of the year, including weekends and holidays. Most members of Congress cannot raise those sums of money in their local districts through twenty- or fifty-dollar contributions from constituents. They must go to moneyed interests wherever they are. To keep needed campaign funds flowing, Senators and Members of the House of Representatives pass spending programs, subsidies, tax breaks, and economic regulations that serve special-interest groups at the expense of the nation as a whole. Special-interest politics produces incoherent national policies that cause a ballooning national debt and an overall economic decline.

Tocqueville argued that the second way democracy would be destroyed was through the concentration of political power. Men and women engaged in bold new enterprises, as many are in a democracy, “freely admit the general principle that the power of the state should not interfere in private affairs, but as an exception, each one of them wants the state to help in the special matter with which he is preoccupied, and he wants to lead the government on to take action in his domain, though he would like to restrict it in every other direction.”[9] Wheat farmers in North Dakota lobby Washington for price supports, physicists at Los Alamos tap the federal treasury to purchase super-computers, and philosophers at Harvard and Princeton apply for grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

More disturbingly, Tocqueville argued that democracy necessarily leads to the concentration of political power, a seemingly absurd proposition, since equality gives Americans the “habit and the taste to follow nobody’s will but their own in their private affairs… and makes them suspicious of all authority.”[10] Consequently, the puzzle is why Americans would passively accept seat-belt laws, the No Child Left Behind Act[*], where the federal government sets standards for local schools, and the National Security Agency spying on ordinary citizens?

medieval europeTocqueville begins his argument by first noting that “the idea of secondary powers between the sovereign and his subjects was natural to the imagination of aristocratic peoples, because such powers were proper to individuals or families distinguished by birth, education, and riches, who seemed destined to command.”[11] In Medieval Europe, the towns, the villages, the guilds, and the monasteries jealously guarded their liberties and frustrated the occasional pope or king who attempted to exert central authority. All-powerful custom kept all power from flowing to one center. In an age of democratic equality, however, the idea of secondary powers exercised by an educated, wealthy elite is banished from the minds of men and women and thus “the idea of a single central power directing all citizens slips naturally into their consciousness without their, so to say, giving the matter a thought.”[12]

Next, Tocqueville observes that “after the idea of a single central power, that of uniform legislation equally spontaneously takes its place in the thought of men in times of equality.”[13] Since each citizen sees little difference between himself and his neighbors, he finds a rule repugnant that applies to few men and not to all. This accounts for the uniformity of rules of democratic regimes, “subjecting all men indiscriminately to the same rule.”[14] From the old-time Selectmen of Goffstown, I learned that town government in New England now—unlike the past—is often merely a means to institute the universal application of state and federal rules and regulations. All new houses built in Goffstown must comply with federal EPA rules and the State of New Hampshire building codes. For the citizens of Goffstown, like citizens of any American city, large or small, politics is what takes place mainly in Washington, D.C.

“While in times of equality men readily conceive the idea of a strong central government, there is no doubt their habits and their feelings predispose them to accept and help it forward.”[15] In the age of equality, “no man is obliged to put his powers at the disposal of another, and no one has any claim of right to substantial support from his fellow man, each is both independent and weak.”[16] Each American is “full of confidence and pride in his independence among his equals, but from time to time his weakness makes him feel the need for some outside help which he cannot expect from any of his fellows, for they are both impotent and cold.”[17] Because of his isolation from his neighbors and of his individual weakness, he needs and desires a strong central government as the “sole and necessary support”[18] if economic disaster befalls him.

Capitalism makes the economic well-being of each worker precarious. The capitalist “only asks the workman for his work, and the latter only asks him for his pay. The one contracts no obligation to protect, nor the other to defend, and they are not linked in any permanent fashion either by custom or by duty.”[19] Furthermore, Tocqueville observed that “the industrial aristocracy of our day, when it has impoverished and brutalized the men it uses, abandons them in time of crisis to public charity to feed them.”[20]

2008 recessionThe Great Recession of 2008 was devastating for many low-income Americans. Just consider one story among hundreds of thousands. A couple in their mid-50s from Barre, Massachusetts, told about the difficulties of seeking employment at the late stage of their lives. Faced with foreclosure, the Massachusetts couple was fearful they would end up living in their car. “We, my husband and I, are very deeply concerned. You see, my husband has been out of work for three plus years now, losing his job to China in manufacturing. We are now at our wits end and in dire straits. Our parents have since left this world and with no place to go, what are we to do and where are we to go? I pray to God we do not have to resort to living in the car which is unimaginable in the middle of January in zero degree temperatures with no gas money for gas to run the engine to keep warm. This is inhumane, to say the least and yet no one, no one in this great state of ours is doing anything to prevent this crisis.”[21]

In our day, public charity means such federal programs as unemployment compensation, worker re-training programs, food stamps, and fuel oil assistance. The periodic failures of capitalism are ameliorated by bank bailouts, massive federal spending to stimulate the economy, and tax cuts. Only a strong centralized government has the resources to keep capitalism from periodically creating widespread, prolonged economic misery.[22]

In the twenty-first century, political power in America is centralized, uniform, extensive, and efficient. “That power is absolute, thoughtful of detail, orderly, provident, and gentle.”[23] Any citizen who has dealt with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, or the Internal Revenue Service has encountered a “network of petty, complicated rules that are both minute and uniform.”[24] The federal bureaucracy sets the pattern for state and local governments, and even for independent organizations that accredit colleges and hospitals.

I am a Romanian gypsy, an anarchist at heart, but surely I am not the only person in America to rail against “administrative despotism.”[25] I fear that most of my fellow Americans in their imaginations conceive of government at all levels as “protective and all-powerful”[26], yet elected by the people, so they readily believe they have chosen their own masters that they can overthrow in the next election, if need be.

Tocqueville’s contention that democratic governments try to keep their citizens in “perpetual childhood”[27] may seem an overstatement. But consider the seat-belt laws. Only in New Hampshire, the Live-Free-Or-Die state, can an adult legally drive a car while not wearing a seat belt. Or consider Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administrative fiat to ban the sale of sugary drinks in containers greater than sixteen ounces. Judge Eugene F. Pigott Jr. of the New York State Court of Appeals wrote that the city’s Board of Health “exceeded the scope of its regulatory authority” in enacting the administrative rule on sugary drinks, and that for such a rule to be valid it must be passed by the New York City Council.

We are all childrenThe issue is not that it is stupid not to wear a seat belt or that drinking six Big Gulps a day leads to obesity and diabetes. The issue is that federal, state, and local governments treat their citizens as children, incapable of reason. Governments at all levels use coercion, the violence of imposing civil penalties, instead of persuading citizens to change their behavior. Lawmakers and judges do not ask, “Should the government be paternal, looking after every aspect of the well-being of its citizens?”

In the American lexicon, “political liberty,” the exercise of self-government in local, state, and national public meetings, has been replaced by “personal freedom,” the capability to do as one wishes, unrestrained by others. Citizens now believe that political freedom means voting every two years, rather than attending city council meetings or publicly protesting the national policies of a declining empire. A New Englander from the 1830s would probably say the essence of democracy—to determine with others one’s political destiny—is no longer present in twenty-first-century America.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

[*] The No Child Left Behind Act was passed by the conservative George W. Bush administration in 2002. Because under the Act education scores actually declined and because of the widespread, public opposition of teachers and parents to excessive testing, the Act was superseded by the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015.

[1] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. George Lawrence (New York: Harper & Row, 1966 [1835, 1840]), p. 39.

[2] Ibid., p. 44.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 513.

[5] Ibid., pp. 516, 515.

[6] Ibid., p. 516

[7] Ibid., p. 556.

[8] Ibid., p. 558.

[9] Ibid., footnote, p. 672.

[10] Ibid., p. 667

[11] Ibid., p. 668.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 673.

[15] Ibid., p. 671.

[16] Ibid., p. 672.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., p. 557.

[20] Ibid., pp. 557-558.

[21] For more recessions stories see “Struggling through the Recession: Letters from Vermont.”

[22] Tocqueville did not consider how wars in modernity always lead to a stronger central government. See a history of US military spending here.

[23] Tocqueville, p. 692.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., p. 693.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., p. 692.

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5 replies to this post
  1. That all sounds very familiar. We still have town meeting here in Saint Albans, Vermont, sparsely attended, of course. And we recently had a couple of “special elections” to vote on a new highway department building away from its current location on the shore of Lake Champlain, a new salt shed for them, and a new ordinance to rid the residential landscape of various eyesores, such as defunct motor vehicles. That passed but the highway department issues did not. Another recent election on the school consolidation and in both elections, only a few hundred showed up to vote on issues that directly affect them and their families, out of a population of around 6,000. Rest assured, however, that in the coming November election, there will be a much bigger turnout, percentage-wise, thanks mainly to tee-vee sound bites and innernet hoopla.

  2. Well argued piece. It’s perhaps worth considering the wider causes: the collapse of social structures was well documented in Putnam’s ‘Bowling Alone,’
    though the culpability of television is seldom highlighted. Average ‘screen time’ of over 7 hours makes it inevitable that other activities will suffer.

    Sadly given that thinking is hard work whilst slobbing in front of the TV is easy, this isn’t going to change in a hurry.

    The challenge is however to offer an alternative model of economic activity that will get within a light year of maintaining our amazing level of prosperity AND ensure the billion or so who remain in absolute poverty around the globe will no longer have to see their children die of preventable diseases or go to bed regularly hungry. At the moment capitalism IS achieving the economic development that is offering that to the seriously poor.

  3. Read I Samuel 8. We want strong government to fight our battles, and we pay dearly with our personal liberties.

  4. If people would be angels with each one being and each one neither affecting another or being affected by another they would not need rules. However, people are not angels. People affect each other and society. Therefor, rules and authority are needed. How much depends on how much far they are from the ideal.

  5. All matters of concern to me. But we have also heard all of these complaints many times before. The question is: What to do about it?

    The author slips by falling back on the old red herring: “special-interest money is displacing voters.” It is impossible for special-interest money to “displace” voters. Candidates are elected by voters, not by money.

    Money is worth far less in politics than most people, the author included, think it is, despite frequent evidence to the contrary. (I worked for a Member of Congress who was almost defeated by a virtually unfunded opponent. Jeb Bush spent more than all the other GOP candidates combined in 2015 and you see where it got him. Hillary spent many times what Bernie did in 2015 (Bernie is spending more in 2016), but were it not for major candidate problems Bernie would be the Democratic nominee.)

    More to the point: To the extent that money is important, why is it important? When all is said and done, it all comes down to the voters. Or, we should say, it all comes down to the citizens. Money — at least, campaign money — is important only to the extent that it can be used successfully to influence voters. And this occurs only to the extent that citizens permit themselves to be so influenced. (Now, money does play other problematic roles — in the form of lucrative investments and jobs for current and former office-holders — which are also of concern but are not mentioned by the author.)

    High campaign spending is a symptom, not a problem. Our actual problems are suggested by the essay: disengaged citizens, centralization (ultimately a product of voter preferences), and statism/micromanagement (also ultimately a product of voter preferences). We have met the enemy and it is us — or, at least, our fellow Americans.

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