Citizenship – “Tocqueville’s Mistake”
You may never have heard of Alexis de Tocqueville before, but for students of democracy he’s essential reading. A young political thinker from France, he toured America for two years in the 1830s, arrived back home and immediately published his Democracy in America. It was readily apparent that he had the knack for understanding American citizenry and its institutions like few others. His book became an instant classic and is still essential reading in universities today. His insights were brilliant, full of candor, with a delightful tone of optimism. His observations have gone virtually unchallenged, but I’m thinking he might have been wrong, at least in part.
Enthralled as he was with America, he worried that democracy might not survive because citizens seemed to be too much the same. It was in part for this reason that he conceived of the phrase “tyranny of the majority.” He reasoned that democracy could eventually produce citizens who all had the same tastes, ideas, practices and pursuits. In his view, the more perfect a democracy became, the more likely citizens would desire the same things and the kind of diversity that French loved so much would be lost in America. He went on to state that equality of status would engender a uniformity of thought that would eventually stifle the national creative juices.
I love his writings and agree with most of them, but in this I think he made a mistake. Has America or Canada actually grown more uniform? Because of a lack of a central understanding of our country, there are more special interest groups, more lobbyists, more political parties, more divisive issues and more confusion as to the future direction of the country. We sense more regional divisions, more partisanship, more competition among communities, and a more divided populace than in recent memory. The contradictions among special interests are as legitimate as they are incompatible. What we are witnessing is a splintering of society into separate factions, each battling for advantage and caring little for other interests, or even for society as a whole.
Tocqueville’s vision and concern for society becoming more homogeneous has not materialized. And yet I wonder if citizens themselves are really that divided. My own experience with Canadians is that we are far more similar than we realize, yet the channels of power, interests and privilege have traveled down different corridors, pulling citizens along with them and creating divisions in the process. Politics is a good case in point. Of course there will always be political parties – nothing wrong with that, and they’ll naturally press the populace for support. But when it reaches the point when to attain power certain political types willingly turn citizens against one another or suppress their vote and interest in democracy, then a peaceable people can quickly turn difficult.
As select interests battle it out over the turf of public funds, public legislation and public conscience, little is left for the average citizen but confusion, exasperation, and not a little anger. Tocqueville made a mistake, and in that oversight lies the testing ground as to whether citizenship itself will survive or collapse of its own inability to be nurtured and to expand its lungs.
If responses to these blog posts, both online and in person, have taught me anything it is that a good number of Canadians are actually feeling the same about their country now – worried at the lack of citizen involvement, frustration at political manipulation, fear that we aren’t ready to face the great challenges before us. They possess all of these characteristics but they are isolated from one another, unable to come together to turn things around. They comprehend that the first step toward citizen rediscovery it to free themselves of the cynical expectation of the times, to affirm once again that what we once believed about this country, we still believe, and that we want to make it so.
There are many challenges to our being successful in this quest – apathy, political intrigues, power channeled beyond our reach – but I believe the greatest is our inability or unwillingness to bring it all together in one great national passion. As governments faltered in their oversight, gaps were created in our national fabric that were filled with dedicated citizens fighting for specific causes. They are terrific, whether or not they succeeded in getting government or citizens to listen. But they are isolated and in such a state we can never recapture the public agenda. We must possess an enlightened and public temperament if we wish citizenship to partner effectively with the political process. This is what Walter Lippmann meant when he wrote:
It requires much virtue to do well. There must be a strong desire to be just. There must be a growing capacity to be just. There must be discernment and sympathy in estimating the particular claims of divergent interests. There must be moral standards which discourage the quest of privilege and the exercise of arbitrary power. There must be patience and tolerance and kindness in hearing claims, in negotiation, and in reconciliation.”
Catch the part of “divergent interests?” The best way to assist all of these worthwhile but isolated efforts is by bringing them together in a cause greater than all of them – the rebuilding of Canada by the people of Canada. For that we require a comprehensive vision, not a million smaller ones.