Somewhere a certain Frenchman may be smiling—and not about any sensual satisfaction but rather the recent Virginia elections, where school board concerns were crucial in stunning statewide Republican victories. That wise observer of Americans back in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville, would be relieved to see signs of the America he admired but feared for. .
In particular, he would congratulate Virginians for rejecting the stifling bureaucracy he predicted would come to oppress Americans. Moreover, the Virginians would use precisely the American local liberty resources Tocqueville described in his book for combating this menace—what displays local liberty more than speaking before a school board? Particularly when school boards are riding roughshod over parents who object to vulgarized, politicized, and infantilized curricula, reinforced by national authority, including the FBI.
The favored-but-losing Democratic gubernatorial candidate declared “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach” and committed his campaign to this absurdity. The immediate concern may have been critical race theory, which is crazy enough on its own terms, but the separation of parents and schools is even loopier. The issue remains whether their victory at the polls might be replicated nationwide for American principles.
In the concluding section of Democracy in America, a book of almost 700 pages, published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840—Tocqueville described with uncanny insight and accuracy how the centralizing power of modern times is producing a society of timid but content slaves. This is a schoolmaster tyranny—think of the vicious teacher in Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby—menacing, arrogant, and incompetent, yet nonetheless embraced. If anything, Tocqueville underrated the bureaucracy’s viciousness, as we see in today’s high-handed, unconstitutional requirements (“mandates”) to take vaccines or to comply with “anti-racism” indoctrination.
Tocqueville used the clinical term “administrative centralization”; we today know it as bureaucracy or, more discerningly, the administrative state: A democratic people decides to ignore all other considerations in exchange for the comfort and safety promised by small-souled men masquerading as superiors and shepherds, in both method and ultimate, non-biblical purpose. What makes this description so terrifying is that Tocqueville had devoted so much of the book to describing how Americans are an energetic and resourceful people, men and women of faith and independence, of practical judgment and boldness, of keen minds and courageous hearts.
The crude pioneers, so ridiculed by European intellectuals, brought the Bible and newspapers with them, along with an axe, and were in fact “the product of 18 centuries of work and experience”—in other words, the distillation of the history of Western civilization. How such hardy people become virtually subhuman is another, even longer story for Tocqueville, but for now it has to do with their failure to acknowledge the Declaration of Independence as the source of their political liberty. Tocqueville does not even mention that document in a book dedicated to understanding equality! But let us focus on how Tocqueville advises us to be free within his own view of America.
Very early in his book Tocqueville anticipated the potential tragedy of America. No nations are “more at risk of falling under the yoke of administrative centralization [bureaucracy] than those whose social state is democratic.” Yet he did not doom America or the modern world to the inevitability of such a fate. Tocqueville makes clear early in his classic (Volume I, part 1, chapter 5), the necessity of knowing local institutions in order to know the American nation; the key to American freedom is its local liberty. America’s unique freedom arises from the practice of ordinary, nameless Americans who work together in associations to build churches, schools, roads, bridges, and neighborhoods.
The New England township shows local activity at its best, with ordinary citizens debating and participating in self-governance. It can scarcely be called government in fact, where a citizen’s “accomplishment of a duty” or the “exercise of a right” occurs in myriad ways. Duties and rights are in continual balance as American character is put into practice.
Tocqueville’s key arguments occur in a subsection about 10 pages long, with the enervating title “On the Political Effect of Administrative Decentralization in the United States.” In introducing Europeans to his subject, Tocqueville allows that American officials are sloppy bookkeepers and clerks, but unlike the Europeans they get things done. They don’t await marching orders from an imperial city like Paris or Rome. These undisciplined Americans benefit from the “political advantages” of decentralization of administration. They are their own men and women. The village or township locals look upon government as “a powerful foreigner.” The unfree may submit themselves to “the pleasure of a clerk,” but not these bumptious country people.
Let the oppressed of the earth swing “constantly between servitude and license”; that’s not how a free people act. They are citizens, not subjects. They are not “a nation prepared for conquest.” Europeans look at an official and see only “force” Americans see “right.” It’s not about the man, it’s about justice or law, and if the official doesn’t comply with what’s right, he’s reasoned with. Only 50 years later, Woodrow Wilson would agree more with the European intellectuals and so he set about to establish the administrative state and nullify the amateur politicians who disrupt smooth operations with their talk of freedom.
Tocqueville’s Americans were not aware of asking for much. “They wanted . . . to arrive at the point where authority is great and the official is small, so that society would continue to be well regulated and remain free.” And by “well regulated” they did not mean transformed into a bureaucracy but run for the purpose of the common good, as in the Second Amendment’s “well regulated militia.”
What we have today is the opposite of well-regulated institutions. Public schools, while performing an essential service, have too often become part of centralized administration, the administrative state. The schools do not extend parents’ love and care, but rather bureaucratic power—power which is too often abused. As Columbia University law professor Philip Hamburger has argued, school boards impose unconstitutional restrictions on free speech.
Attorney General Merrick Garland gave aid and comfort to the public school national bureaucracy, issuing an October 4 memo directing law-enforcement agents and prosecutors to develop “strategies for addressing threats against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff.” While the attorney general did acknowledge that “spirited debate” is constitutionally protected speech, he does not acknowledge, as Hamburger points out, that “Education is mostly speech, and parents have a constitutional right to choose the speech with which their children will be educated. They therefore cannot constitutionally be compelled, or even pressured, to make their children a captive audience for government indoctrination.”
Thus, the most local of government functions, education, has become a political plaything of the attorney general and the partisans of the Democratic Party. This is not “soft despotism,” it is one step from Leninism. It is the central government abusing its power to conform parents and their children to one side of the culture war. American politics is in the midst of a breaking point even more primordial than the one Tocqueville pointed to.
This is a battle that has been going on in Western civilization since the fifth century B.C., as we see in the classic play by Aristophanes, Clouds. Aristophanes satirized the harebrained speculations of his contemporaries, such as communism of property and women. Virginians in Loudoun County saw absurdities, not just as speculation, but as practice: Rapes of girls by a transgender boy in girls’ bathrooms, the girl’s father mocked by the school board and arrested.
In Clouds a father sends his son to study with Socrates, so he can become wise and rich. But the educated son decides to beat his foolish old man, raising the prospect of the son raping his mother. At that point the old man realizes that higher education is the real enemy and proceeds to burn down Socrates’ think-tank, along with the malefactors in it.
The Virginia elections, with narrow results, may have raised the consciousness not just of Virginia’s citizens but of Americans nationwide. The Lefts’ predictable accusations of racism reveal, yet again, their mental and moral exhaustion. Even the imaginative Tocqueville would have been surprised by Woke cultural demands. As he wrote “there is nothing in the world but patriotism or religion that can make the universality of citizens advance for long toward the same goal.”
The late Angelo Codevilla contrasted the vibrant and independent America Tocqueville described with the America we see more and more of today, where citizens become obedient subjects. But Codevilla, too, would be heartened that enough of that independent spirit was alive and well today in Virginia to push back. Can we summon more of it? Or are we already too far gone? Whether those vital qualities of patriotism and religion still flourish in America today remains the question. There is no question that the struggle will be a long one.