[This post is adapted with permission from “Making American Places: Civic Engagement Rightly Understood,” an essay in the anthology Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America, edited by Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister.]
The modern liberation of the individual from the constraints of place constitutes as much a limitation as an emancipation. To put the claim bluntly, place constrains but it also empowers, and a radical emancipation from place does not lead to creative freedom but to boredom, emotional and spiritual fragmentation, and tyranny. Thus, it is important to create, preserve, and improve real places for real people (not abstract individuals of indeterminate identity) to find attachments, to empower them to engage meaningfully and well with neighbors toward collective purposes, and to help them understand their particular role in the larger story of humanity. The task must be a constructive one, active rather than passive. It is not a matter of simply not getting in the way of communities but rather of thinking more positively about policies that can cultivate or protect healthy places as lively habitats for citizens, families, businesses, and civil society. To affirm that America needs healthy places requires a theoretical defense of the importance of place to human flourishing but also demands a serious reflection on policies to fit that philosophical and anthropological vision….
If the ability to create, preserve, and improve “place” is necessary to the health of a people, then serious reflection on what we might call “the problem of place” is appropriate for citizens and policymakers. The natural tendency of modern democracy is toward despotism. Modern democracy does not, on its own, encourage a political life and therefore does not encourage people to think of themselves as citizens. If those who advocate civic engagement mean by that phrase a deep investment by citizens in the deliberations of the community about shared purposes and ends — about the kind of place they want to create together — then they will have to develop strategies that check the natural tendencies of modern democracy.
In her excellent book Democracy on Trial, Jean Bethke Elshtain stresses the need for what she calls “democratic dispositions,” which include a willingness or perhaps even eagerness to act with others toward shared purposes, to compromise, to converse, and to understand one’s unique life as entangled in a skein of relationships that help constitute one’s distinctive personhood. The maintenance of these dispositions is a necessary condition to preserving the civic virtues of “sobriety, rectitude, hard work, and familial and community obligations.”
What Elshtain calls democratic dispositions are, by my way of thinking, really habits that begin by “doing” and then venerating that way of doing. In other words, these are not virtues that one necessarily expects in a democracy, but rather habits that make possible the rare combination of democracy and self-reliance. These habits modify and moderate democracy, rather than express its inherent nature. The “savage instincts” of democracy, to use Tocqueville’s phrase, encourage people to withdraw into an intensely private world and to see the world from the narrow perspective of their own self-interest, crudely understood. Disconnected from public obligations, having come to think of individualism as a virtue, the democrat sees only his own small world of family and close associates and then the abstractions of nation or humanity; the rich world of political and civil associations in between are invisible to him.
For Tocqueville, the logical end of democracy left to its savage instincts is an administrative regime that oversees infantilized individuals. In his chapter on democratic poetry, Tocqueville emphasizes that equality reorients human consciousness by destroying the middle ground between the individual and the broadest abstractions, leaving the person with something very small to contemplate — the self — and something too vast to comprehend — humankind. He tends to understand the latter in relation to what he knows about the former, but in order for this to work he must assume an abstract idea of the human; thus, being a human whose nature is universally applicable to the species, he can look inside to his own nature to understand the whole of which he is a part.
Thus the unmoderated democrat — the one who lacks the democratic dispositions that Elshtain so cherishes — makes a virtue out of indifference. Typically, he will say “who am I to say” how some other person should live, thus implying that he operates with an expansive openness to his fellow citizen while more truthfully he is undermining any real relationship — antagonistic or otherwise — that might require meaningful social and political engagement. So long as most “public” matters are really administrative matters, which require the individual to appeal to the government directly for redress, then there is no context for robust political and civic life. Democracy, at this point, is about administration rather than self-rule, about individualism rather than self-reliance.
This unmoderated democrat will recognize few obligations to people or institutions. Confining his life to those most like himself — often in lifestyle enclaves — he has no reason to care about those who aren’t like him. Meanwhile, this democrat will love humanity and will traffic in self-evident abstractions; this both establishes his command of universal truths (and therefore his standing as a citizen) and provides him with the vocabulary by which to engage in political speech that requires no particular, concrete political knowledge.
The point is that democratic instincts destroy the middle ground between the individual and humanity, and the democratic dispositions about which Elshtain writes are the primary means by which individuals enter into public life. If voluntary associations, mediating institutions, and robust local politics help form citizens who are capable of civic virtues — who can at a minimum operate with self-interest rightly understood — then we must pay attention to how Americans form the habits of self-rule, of gregariousness, and most importantly, of serious conversation and compromise.
Most discussion of this problem focuses on the decline of civil society, the decline in voluntary associations, the retreat of certain forms of religious engagement, and the relative decline of local and state politics at the expense of the administrative state. But there is a very complex relationship between the institutional arrangements that allow or even foster these democratic dispositions and the deeper social and cultural forces that give us the desire to participate meaningfully in our self-governance. To design our political world so as to encourage the growth and development of both localist politics and mediating institutions requires that people want such arrangements and that they prefer the messy adventure of self-rule to the comfortable slavery of the administrative state.
At least in the past, Americans have wanted these arrangements and have accepted self-rule as something noble. As a result, we have cultivated the democratic virtues that people like Jean Elshtain and Christopher Lasch have cheered even as they worried that democratic virtues are, in our day, waning. What exempted Americans, for a time at least, from the logic of modern democracy, and what has changed to make citizens less enthralled with the ideals of self-rule? Part of the answer is the decline of place, or what Tocqueville called the “native country.”
Tocqueville’s first real discussion of “native country” in Democracy in America comes in the context of his examination of township freedom. He argues that freedom didn’t emerge in America in the abstract, as expressed, for instance, in the Declaration of Independence (a document that he never mentions in his two-volume analysis of American democracy). Nor did American freedom spring from the freedom of an individual in a state of nature. The most important freedom to appear in the American wilderness was political freedom — the power and latitude of citizens to govern themselves without any real interference from outside and more distant authorities. This political freedom, resting on the authority of a historically expansive franchise, allowed each township to define its own laws.
American devotion to freedom emerged from social and political life, not from solitary individuals seeking protection of what is theirs by nature. Because democracy serves as a solvent to relationships that bind individuals together through mutual forms of obligation, it tends to reduce society to a loose association of individuals whose connections are products of affection, desire, and mutually agreed-upon contract. The origins of American freedom are essential to explaining how democratic instincts were altered by circumstance.
The township, Tocqueville argued (following Aristotle), is a natural form of association, found throughout history. But, however natural the township, history knows very few cases where township freedom (the freedom to govern themselves without interference) lasted long enough for citizens to establish deep habits of self-rule and emotional attachments to their own town. Because American townships (or at least New England townships), during a long period of salutary neglect, produced countless and distinct varieties of these self-governing communities, they also produced a patriotism attached to each town wrought by these ongoing habits of self-rule. By investing as many citizens as possible in the regular acts of government, these townships foster a distinct sense of ownership or meaningful participation — for their citizens it was truly “our town.”
The constellation of choices, laws, traditions, and habits that emerge from this robust form of self-rule produces something akin to the “native country.” “In this manner,” wrote Tocqueville of the multiplication of civic duties, “life in a township makes itself felt in a way at each instant; it manifests itself each day by the accomplishment of a duty or by the exercise of a right.” The constant and regular action of political life gives a very specific character, look, even feel to each town. “The Americans are attached to the city by a reason analogous to the one that makes inhabitants of the mountains love their country. Among them, the native country has marked and characteristic features; it has more of a physiognomy than elsewhere.” The shape of a town, its features, its laws, its history, its way of doing things, gives rise to attachments, to the love of the particular, the eccentric, the known in ways that no generic expression of a town can produce. Most important of all, Tocqueville claims that the very particularistic character of each town, and therefore the means of producing loyalty, a sense of duty, and love of what is one’s own, is the product of what we might call civic engagement rightly understood.
Civic engagement does not mean organized appeals to a distant government, nor does it include any conception in which the citizens construe their relationship to the government, local or distant, in a manner similar to a client or a customer. Civic engagement rightly understood, in whatever particular form it takes, requires that citizens engage as citizens in a deliberative process in which they understand themselves to be partners in governance. Governance, in this use of the word, is not limited to, nor must it be primarily, an expression of an organized government that supplies services. Indeed, the more centralized the administrative functions of the town, the fewer the opportunities for self-government. A large administrative apparatus leaves individuals free to live largely unconnected from social and political arrangements, free to live and let live, free to cultivate a life-style. Individualists, thus produced, see no need to rely on their fellow citizens or their closest neighbors or their fellow congregants or their lodge members. The well-functioning administration (local, state, and federal) liberates them from mutual dependence and thereby robs them of township freedom.
Civic engagement, therefore, must incorporate a sense of self-reliance rather than individualism. Habituated to solving problems with their neighbors as those problems emerge, citizens do not reflexively turn to the administrative state when a bridge washes out, when the little league needs a place to play, when a family loses its income. Civic engagement surely includes citizens working through the political process to make changes (often to get that bridge or baseball diamond built) but it must also open up social space for other groups, clusters of volunteers, and nongovernmental institutions to solve problems. The common denominator of all such civic engagement is the investing of citizens in the task of governing with some or all their neighbors and the fostering of a sense of ownership that can only come from each town developing its distinctive physiognomy.
By contrast, Tocqueville’s admiration for the way American democracy produced countless native countries and for the salutary effect of this prodigious expression of self-rule also meant that he saw the risks of tyranny as great to the extent that America lost this habit of local self-rule. Freedom depends on local self-rule. At the end of his second volume, as Tocqueville anticipated what would happen if democracy were to be abandoned to its savage instinct and thereby stripped of its virtues, he placed the loss of native country as the very expression of despotism:
I want to imagine with what new features despotism could be produced in the world: I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others: his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them and does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and if a family still remains for him, one can at least say that he no longer has a native country.
Understood this way, strong places that are distinct, that have a purchase on the attention and affection of their citizens, that engage at least a large minority in robust self-rule (civic engagement rightly understood), are the necessary condition for the protection of American freedom. The problem we face today, as I noted earlier, is that people must want this kind of freedom, this political and civic involvement that requires them to give up individualism for communal self-reliance. Healthy freedom, at least in the American story, require places that move citizens to love where they live, to find themselves part of a local story (history), and to invest their time and energy in the evolution of a place strange, distinct, and perhaps even a little weird. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, to make us love our native country, our native country ought to be lovely.
Ted V. McAllister is the Edward L. Gaylord Chair and an Associate Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy. The complete and fully referenced version of this essay can be read in Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America, published in 2014 by New Atlantis Books/Encounter.