It is well known that U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas championed the doctrine of popular sovereignty—“the right of the people of the Territories to govern themselves in respect to their local affairs and internal polity”—in the late antebellum era. It is also well known that Douglas initially (c. 1848-1850) supported the policy of popular sovereignty as a compromise to a brewing sectional crisis. It is less well known that Douglas rejected popular sovereignty as a member of the House of Representatives in the mid-1840s and only later adopted a democratic, principled, non-instrumental, and localist justification of the doctrine in the late-1850s. By tracing the development of Douglas’s thinking on popular sovereignty in his letters and speeches, I argue that Douglas came to believe, sincerely, in the right of a territorial people to govern themselves, but deceived himself in coming to this belief. The trajectory of Douglas’s thinking shows—among other things—how political actors are often drawn, pulled even, toward certain magnetic arguments in the history of political thought. In Douglas’s case, an appeal to the value of ‘the local’ and local self-government justified the expansion of the slave-power and displaced pragmatic (but less effective) appeals to compromise. His commitment to popular sovereignty and local democracy was sincere yet normatively deficient because it developed with morally questionable origins.
“Aristocracy in America: Caste, Whiteness, and Interracial Sympathy” (with Jennie Ikuta, University of Tulsa; draft complete)
Alexis de Tocqueville, the French nobleman famous for his 1831 tour of the United States, is not an obvious thinker to look to for insights into contemporary American race relations. After all, in the first volume of ‘Democracy in America,’ published in 1835, Tocqueville famously shunted his discussion of “the three races” into a seemingly anomalous final chapter, which came after “the principal task” he had set for himself– to show “what the laws of American democracy are”– had “been fulfilled” (Tocqueville , 2004). Possibly for this reason, Rogers Smith accused Tocqueville and his followers of treating “racism as mere prejudice” and failing “to give due weight to inegalitarian ideologies and conditions that have shaped the participants and the substance of American politics.” (Smith 1993) In this paper, we show that when one reads Tocqueville’s explicit comments about the three races alongside his scattered comments about hereditary aristocracy in ‘Democracy in America; and ‘The Ancien Regime and the French Revolution,’ one discovers a sophisticated account of racial inequality in the United States. We argue that the same features that define and sustain hereditary aristocracy are also present in Tocqueville’s account of race-relations in America, enabling us to characterize America as a racial aristocracy. Moreover, we show that Tocqueville’s implicit account of how white supremacy operates as an “aristocracy of whiteness” is prescient in explaining the centrality of police violence in the Black Lives Matter movement. By exploring Tocqueville’s description of the ancien regime in connection with his account of race-relations in the United States, this paper contributes to the growing literature on race-relations in Tocqueville’s thought (Janara 2004; Olson 2008; Turner 2008; Tillery 2009), as well as to a richer understanding of the mechanisms that sustain racial privilege and inequality in the United States today.
To this end, this paper proceeds in four parts. In Part One, we explicate the key features that characterized the ancien regime as an example of hereditary aristocracy: its hierarchical nature; how caste defined one’s life prospects and for certain persons, conferred privileges; that caste is distinct from economic status; and that in such a world, nobles do not, and most likely cannot, sympathize with commoners. In Part Two, we show that Tocqueville’s description of race-relations in ‘Democracy in America’ can be read as an example of a racial aristocracy (aristocracy in the pejorative, not the classical, sense) that shares many of the key features that defined and sustained hereditary aristocracy. Akin to hereditary aristocracy, racial aristocracy is defined by a collectively imposed hierarchy of privilege and exclusion; race defines one’s life prospects and confers privileges on whites (psychological, social, and economic); that race and wealth are conceptually distinct; and that in such a world, whites consistently fail to sympathize with blacks. In Part Three, we show that while there are significant parallels between hereditary aristocracy and racial aristocracy, the latter is more difficult to dismantle than the former. In a racial aristocracy, caste is racialized and as a result, whiteness remains a physiological marker of superiority and inclusion and blackness a physiological marker of inferiority and exclusion long after legal differences are abolished. Democratization in the nineteenth century largely eliminated traditional aristocratic privileges while strengthening and entrenching white aristocratic privilege. In Part Four, we show how our textual analysis informs our understanding of the centrality of police violence to the Black Lives Matter movement. Specifically, we show that for many white Americans, the racial aristocracy not only renders invisible the structural disadvantages faced by black Americans, but also renders them insensitive to their suffering.
“Tocqueville Was Not a Localist” (abstract only)
It is commonly believed that Alexis de Tocqueville was a proponent of localism and decentralization. This belief has only been reinforced by Robert Putnam’s laudatory treatment of Tocqueville in Bowling Alone. In this paper, I argue that interpreting Tocqueville as a localist, despite majority opinion to the contrary, is a profound and misleading mistake. Tocqueville was not a localist.
In “Democracy in America,” Tocqueville says quite explicitly: “I cannot imagine that a nation could live or, above all, prosper without strong governmental centralization.” This of course refers to Tocqueville’s distinction between governmental (or political) and administrative decentralization. Tocqueville favors the latter, not the former, and only to an extent that has been much exaggerated.
Indeed, in a frequently (but not completely, see Gannet 2003, 2005) neglected footnote (no. 49) in the 1835 “Democracy” Tocqueville wrote, “the authority that represents the state, even when it does not itself administer, must not, I think, relinquish the right to inspect local administration.” He even thinks that “a [central] government agent” ought to be “placed at a set post in each county.” This means that Tocqueville favored “initiative” but not “immunity,” according to Gordon Clark’s (1984) useful theory of local autonomy. Initiative refers to the local government’s authority to act without prior authorization. Immunity refers to the local government’s immunity from oversight from higher levels of government. A diehard localist would favor both.
Are these the utterances of a committed localist, as Putnam and his followers would have us believe? I think not. Tocqueville thought local governments were important for the development of citizens’ democratic and associational capacities, but he certainly was no friend of absolute local autonomy (immunity and initiative).
This paper tries to get behind Tocqueville’s rhetorical flourishes to map what he really thought about local government, and how much authority he thought local governments should have. In other words, instead of focusing on local governments themselves, as is common in most of the literature, I want to look at the relationship, in Tocqueville’s thought, between local governments and higher-level governments from a systemic point of view. My contention is that despite his clear admiration for American town government, when push came to shove his view was closer to the French model he criticized than the model favored by antebellum Americans and contemporary localists. He thought local governments were wonderful, but that did not mean he thought they should do more than was proper, or to be permitted to act unmoored from a centralized conception of law and justice .
The paper also asks why these passages been ignored or downplayed (and there are more to the same effect) in the literature? Why do contemporary scholars insist on reading Tocqueville as a localist, despite his ambivalence? (Note that localism with respect to nineteenth century to French centralization is a poor man’s localism, and compatible with quite a bit more centralization than contemporary localists would accept.) Is—as I would guess—Tocqueville being used as an ideological cudgel the way Adam Smith sometimes is? If so, by whom, and for what purpose? And more importantly: why? Why not defend localism on its own terms?