BILL CRAWFORD: Civil society protects us from tyranny



When Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville toured America in the early 1800s, he marveled at our democratic and civil society. But, in his two volume commentary “Democracy in America,” he wrote at length about the risks of tyranny in America. He believed America had more to fear about tyranny from within than from without, quoting from a prescient letter Thomas Jefferson sent to James Madison.

“The tyranny of the Legislature is really the danger most to be feared, and will continue to be so for many years to come. The tyranny of the executive power will come in its turn, but at a more distant period.”

Tocqueville saw America’s resistance to tyranny arising from three things, “(1) the peculiar and accidental situation in which Providence has placed the Americans; (2) the law; (3) the manners and customs of the people (civil society).”

“The most fascinating aspect of Tocqueville’s model of civil society,” explained Peter Dobkin Hall, Professor of History and Theory at City University of New York, “is the way its various components fit together: (1) family and community life and the churches act to shape private moral and perceptual agendas and direct them towards the public sphere; (2) civil and commercial associations and the press act as vehicles for shaping and focusing public action outside the formal realms of politics and government; (3) political associations and parties in turn act as the bases for forming the electoral coalitions on which formal governmental action is based.”

Nearly 200 years ago, Tocqueville saw strong families, communities, churches, civic and business organizations and a free press giving direction to political agendas.
Not today.
Now he would see heavily financed, national and state political agendas intentionally dividing families, communities, churches, and civic and business associations and dominating media.

In the section of his book entitled Tyranny of the Majority, Tocqueville wrote, “Unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing; human beings are not competent to exercise it with discretion, and God alone can be omnipotent.”
As our political parties more ruthlessly pursue ideological purity, detesting compromise and reconciliation, the risks of legislative tyranny grow … that tyranny being able to force and enforce contentious laws and policies on the minority.
We see instances already. Legislative tyranny at the national level forced Obamacare on states. Legislative tyranny at the state level forced local governments to abandon reasonable open-carry public safety restrictions. (How ironic to see state leaders fight federal tyranny, then act tyrannically toward local government.)

Read George Washington’s admonition, “Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”

Patriots must stand against tyranny of all kinds and ever renew family-, church-, and community-based civil society.

BILL CRAWFORD is a syndicated columnist from Meridian (


    Yes, I agree. “Patriots must stand against tyranny of all kinds and ever renew family-, church,- and community-based civil society.” This includes “Patriots- ” from all communities, all faiths, and, well, we’re all members of a family, so that by default includes all of us.

    Tyranny is such a strong word, but real tyranny has and does exist in the USA today. I’m thinking of the tyranny of slavery, segregation, and marginalization on the one hand: but also as the author points out, the tyranny within. I’d venture the harshest tyranny in many communities today is that tyranny within, the crime and violence within impoverished communities of color for example. How do we all come together to end this tyranny?