The question of isolation and democracy has long haunted political writers. It was posed, most poignantly, by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America—not in the relatively chipper first volume, which was published in 1835, after Tocqueville’s return from the United States, but in the dystopian second volume, which came out in 1840, long after his gaze had settled back on France. In the first volume, Tocqueville could scarcely contain his enthusiasm for the civic mindedness of American democracy, where citizens rushed to build a bridge or take care of some other item of public business. In the second volume, as he contemplated the passage of aristocratic society from the European scene, his view grew darker. Because people in aristocratic societies are linked in time to their ancestral families and homes, he wrote, they “are almost always closely involved with something outside themselves.” Democracy breaks that chain of inheritance. It destroys the familial “woof of time,” leaving “each man… forever thrown back on himself alone.” That isolation, which threatens to “shut up” the self “in the solitude of his own heart,” makes democracy ripe for despotism.
Tyrants, the tradition of political theory teaches us, thrive on the separation of citizens from one another. So isolated are people under despotism, wrote Tacitus, that even the courts conduct their affairs “almost in solitude.” Maximizing space between people clears the public square of all potential opposition and resistance. It is what allows the despot to swing his sword with such abandon. It thus required Tocqueville no great leap of the imagination to think that a nightmarish era of democratic despotism lay ahead. Everything he’d read seemed to compel that conclusion.
Yet the literature of democracy is less settled on this question of isolation than we might think. Some writers have described societies in which citizens are kept apart, or at least away from public life, as not posing any problem for democracy at all. Aristotle, for example, identifies four kinds of democracy. In only one of those democracies do those who are eligible to participate in politics actually take part. Tellingly, it’s the one in which revenues are sufficiently high and widely distributed as to fund the life and leisure of the poor. In that kind of democracy—let’s allow the anachronism of calling it social democracy—the citizens are able to gather and decide their common fate.