Talk.

In some real way, that’s what democracy is all about: Talk.

In a vibrant, functioning, democratic society, people have to talk. They have to be free to talk. And they have to talk a lot. Read, for example, the Funeral Oration of Pericles (given in Athens in the year 430 BC) and notice his emphasis on the importance of citizens to talk openly and often–in formal settings, of course, but also privately and in open spaces.

Today in America, we see that people still talk, yes, but it’s a dying art. The architecture speaks to this. In old inns, you discover that there were not private dining tables. Instead everyone ate at a big common table. When one used to walk into a large, substantial house, and you would notice a large open room in the front: the parlor, that is to say, “the place for talking”–a formal place set aside just for talking. In government buildings, there are large open spaces for people to assemble, speak and address their fellow citizens. But architects who build spaces today are prone to create places for privacy and isolation.

People not only have to talk in democracy, but they have to be free to talk. You have read The Constitution, and you have read the First Amendment. And yet even with all that there are limits on speech in America, not placed here by the government, but in a real sense, placed here by the culture.

That is Alexis de Tocqueville’s point in a chapter on foreigners in his book Democracy in America.

Tocqueville said that despite all the talk in democracy that he had heard in New York and other places, he found less “independence of mind” and “genuine freedom of discussion” in America than any other place he had been, despite all the talk and bragging about it he heard from across the Atlantic. He spends a good deal of time explaining what he means by this.

First of all, the majority has “drawn a circle” around thought, he says — a very broad circle. There are many things Americans are not free to talk about, as far as custom goes. Inside this circle there is complete so-called “freedom of speech”. But you’re within this monopolized circle. Those whose ideas are “outside the circle” are the object of joking and ridicule.

The government is not intervening. It’s not about anybody suffering through an “autodafe”, referring to some of the activities of the Inquisition of the 16th century. Those who are outside the circle are instead simply cut off from power. Political careers are closed to those outside the circle.

Let me throw out one illustration today that might help us get to what Tocqueville is talking about. There is on my campus a group called Students for a Democratic Society. Those of us who are involved with this group, like myself, and those who might want to run for some kind of public office in the future, it would be hard to not be labeled as a “radical” of some kind.

If we are outside of society’s conservative ballpark of political talking points, we might have no influence on those who are inside the circle. You can play in this ballpark–anywhere in this ballpark–but get outside this ballpark and you have forfeited your “influence” on society. You have to some extent lost the power of your voice, and you probably lose any realistic opportunity for social mobility if that becomes a big part of who you are. People outside the circle keep their privileges, but they are of little use to them.

One way to think about this is to watch cable news. Think about the kinds of TV shows where political pundits on the left and right argue with one another. When is the last time the leftist was an actual Marxist or had socialist ideas? Only on European television shows. When is the last time the person on the right was a fascist? When is the last time we’ve seen prominent anarchists on TV? PBS’s McLaughlin Group is a good illustration of a TV program that tries to include radical voices. But these shows aren’t very popular, and are themselves outside the circle of mainstream political television.

In some nations, for example, if a political party gets 5% of the vote, it gets represented in the parliament or its national assembly. A party might get 5% of the vote, but they will be invited to the table. Of course, we live in a two-party state, where voices beyond even the single majority party are often discounted. In America a party may consistently get 15% of the vote, and not be invited to the table–and would never elect anybody to the state legislator. The two party system is formed by tradition, not formed by our constitution or by law.

In Tocqueville’s day, Europe looks more restricted than America does in its speech if you simply read and compare constitutions. But in practice Europe considers a much wider range of ideas. There is a difference between theory and practice. In practice, America is more restricted. Tocqueville worries about that, and I think we should too.

We find ourselves in isolation. The majority sets the agenda. The majority doesn’t need to constrain anyone, because it “persuades” them. If you will move inside our circle, then you may talk.

The American majority is somewhat humorless. It doesn’t like to be the butt of jokes. It’s difficult to satirize the centrist positions of the circle-makers. Even at the Court of Louis XIV there were plays put on at Versailles which mocked and made fun of the people who were watching the play. Even in this absolutist society, people who were running the show, could laugh at themselves through Moliere.

We don’t find this in America. The majority is not tolerant of this kind of humor.

The majority will only listen to two things, Tocqueville says: experiences and foreigners. And particularly the experience. It’s interesting and still true that we will listen to the opinions of foreigners who hold views more radical than Americans who hold those same views.

America has freedom of speech but does not have freedom of mind. Only a few who seek power in America have “virile candor”, or, manly independence. We tend to get a lot of very bland people running for office today who say conventional things, who pass on conventional wisdom. Because to be unconventional or too unconventional is to essentially ban yourself from reasonably being able to run for office and win–or even to have a voice that people will listen to.

Every village has a person who stands up at town meetings and people will groan and dislike what is being said. People moan, and whisper, and escape toward the bathroom. Those people who object to everything, it is held, really might have something to say, but have been marginalized from the circle that the majority has drawn. This is why foreigners are important, Tocqueville says.

A friend of mine is fairly conservative. It was interesting to see how she spoke to a friend-of-a-friend this last weekend, who was visiting from Germany. When speaking with us, her fellow Americans, she tells us how conservative and Republican her politics are. However, overhearing her conversation with the German friend, she apparently had rethought her views on war, politics and our current administration. In fact, she was essentially apologizing for American behavior abroad, and our foreign friend hadn’t even probed. This all simply came out of her as if she had been hoping to share her innermost political secrets with someone like him all this time.

“The foreigner, it is true, sometimes encounter Americans who deviate from the rigor of formulas. They come to deplore the viciousness of the laws, the volatility of democracy, and its lack of enlightenment. They even go so far as to note the faults that alter the national character and point out the means that can be taken to correct them. But no one except you, the foreigner, listens to them–and you, to whom they confide their secret thoughts, you are only a foreigner, and you pass on. They will willingly deliver truths that are useless to you. And when they descend to the public square they hold to another language.”

Some will become “cranks” and some simply shut up. They will tell Alexis what they really believe, but they cannot express these to their fellow Americans. These people appear in Democracy in America because they tell Alexis things they cannot tell their fellow Americans. Why do we need to listen to foreigners? Because foreigners have listened to a part of ourselves that we either can’t hear, or don’t hear, or pay too little attention to. We’re worried that freedom of speech will be lost in America. Centralized administration will take away the vigorous local discussion, and ultimately, freedom of speech can be lost.