Democracy, de Tocqueville and Rotarianism

de Tocqueville claimed that associations like Rotary are a "bulwark" against majoritarianism in a liberal can Rotary live up to that claim?

By John Borst Past President, Rotary club of Dryden, ON

Writing in the Washington Post, December 29, 2016, Fareed Zakaria, author of “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy” (Foreign Affairs, November/December 1997) has a very challenging statement involving Rotary’s role in a democracy.

The Founding Fathers were skeptical of democracy and conceived of America as a republic to mitigate some of the dangers of illiberal democracy. The Bill of Rights, the Supreme Court, state governments and the Senate are all bulwarks against majoritarianism. But the United States also developed a democratic culture, formed in large part by a series of informal buffers that worked in similar ways. Alexis de Tocqueville called them “associations” — meaning nongovernmental groups such as choir societies, rotary clubs and professional groups — and argued that they acted to “weaken the moral empire of the majority.” (emphasis mine) Alexander Hamilton felt that ministers, lawyers and other professionals would be the “impartial arbiters” of American democracy, ensuring that rather than narrow, special interests, the society and its government would focus on the national interest.

In 2014 President Barack Obama succinctly described the problem of comprehending America’s liberal democracy when he said, “Alexis de Tocqueville, that great icon of France who chronicled our American democracy, wrote even as we marvel at our freedoms there is nothing harder than learning how to use our freedoms.”


from: Majority Shouldn’t Rule

With the specter of “majoritanianism on the horizon in America, a spate of articles have appeared, reminding us of the protections a liberal democracy demands for the minority. [See for example “Majority Shouldn’t Rule” (Jon Huntsman, Joseph Lieberman, U S News, Aug. 9, 2016)]


How, I wonder is Rotary as an institution of individual members and clubs to operationalize the concept of being a “bulwark” against majoritarianism? This is especially difficult when the prevailing belief is that Rotarians are to refrain from “politics” at all cost.

Note too, both De Tocqueville and Zakaria are not just talking about Rotary but “associations” as bulwarks. This includes Lions, Kiwanis, Toastmasters and so forth; what I have termed ‘Rotarianism’ in the title.

Putting the idea into practice is a challenge, however.

How would we “protect the press”? What collectively would that mean doing? For example, a CNN reporter was savaged unnecessarily by the POTUS-elect at his first news conference and the other journalists did not come to his aid. See Columbia Journalism Review “Trump berated a CNN reporter, and fellow journalists missed an opportunity”; January 11, 2017)

Who would speak on our behalf reminding the POTUS that in a liberal democracy even the POTUS is not free to deny a reporter a question? Who should remind him that when he says to a CNN reporter “No! Not you. No! Your organization is terrible,” he is undermining and intimidating all members of the press corps and in doing so he has changed America from a liberal democracy to an illiberal one.

A majoritarian Congress is also doing the same when it changes, what Zakaria terms the “norms and practices” of America’s democracy. For example when the Republican House and Senate refused to even consider Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court they violated the principles of “cooperation between political majorities and minorities” and the concept of “compromise” both of which underlay the concept of a liberal democracy.

Frankly, in the America of today, I see no possibility that Rotary will or even knows how it can act to “weaken the moral empire of the majority.” Or remain in Alexander Hamilton’s words, “‘impartial arbiters’ of American democracy” so as to ensure that “society and its government would focus on the national interest.”

It is not as if Rotary has not faced such a dilemma in the past. Victoria de Grazia, in Irresistible Empire: America’s Advance through Twentieth-Century Europe describes how the 42 Rotary clubs in Germany were abolished by December 1937, followed by dozens of others in countries allied with the Nazis such as Romania, and Czechoslovakia. (page, 71).

Finally, with Mexico and Mexicans a dominant focus of the POTUS-elect’s stated agenda, it is interesting to consider the role of politics in the formation of the first Rotary club in Mexico as described by

Brendan M. Goff, in his 2008 PhD thesis: The Heartland Abroad: The Rotary Club’s Mission of Civic Internationalism (pages 94-95)

“…..theoretically, there was no “foreign” in Rotary’s extension. Rather, it was the identity of the male actor in the marketplace, honorable and professional, virtuous and sympathetic, civic-minded and successful, that defined the ideal global citizen for Rotary.

Yet inclusion did not entail full status. The Extension Committee captured this tension in its formal policy for the organization of the Mexico City Rotary Club in 1921.

Since most of the original 30 members of the Mexico City Rotary Club that first year were U.S. or British in origin, Rotary’s leadership stipulated in a special agreement with the first Mexican club that:

1) In the selection of new and additional members, all things being equal, preference is to be given to the native Mexican, and it is further understood that a number of native Mexicans will be immediately added to the club roster.

2) It is understood that the Spanish language shall not be excluded, but shall be used when practicable and that at such meetings as may be presided over by a native Mexican, that he be encouraged to use the language of the nation, Spanish.

3) It was definitely understood that the Rotary Club of the City of Mexico must not be an American or British Colony Club – that it must not be used for the exploitation of American and British commerce, but that it is to be a Mexican Rotary Club for the benefit of the community and nation of Mexico.

RI’s civic internationalism demanded this kind of local representation for all of its clubs.

The legitimacy of the entire project rested upon it. But could a growing representation of “native Mexicans” in the club guarantee any meaningful “benefit” to the “community and nation of Mexico”?

Though the Mexico City club’s constitution provided for the preferential inclusion of local, native Mexican businessmen and professionals over any non-Mexicans of the same classification, that same club constitution also demanded complete “avoidance of politics” in all club meetings and activities. …(Mexico City Rotary Club Constitution, Article III, Section 5 on “Membership” and Article VII, Section 1 on “Avoidance of Politics)… It was one thing to welcome the business and professional elites of Mexico City into the “world fellowship,” quite another to allow the club to serve as a venue for political debate and enabler of Mexican sovereignty over and against U.S. corporate and national interests.”

As these examples demonstrate, whether the rules forbid it or not, Rotary is by its very nature political because Rotary already exists within a political milieu. At various points in its history, it has made decisions with respect to the existence, or non-existence of clubs and has defined the governing terms of clubs in decisions that can only be seen as political in nature.

If all the articles currently decrying the state of democracy in American are too be believed, Rotarians, in concert with other “associations”, should at the very least be pondering the words of de Tocqueville and Hamilton and considering if it is time to focus “on the national interest” of America, as a “liberal democracy”.