By: David Cappella, Contributor
2016 looks to be a year dominated by the incessant dull roar of politics. With primary elections approaching, Democrats and Republicans are searching for a suitable candidate to succeed President Obama. Some candidates have argued that the foundations of American political life are at stake in the election; it is either democracy or the Constitution itself being threatened. With such foundational elements of our government putatively at stake, it is timely to consider what sustains the distinctive freedom and democracy we enjoy in the United States.
Alexis de Tocqueville, an early comparative sociologist and political scientist, wrote a prescient book in the 1830’s entitled Democracy in America. Tocqueville identifies geography, law, and mores as being reasons why the United States maintains its government. Tocqueville’s definition of mores is very broad, including people’s notions, opinions, morals, and intellect. As such he highlights American religious beliefs, emphasizing the separation of church and state and how it allows religion to have a more universal appeal. But he also highlights the secular side of American public character, noting strong support for public education, an equal regard for women (though unequal rights at that time), and a practical and fact-based approach to scientific inquiry.
Tocqueville’s main evidence for how mores maintain democracy is in how the individual and the community is viewed in society. Americans generally consider all citizens as equal in their civil, political, and economic rights. This equality gives individuals and their families the prerogative to help themselves in their self-interest—with no fixed social structure holding them in a dependent state. Tocqueville points out that this is the origin of American rugged individualism, but he also indicates a possible danger. As people think of themselves in isolation from others, they naturally think of the state as being the only visible and permanent representative of collective interests. In other words, if everyone is independently self-interested, in the few cases where they do need extra help, they will be more likely to ask the government for help than their neighbors (e.g., engage in pork barrel spending). Hence, Tocqueville argues that individualism, absent other mediating institutions, allows power to slowly become more centralized within national government.
The key countertendency to this centralizing tendency is what Tocqueville terms the “art of association” or simply the ability of groups of citizens to spontaneously self-organize to help each other voluntarily. These groups fund charities, build hospitals, organize political support, and otherwise raise awareness of community issues. For Tocqueville, these associations have an important function:
“An association, be it political, industrial, commercial, or even literary or scientific, is an educated and powerful body of citizens which cannot be twisted to any man’s will or quietly trodden down, and by defending its private interests against the encroachments of power, it saves the common liberties”
(Chap. 7, Part IV, Vol. 2).
There is no doubt that the Bill of Rights and the Constitution forms the core legal basis for a free democratic republic. But what maintains freedom and democracy isn’t just the words on a page, but the habitual actions of citizens whether individual or in association. So in the truculent campaign season of 2016, don’t forget that our own civic habits maintain American political life more than a politician’s shaky promise.