Nostalgia is rampant among public commentators today as they look for some critical juncture when U.S. democracy was flourishing more than it seems to be now, hoping to draw inspiration and lessons for what might be done to revive our apparently ailing civic life.
Those who still admit to being liberals usually locate the golden era of U.S. democracy in the 1930s and 1940s, when, it is thought, Franklin Delano Roosevelt provided bold, progressive leadership. Those of conservative or center-right proclivities characteristically look at America's past through the eyes of Alexis de Tocqueville, the French aristocrat who toured the fledgling United States in the 1830s, gathering observations and ideas that were, in due course, published in Democracy in America. Tocqueville's opus has become one of the modern world's most influential political ethnographies--that is, a set of densely descriptive observations of another nation, written to influence political debates back in one's own country.
That message-to-home aspect of Tocqueville's work is important in understanding its limitations. Alarmed by the simultaneous expansion of democracy and an ever-more-centralized bureaucratic administrative state in post-revolutionary France, he used his explorations of early Republican America to make the case to his own countrymen that they should encourage voluntary associations in civic society as a new buffer against state centralization.
"Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of dispositions are forever forming associations," Tocqueville reported in a famous, oft-quoted passage. This happy situation was possible, he felt, because extralocal government seemed barely present. "Nothing strikes a European traveler in the United States more," wrote Tocqueville, "than the absence of what we would call government or administration. ... There is nothing centralized or hierarchic in the constitution of American administrative power."
Given Tocqueville's anti-statist purposes, it is not surprising that contemporary critics of the U.S. federal government celebrate the great Frenchman's stress on voluntary associations (understood as functioning in opposition to bureaucratic state power). Still, before Americans plunge forward on a fool's errand, we might want to notice that the best historical social science challenges the claims of conservatives and centrists about when, how, and why democratic civic engagement has flourished in the United States.
Before the American Revolution, many towns of the requisite size for commercialization and urbanization had already emerged, but without a vibrant set of voluntary associations. By the early 1800s, however, the emergence of associations in both smaller and larger communities was outstripping commercial and demographic change. Social historian Richard D. Brown emphasizes that the Revolution, political struggles over the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and deepening popular participation in national, state, and local elections served to spur associational life. So did religious and cultural ideals about self-improvement, and growing awareness of extralocal commercial and public affairs through widespread newspaper reading.
Tocqueville himself was well aware of many of these extralocal influences. Present-day conservatives often overlook how much he stressed political participation, marveling at the United States as the "one country in the world which, day in, day out, makes use of an unlimited freedom of political association," which, in turn, encouraged a more general "taste for association."
In retrospect, it is obvious that what social historian Mary P. Ryan has dubbed the pre-Civil War "era of association," from the 1820s to the 1840s, coincided with the spread of adult male suffrage and the emergence of competitive, mass-mobilizing parties: first the Jacksonian Democrats, then the Whigs, and finally, the Free Soilers and the Republicans.
Democracy in America took note of early U.S. newspapers, too. "Newspapers make associations, and associations make newspapers," Tocqueville wrote. "Thus, of all countries on earth, it is in America that one finds both the most associations and the most newspapers." Yet, blinded by his negative passions about state power in France, Tocqueville failed to grasp what his observations meant about the early American state.
As historian Richard John cleverly points out in Spreading the News: The American Postal System From Franklin to Morse, Tocqueville traveled by stage coach in the "hinterland of Kentucky and Tennessee," remarking on the "astonishing circulation of letters and newspapers among these savage woods." Yet the Frenchman's travels might not have been possible if many stage-coach companies had not been subsidized--through Congress--so that mail could be carried, and representatives travel home, to remote districts.
A well-known quip has it that early modern Prussia wasn't so much a state with an army, as an army with a state. Similarly, the early United States may have been not so much a country with a post office, as a post office that gave popular reality to a fledgling nation. John points out that by 1828, only 36 years after Congress passed the Post Office Act of 1792, "the American postal system had almost twice as many offices as the postal system in Great Britain and over five times as many offices as the postal system in France." In the 1830s and 1840s, the system accounted for more than three-quarters of U.S. federal employees.
Obviously, the institutional structure of the U. S. government had everything to do with the spread of the postal network. The legislative system gave senators and (above all) members of the House of Representatives a strong interest in subsidizing communication and transportation links into even the remotest areas of the growing nation. Special postal rates made mailing newspapers cheap and allowed small newspapers to pick up copy from bigger ones.
The postal system was even more important for civil society and democratic politics than for commerce. Congress could use it to communicate freely with citizens. Citizens, even in the remotest hamlets, could readily communicate with one another, monitoring the doings of Congress, and state and local governments. Voluntary associations soon learned to put out their message in "newspaper" formats, to take advantage of the mail. Emergent political parties in Jacksonian America were intertwined with the federal postal system. Party entrepreneurs were often newspaper editors and postmasters, and postmasterships quickly became a staple of party patronage.
In short, the early American civic vitality that so entranced Alexis de Tocqueville was closely tied up with the representative institutions and centrally directed activity of a very distinctive national state. The non-zero-sum nature of U.S. governmental and associational expansion becomes even more apparent when we consider that most of the big voluntary associations founded in the 19th century prospered well into the 20th, often building toward membership peaks reached only in the 1960s or 1970s and in full symbiosis with public social provision.
The Grand Army of the Republic spread in the wake of state and national benefits for Union veterans of the Civil War, for example. The Fraternal Order of Eagles was so active in promoting state and federal old-age pensions that the Grand Eagle himself received an official pen when FDR signed the Social Security Act of 1935. The great women's federations of the early 20th century were champions of local, state, and federal regulations, services, and benefits for mothers and children. New Deal laws and administrative interventions were vital aids for nascent industrial unions. And the American Legion sponsored the GI Bill of 1944.
Lessons for Today
Maybe the problem today is that many Americans, quite rightly, no longer feel they can effectively band together to get things done either through, or in relationship to, government. The problem may not be a big, bureaucratic federal government--after all, the U.S. national government still has proportionately less revenue-raising capacity and administrative heft than virtually any other advanced national state. The issue may be recent shifts in society and styles of politics that make it less inviting and far harder for Americans to participate efficaciously in civic life, except locally or on very narrow issues.
Data do show an explosion of Washington, D.C.-based advocacy groups between the mid-1960s and the early 1980s. But apart from a few on the right--notably the National Right to Life Committee, the Christian Coalition, and the National Rifle Association--the few new big voluntary associations that have been founded have been structured like thousands of smaller ones: They are staff-led, mailing-list associations.
Obviously, societal conditions so propitious for encompassing voluntary federations have changed a lot. Higher-educated women--once leaders of many such associations--now have nationally oriented careers, and crowd into cosmopolitan centers. Indeed, by the 1960s, the United States developed a very large professional-managerial elite that was, arguably, more oriented to giving money to staff-led national advocacy organizations than to climbing the local-state-national leadership ladders of traditional voluntary associations.
Voters these days are rarely contacted directly by party or group workers. Politicians may not care much about them at all if they aren't relatively well-off or members of targeted "swing" groups of voters. This has happened in electoral politics at the same time that all our mailboxes are full of computer-generated mailings from single-issue advocacy groups seeking to raise money from paper "memberships."
Were Alexis de Tocqueville to return to the late 20th century United States for another visit, he would be just as worried about these national trends as about possible declines in purely local or small-group associationalism. After all, one of Democracy in America's insights was that vital democratic participation served as a kind of "school," where Americans learned how to build social and civic associations of all sorts. He would also surely be surprised that today's conservatives are using his Democracy in America to justify a depoliticized and romantic localism as an improbable remedy for the larger ills of national politics.