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.