April 26th, 2009

Mediating Institutions: A Remedy to Political Indifference


photo credit: eeloy

A common assessment of American’s current political landscape is that individuals have become largely disenfranchised, bored, and isolated. People are fed up with the inherent divisiveness of politics, and the lack of progress they see (or with which they agree). For the minority that are actively interested and involved, polarity is readily evident as they often cling unwaveringly to a set of talking points and their corresponding talking heads. But for most, sadly, political and social involvement is saturated and weighed down with a thick layer of apathy and distractions, discouraging participation in the system they so despise.

It was not always thus. Nearly two hundred years ago, when Alexis de Tocqueville traveled across in America to diagnose democracy and better understand what America was all about, he made special mention of a unique situation that was evident in the lives of those he observed. A chapter of his book Democracy in America was titled "Of the Uses which the Americans Make of Public Associations," detailing what are referred to today as "mediating institutions"—non-governmental organizations of all types in which individuals participate, network, and serve.

The following portion of de Tocqueville’s assessment illustrates how these associations existed and affected the political climate:

I do not propose to speak of those political associations by the aid of which men endeavor to defend themselves against the despotic action of a majority or against the aggressions of regal power. That subject I have already treated. If each citizen did not learn, in proportion as he individually becomes more feeble and consequently more incapable of preserving his freedom single-handed, to combine with his fellow citizens for the purpose of defending it, it is clear that tyranny would unavoidably increase together with equality.

Only those associations that are formed in civil life without reference to political objects are here referred to. The political associations that exist in the United States are only a single feature in the midst of the immense assemblage of associations in that country. Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society. Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.

I met with several kinds of associations in America of which I confess I had no previous notion; and I have often admired the extreme skill with which the inhabitants of the United States succeed in proposing a common object for the exertions of a great many men and in inducing them voluntarily to pursue it.

Referring specifically to civic institutions of various kinds, de Tocqueville here extols the industrious virtue of his contemporary Americans. This method of organizing for non-political purposes has many benefits, one of which is to achieve a common object, as he said. While originally existing as separate colonies and states, the inhabitants of early America were largely united in a common purpose: independence. Once achieved, the preservation of that common object required a shared identity, made possible through the very mediating institutions de Tocqueville described. This was important for national unity and identity, since a government does not create a nation anymore than a last name creates a family. Thus, it was important that Americans be involved and active in all sorts of other affairs and causes that helped blend their desires and actions together into the general welfare and common good.

Further elaborating on this point, he wrote:

Thus the most democratic country on the face of the earth is that in which men have, in our time, carried to the highest perfection the art of pursuing in common the object of their common desires and have applied this new science to the greatest number of purposes. Is this the result of accident, or is there in reality any necessary connection between the principle of association and that of equality?

Whether intentional or accidental, one cannot deny the benefits such associations produced. And so, as with many other things, the remedy for our current apathy and disenfranchisement lies in our past. We, like our ancestors, must actively participate in mediating institutions in order to expose ourselves to differing ideas and desires, and to express our own. Isolating ourselves and spending our time in selfish pursuits only serves to further drive a wedge between ourselves and those with whom we disagree, and increase the “we vs. them” mentality that is so prevalent today.

Concluding his assessment of American associations, de Tocqueville said:

Nothing, in my opinion, is more deserving of our attention than the intellectual and moral associations of America. The political and industrial associations of that country strike us forcibly; but the others elude our observation, or if we discover them, we understand them imperfectly because we have hardly ever seen anything of the kind. It must be acknowledged, however, that they are as necessary to the American people as the former, and perhaps more so. In democratic countries the science of association is the mother of science; the progress of all the rest depends upon the progress it has made.

Among the laws that rule human societies there is one which seems to be more precise and clear than all others. If men are to remain civilized or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve in the same ratio in which the equality of conditions is increased.

Paramount to this objective is the guarantee of the freedom to associate, allowing individuals to rub shoulders, plan events, discuss issues, and seek desired progress. In the aggregate, such associations of various types would more effectively, efficiently, and properly fulfill many of the needs individuals have for which they currently turn to the government. Absent these coalitions in the center, the people on one side look directly to the government on the other, and the government looks to (and taxes and regulates and controls) the people right on back.

Mediating institutions fulfill a vital role in helping people interact with others, identify and fulfill others’ needs, and learn more about the world around them. We do a disservice to ourselves and those around us when we withdraw our participation in favor of other, more reclusive actions.

American citizens have turned “we, the people” into “us, the citizenry” and “them, the politicians”. The remedy to such a separation of power and influence is the creation of and participation in the mediating institutions Alexis de Toqueville praised. In order to effect change and create a better world, we need to get up and get involved.

11 Responses to “Mediating Institutions: A Remedy to Political Indifference”

  1. kannie
    April 26, 2009 at 9:36 pm #

    *applauding with a huge grin* Great post! :-) I love the second-to-last paragraph in particular. Thanks for such an empowering & inspiring read!!! :-)

  2. JHP
    April 27, 2009 at 9:27 am #

    Important reminder, thanks.

    These mediating social institutions, also called “little platoons” by Burke, are what make America tick. That’s why bigger government and more reliance on government, especially federal government, is so dangerous, it disintegrates these middle levels of society.

    For this reason, I believe that Obama’s proposal to eliminate tax benefits for charitable donations is dangerous, as well as the recent Hatch/Kennedy bill that increases the federal service corps. They would both transfer participation from the little platoons to federal bureaucracy.

  3. Reach Upward
    April 27, 2009 at 9:34 am #

    Robert Putnam has done a lot of work researching and documenting what he calls America’s declining social capital. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Putnam . His 2000 book Bowling Alone discussed the amazing drop in general involvement in voluntary associations in the U.S. and his 2007 study on the decline of community explores the impacts of increasing diversity.

    Putnam says that ever since the advent of TV and other modern in-home and personal media there has been a steady decline in participation in everything from Rotary and Girl Scouts to bowling leagues and reading clubs — the kinds of associations frequently depicted in the 1960s cartoon series Meet The Flintstones.

    Putnam’s critics say that he is ignoring newer forms of associations and social connectivity, much of it made possible by the new media. Due to email, texting, and Twitter, for example, much more targeted events can be quickly organized. This phenomenon is called ‘smart crowds.’

    Does this newer type of temporary association perform the democratic support functions de Tocqueville discusses?

  4. Connor
    April 27, 2009 at 2:00 pm #

    Does this newer type of temporary association perform the democratic support functions de Tocqueville discusses?

    That’s a really good question, Reach. Are social networks a substitute for traditional ones?

    Let’s ask this question to perhaps illustrate another application: would families function properly if everybody lived separately and communicated over IM? Or are telecommuting coworkers as productive as those that share office space?

    Personally, I recognize the value and efficiency that technology has introduced into these types of associations. However, I think that there are certain aspects of relationships (family, business, political, social, etc.) that have no other substitute. I would much rather have a group discussion face to face—replete with all the associated emotion, gesticulation, and the like̵than on Skype.

  5. John C.
    April 27, 2009 at 7:37 pm #

    What mediating institutions do you have in mind, Connor? It seems like there are a lot of organizations that could fill this role, for good and for ill.

  6. Carborendum
    April 27, 2009 at 8:15 pm #

    JHP, good points.

    Reach & Connor,

    The question of proximity for effective group effort has been on my mind a lot lately. For instance, it may be great if we can get 1 million members for a cause on Facebook. But if they are spread throughout the country, what can we do to effect change in the government? How can we choose a location to build a hospital or other useful institution? Where will it be run from?

    Take blogging: Never have so many said so little to so few.

    Whenever we render real service to others, and whenever we have strength in numbers, it is always easier, and more effective when we do things in person and in close proximity.

    Connor:

    I’ve reflected on the mediating institutions by virtue of a newsletter from George Wythe about a year ago. I even wrote a letter to the author. He and I had a “spirited” exchange. He explicitly focused on getting away from the libertarian mentality of the individual and getting together in little platoons (yes, he mentioned Burke as well as de Tocqueville) to reform a constitutional nation. It was largely due to that exchange that I recognized some weaknesses in the libertarian ideology. I still believe it is closer to the ideal than what we have today. But it is not the ideal to strive for.

    The other day I wanted to start a branch of the Independent American Party in Colorado. But I had no idea how. I wrote the branch in Utah and Nevada. No response. I’ve asked friends for advice. No one else knew either. I’d like to try. But I can’t seem to find out how. Even if I get the legal entity put together, I have no idea how to promote anything . . .

    My question to you (and others on this blog) is: Even if I know what I want to do, just how am I supposed to get it done when I have no idea where to start?

    To your other point (the disservice of reclusion) I wonder if it is too late. I’m reminded of Galt’s Gulch. I see Dagne Taggert resisting the move. Are we at that stage? Is it too late? Or is there still hope that “We the People” can still steer the government from its runaway train mentality? Or are we fighting against futility? Just when is it time to abandon ship?

    It certainly is a whole lot easier to find a cave somewhere and stay until the rest of the world destroys each other. I know that isn’t what we’re supposed to do. But I just don’t know how to do anything else.

  7. John C.
    April 29, 2009 at 6:24 am #

    Hello? Hello? Is this mike on?

  8. Connor
    April 29, 2009 at 9:05 am #

    John,

    What mediating institutions do you have in mind, Connor?

    I hope you don’t want a comprehensive list, but the following would, in my mind, be qualifiers:

    • Rotary Club
    • Kiwanis Club
    • Boy Scouts of America
    • Boys and Girls Club
    • Church organizations
    • Philanthropic organizations
    • Chamber of Commerce
    • Lions Club
    • Sports teams
    • Advocacy groups
    • Business networking groups
    • Parent Teacher Association
    • Trade associations
    • Environmental organizations
    • etc.

    Carb,

    Even if I know what I want to do, just how am I supposed to get it done when I have no idea where to start?

    Welcome to the perennial dilemma of nearly all entrepreneurs. My experience leads me to suggest simply doing what you think is right. If you mess up somewhere, you’ll likely find out, and be able to correct it as is necessary.

    Just when is it time to abandon ship?

    That depends which ship you’re referring to… :)

  9. John C.
    April 30, 2009 at 9:23 am #

    Thanks, Connor. So that I am sure we understand each other, mediating organizations are legal, non-governmental community organizations.

  10. Connor
    April 30, 2009 at 10:09 am #

    So that I am sure we understand each other, mediating organizations are legal, non-governmental community organizations.

    As I have referred to them here, and as I understand de Tocqueville’s writings, yes.

  11. Reach Upward
    April 30, 2009 at 7:58 pm #

    I kept myself aloof from the tea parties, but many of those were examples of people coming together for a common cause. I find myself already involved in many of the things on your list. I think there are a lot more items that could be listed.

    I work in an office, but I also telecommute regularly. There certainly are benefits to being in close proximity to co-workers. But there are also benefits to telecommuting. I get essential benefits from both worlds. I think, however, that I would be giving up a lot if I only telecommuted and rarely went to the office. So, I appreciate what Carb is saying.

    I can’t find a link, but a recent study found that nearly 25% of single adults in the U.S. live entirely on their own. They have no family or close friends upon which they can rely. Many of them prefer to refrain from involvement in the kinds of mediating institutions you have discussed. Although the folks at Reason Magazine think this is just peachy, it seems like a very unhealthy trend to me.

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