What do history's most notorious despots have in common with many of the flag-waving, patriotic politicians of our day? Both groups rise to power through the exploitation of fear, which has become a societal plague. There have been widespread casualties. We need an antidote. Feardom offers its readers a much-needed immunization.
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.