Back when the United States was still a young nation, it could inspire, frighten, confuse or confound people all over Europe, depending on where on the pecking order they were. Those very different perspectives largely depended on whether a person was a member of an imperial or a royal family, or part of the nobility; or if that person was to be found among the increasingly prosperous, new commercial and industrial class; had become a worker in one of the country’s new factories, or was a farmer in a new homestead; and crucially, perhaps, whether one was among the many religious or ethnic persecuted minorities or those at the bottom of the economic pile, scattered across the old world now increasingly eager to book passage on a packed ship bound for the new nation.
In the midst of this climate, the bourgeois monarchy of France had determined its prison system was now hopelessly out of date, and that it had failed to do much more than turn desperate, hungry bread thieves into hardened criminals or even revolutionaries (read your handy copy of Les Miserables or listen to a recording of the musical, Les Mis, for more corroborative detail). As a result, the government commissioned one of its more illustrious young aristocrats, Alexis de Tocqueville, to carry out a 19th century version of an in-depth, fact-finding investigation. His brief was to investigate the American criminal justice system and American prisons in order to determine what lessons could be drawn from them that could then be applied to France’s correctional facilities and courts in order to improve them.
De Tocqueville did what he was commissioned to do, but, along the way, also accomplished something much larger and even more important. Over the course of some six months, he moved through the entire country to observe its institutions. Travelling by foot, by horse, by ship, and via barges on the country’s growing canal network, he met its people (white, black and Native American); examined its geography, economy, the politics, and even the variety of its religious experiences.
His acute observations – once he wrote them up from what must have been an overstuffed suitcase of notes and journals – became a two-volume political science, sociological and anthropological classic, Democracy in America. The first half was published in 1835 and then the second part followed five years later. It has been continuously in print, ever since.
In one of his greatest insights into what made (and still makes) America tick, and what, thereby, made it so different from the tradition-bound societies of Europe he knew, De Tocqueville put his money on the power of voluntary associations. Nowhere mentioned specifically in the US Constitution, De Tocqueville argued that free citizen action was the prime generator of America’s civic culture, and, as such, those activities had huge impacts on the country’s political and economic life, and it was a key inter-generational conveyer of social values held in common.
In one of the most frequently cited parts of his work, De Tocqueville wrote:
“Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate. Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States.
“In America I encountered sorts of associations of which, I confess, I had no idea, and I often admired the infinite art with which the inhabitants of the United States managed to fix a common goal to the efforts of many men and to get them to advance to it freely.”
Towards the end of the 20th century, some scholars such as Robert Putnam tried to put de Tocqueville’s insight to the test in order to see if it still had validity for a nation with vast governmental impact and reach, and an increasingly sectarian media environment that kept people alone at home to mull over the news from their own partisan niches, rather than coming together in that vibrant array of civic bodies De Tocqueville had lauded. Putnam argued that there had been a steep reduction, since 1950, in the forms of in-person social interaction which Americans used to found to educate, and enrich the fabric of their social lives. He argued that this, in turn, has undermined the active civil engagement that a strong democracy requires of its citizens.
Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone, became a sensation among social activists, political scientists, sociologists, commentators, government policy analysts, and miscellaneous contemporary Jeremiahs, all of whom became deeply concerned that the fabric of American society was falling to pieces. However, critics such as journalist Nicholas Lemann took issue with Putnam’s thesis, arguing that instead of declining in absolute terms, civic activity in the US during the 1990s and going forward was assuming different forms. Instead of those old-style organised bowling leagues (hence the title of Putnam’s 1995 article and then the 2000 book expanding on this thesis), growing numbers of parents are integrating themselves into new social networks, contributing to national social capital, such as ubiquitous youth soccer leagues all across the country.
Moreover, what Putnam and his followers had largely failed to reckon with was the rise and rise of the internet, and the creation of social media. Instead of a nation of people slipping ever deeper into an atomised epidemic of anomie, the country now seems to be in the grip of all kinds of untrammelled social and political activism. Should this be called “De Tocqueville 2.0”?
The difference, now, is people now frequently meet online as they come together over causes they espouse, and so the resulting electronic community can lead to tangible activities in the real world. Think of the #Me Too, #Black Lives Matter, and so many other anti-Donald Trump mobilisations that have seized the nation’s attention in the past two years.
Of course many new groups – in both the virtual or the real world – continue to be located along the entirety of the political spectrum, even as many other activities operate in the cyber and the actual world on behalf of goals that do not demonstrate a precise Republican/Democratic political edge, such as so many community-based efforts to save much-loved historic buildings or to resurrect blighted neighbourhoods and then convert them to new uses. In the current world, activists are just as likely to use social media and the internet as they are to bring people together in an old-style, classic street march or rally – or to use the first to help generate the second.
Naturally, political movements or efforts to mobilise action for or against abortion rights, immigration rights, and gun control also make use of the same tools. Increasingly, they are married with efforts to mobilise supporters to contribute funds to help causes – the flash mob and crowd funding. All of this has brought new millions into the political sphere – and away from sitting passively in front of their television or computer screens.
One big difference between the present and the moment of Putnam’s observations is that, yes, people do come together less frequently for those old-style community softball or bowling leagues in cities of the kind Putnam had examined. But, this has come along as people have moved to the suburbs and the exurbs – and away from the traditional “old neighbourhoods” and the older styles of participation, and taken up with the organisational possibilities of technology instead.
Still, the ascension of Donald Trump to the centre of American political life upended many things we all thought we knew to be deeply true. The new social activism over clearly political issues in the Trump era has hardened the divisions in America, and with a deepened animosity between those pro- and anti-Trump forces and parts of the population. Anyone looking at the internet and social media nowadays cannot help but be astounded by the amount of angry conversation along that fracture line – and presumably in terms of actual organising for the coming fight. And that means more than just those lunatic fringe survivalists, prepping for a mythic racial Armageddon with their hermetically foil-sealed rations, hazmat suits, M-16s, and Geiger counters.
Now add Donald Trump into this intellectual debate about free associations and bowling alone that goes to the heart of the American polity and how much new technology will have changed things. To be truthful, Trump hasn’t entered this discussion nearly as much as he demonstrated conclusively that he was virtually oblivious to its meaning.
That should make us wonder what, exactly, they teach in the real estate investment programme at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania – the place where Trump did his university time. Doesn’t a student there have to take any classes about American history, literature, political theory, sociology or – well – anything else besides how best to con the dupes and dance away from the taxman and the banks? Or, perhaps, there was the occasional class on how to avoid the regulations of the Fair Housing Act and related civil rights legislation, things that he and his dad had once been charged with during Trump’s rise to fame. But there apparently was little or nothing on the sources and impacts of American political thought.
Anyway, we’ve come to wonder about this because the other day, Donald Trump – just before embarking on his three-nation tour of insulting Nato allies, sticking his foot into it with regard to British domestic politics and his good buddy Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary and general bad boy of British politics, and his upcoming love fest with Vladimir Putin – took a smack at former President George HW Bush, for some reason. This came in a campaign speech in Montana in support of a Republican challenger to a vulnerable Democratic incumbent senator. This swipe at Bush 41 demonstrated his ignorance or denigration of the importance of voluntary associations. Never mind that he has probably never heard of Alexis de Tocqueville.
As Trump bayed to those at the rally:
“A thousand points of light, what the hell was that?… What did that mean? Does anybody know?… Has anyone ever figured that one out? And it was put out by a Republican! I know one thing, ‘Make America Great Again’ we understand! ‘Putting America First’ we understand! ‘A thousand points of light,’ I never quite got that one.”
James Hohmann in The Washington Post, commenting on the Trumpian rhetoric, and in using language deeply evocative of De Tocqueville’s, wrote:
“Bush, seeking election after two terms as Ronald Reagan’s vice president, believed America was already great. It also never occurred to the World War II hero, now 94, to use ‘America First’ as a slogan because he had come of age in the 1930s when Charles Lindbergh and other isolationists were using the same maxim to advocate the appeasement of the Nazis. A ‘thousand points of light’ became shorthand for Bush’s vision of a kinder and gentler America. He spoke of individuals finding meaning and reward by serving a purpose higher than themselves, thereby illuminating society.”
“ ‘I’ve spoken of a thousand points of light – of all the community organisations that are spread like stars throughout the nation doing good,’ Bush said in his 1989 inaugural address. ‘I will go to the people and the programs that are the brighter points of light, and I’ll ask every member of my government to become involved. The old ideas are new again because they are not old. They are timeless: duty, sacrifice, commitment and a patriotism that finds its expression in taking part and pitching in.’ ”
The incumbent president appears to have little or no understanding of such commitments, demonstrated by, among so many other things, the use of his eponymous foundation in ways that have been accused of being thoroughly inconsistent with both federal and state law.
Aside from Donald Trump and those in his administration’s view that governing is all about division and demonising those with whom they disagree (along with a healthy dose of doing nicely for themselves while they are about it), there seems little or no conception of governing as service or calling for the broader nation. But most especially, there is no understanding of governing as inheriting the historical legacies of national forebears. To do that, however, one has to be familiar with the ideas that are core to the nation’s sense of self, such as De Tocqueville’s insight – or George Bush’s modern recapitulation of it.
But if Donald Trump has no sense of the power of free, voluntary associations or the centrality of that idea for the American experiment, this becomes just one more demonstration of his lack of acquaintance with so many of the ideas essential to the American version of democracy. Or history, politics and intellectual heritage, for that matter.
So, what is to be done? It is already past time to bring together a special collection of readings for the president, and to arrange for the best to discuss the ideas contained in those readings with him. That should have been done when he was an undergraduate. Still, perhaps his chief of staff can carve a couple hours of week out of his addiction to Fox News, to have some time to let some other influences and ideas into the room as well.
So, what would I include in this package? Maybe begin with several of Ken Burns’ formidable television documentary series such as the one on the Civil War, on baseball, even the one on the Brooklyn Bridge. Given his dire performances at the G7 and Nato meetings, the first book should be Dean Acheson’s Present at the Creation.
Then there should be a carefully selected group of especially readable biographies of presidents like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Abraham Lincoln and Roosevelt (Franklin and Theodore both). And throw in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s A Team of Rivals. Then there should be some novels, memoirs, journalism, and even some sermons and poetry. Now with this there is no real need to figure out what must be included, as the clever people in charge of The Library of America publication series have already done the hard work on this, with over a hundred volumes of the most important writing by Americans – from reportage from World War II and Vietnam, to the collected novels of Saul Bellow, to Ulysses Grant’s memoirs, to great sermons, to the debates about the Constitution, and even a volume on baseball writing.
Yes, there is a flaw here. Donald Trump is not a man who reads books, let alone briefing papers, government studies, or even the newspapers as far as anyone can tell. So, do it this way: we need to organise crowd funding to pay for turning all of this reading into graphic novels especially for him. He’ll love it. And maybe his most fervent followers will take a peek at them too. DM
"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall