Civil Society and Associational Life


Tocqueville’s Democracy in America

-         importance of associations among citizens

o       not just political associations (e.g., parties, interest groups)

o       civic associations (e.g., clubs, leagues, societies, businesses)

-         civic associations create public and quasi-public goods

o       Cf. France: government does what civic associations do in US

-         Democratic life is strengthened by depth of civic associations

o       “Feelings and opinions are recruited, the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed only by the reciprocal influence of men upon one another.”

o       Avoids dependency on government and risk of centralized tyranny

o       Citizens learn to organize and to discuss politics


-         Newspapers (periodicals) and civic associations

o       Mutually reinforcing relations between press and associations

§        Associations create demand for information

§        Information creates demand for associations

o       Local participation in associations creates demand for local presses

-         Political associations (parties, interest groups) create demands for civic associations

o       “Political associations may therefore be considered as large free schools, where all the members of the community go to learn the general theory of association.”

o       Socialize citizens into gather and discussing political issues


-         Equality and self-interest rightly understood

o       Americans “born equal” compared to Europe

§        No  aristocracy

§        No primogeniture (estates divided upon owner’s death)

o       Enlightened self-interest: my best interest is served by helping others

§        “Most all the actions of their lives by the principle of self-interest rightly understood; they show with complacency how an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist one another and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the welfare of the state.

§        Not ‘invisible hand’ but normative commitment


Implications of Tocqueville Today

-         Vibrant civil society and associational life vital to democracy

o       Decline in associational life harms democracy

o       Decline in political participation harms associational life 

-         Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” Thesis

o       Social capital is declining in US

o       Social capital: “features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit.”

o       Less local voluntary & cooperative activity in US

-         Effects of declining social capital

o       Greater reliance on state

o       Less cooperation outside state control


-         Can the market aspects of civil society substitute?

o       Industrialization and corporate centralization undermine local associations

§        National and multinational stock-based companies unlike local firms and associations

§        No face-to-face contact locally, no community

o       Economic forces may diminish social capital

§        “symbolic analysts” ‘secede’ from rest of society (R. Reich)

§        “creative class” creates “geographic and class segmentation” (R. Florida)

·        “tolerance, talent and technology”

·        “quasi-anonymity” of creative class

§        low-density car-driven culture drives economic growth (E. Glaeser)

·        no sense of local community

§        individualism substitutes for community

·        Advertising’s ideology of individualism (M. Miller)


-         Politics as the Cause of Associational Decline?

§        plebiscitary presidency (T. Lowi)

·        president relies more on personal appeal and campaign organization than party

§        decline in local party influence v. national control (centralization)

·        focus on fund-raising rather than volunteerism

·        fund-raising centralized

·        primaries and caucuses diminish local party role at national convention

§        less political competition due to gerrymandering

·        less interest or need for local activism

§        political associations no longer “teach” ‘general theory of association’