This month's cover story got me thinking about the French aristocrat who visited America in 1831 and whose observations about our democracy and the American psyche are collected in “American Democracy.” In this two-volume masterpiece, Alexis de Tocqueville noted the proclivity Americans demonstrated for forming groups of like-minded individuals in pursuit of common interests:
“Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. …I met with several kinds of associations in America of which I confess I had no previous notion.”
One can imagine that de Tocqueville would not be surprised to find, nearly 150 years later, Americans busy connecting with each other in groups of every conceivable nature — whether the common bond is “Star Trek,” middle age, belief in ghosts, or dislike of wearing clothing — as our cover story this month explores.
There is something wonderful and renewing about this aspect of American character, which could use a shot in the arm these days in my view. What is it that compels Americans to aggregate? De Tocqueville's hypothesis was that innate self-reliance and distrust of authority were/are the underlying psychological drivers. He believed that the freedom to associate, in fact, was a critical check in democracies on the potential overweening power of central government:
“Governments, therefore, should not be the only active powers; associations ought, in democratic nations, to stand in lieu of those powerful private individuals [aristocrats] whom the equality of conditions has swept away.”
De Tocqueville even goes on to note the importance of face-to-face meetings for associations. Although the context of the following comments had to do with political associations, they apply broadly nonetheless:
“The second degree in the exercise of the right of association is the power of meeting. When an association is allowed to establish centers of action at certain important points in the country, its activity is increased and its influence extended. Men have the opportunity of seeing one another; means of execution are combined; and opinions are maintained with a warmth and energy that written language can never attain.”
Touché! May the power of associations and their meetings continue.