If Alexis de Tocqueville, author of the fabled two volume “Democracy in America” published in 1835, were alive today, his first tweet would probably be this: “Democracy depends on many things besides voting.”
First among those other things in Tocqueville’s mind would be the universality of “civil association,” and he would almost certainly tweet his observation that “Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite.”
Responding to his own tweet, he would then add, “Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, you will perceive an association in the United States.”
Donald Trump, by comparison, uses his tweets to blast messages about “no collusion” (140 times), “Russia witch hunt” (113 times), “lyin’ James Comey” (48 times), “fake news” (55 times), and “crooked Hillary” (49 times). These figures from Mashable are a year old, so the totals are higher today.
Whether one loves or hates Donald Trump, he is using Twitter not only to vent his endless sense of grievance, but to tap into an enduring subliminal belief in the kind of robust civil society described by Tocqueville nearly 200 years ago, in which the people took on “elites” and “put America first.”
The effect seems grotesque today because convulsions triggered in the electorate by inflammatory presidential tweets are like the phantom neural spasms of a long amputated limb. Meaningful civil society is now a distant collective memory, replaced by the seeming immediacy of political consumerism and partisan noise reverberating 24/7 through global media echo chambers.
As Tocqueville traveled across America by steamboat, stagecoach, canoe and on horseback from New Orleans through more than 20 states, including a visit with President Andrew Jackson at the White House, he came to believe it was the nearly universal embrace of voluntary civil association by Americans that made the nation uniquely democratic.
A Tocqueville tweet on the subject would note, “In democratic peoples, all citizens are independent and weak; they can do almost nothing by themselves, and none of them can oblige those like themselves to lend them their cooperation. They therefore all fall into impotence if they do not learn to aid each other freely.”
Sustaining a democracy does indeed depend on “many things besides voting.”
CONTINUING TOCQUEVILLE’S WORK
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TOCQUEVILLE SOURCE NOTES
- On civil association
- Defining civil association and avoiding tyranny of the majority
- Tocqueville’s journey retraced
- In Tocqueville’s footsteps