Citizen Initiative, Civil Society

Whatever happened to the creative power of American civil society? What is the consequence of this loss?

Tocqueville reported in 1840 that Americans overcame constraints on their freedom through their own initiative and sense of community. But, 174 years later, action has been replaced by inaction. A once spirited culture of engagement, built on committed interpersonal relationships, has been replaced by an increasingly self-centered attitude, the loss of community, and the isolating influences of the automobile, television, and the digital age.

Is it these technologies that have isolated us from one another? Niall Ferguson argues no. Rather he suggests that it is “not technology, but the state – with its seductive promise of ‘security from the cradle to the grave’ – [which is] the real enemy of civil society.” And he cites the astonishingly prophetic vision of Tocqueville, who imagined a future America in which the spirit of community has been co-opted and neutered by government:

“I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others: his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them and does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone….

“Above these an immense tutelary power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood….

“Thus, …the sovereign extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.”

Elsewhere Tocqueville added an explicit warning:

“But what political power would ever be in a state to suffice for the innumerable multitude of small undertakings that American citizens execute every day with the aid of association?…

“The morality and intelligence of a democratic people would risk no fewer dangers than its business and industry if government came to take the place of associations everywhere.

“Sentiments and ideas renew themselves, the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed only by the reciprocal action of men upon one another.”

I agree that government has had a part in the demise of the American soul. But, I do not think we can attribute the present condition solely to government. I believe the degeneration of attitudes and behavior cannot be divorced from the isolating influences of corporate culture, the dispersion of communities by the automobile, or the superficiality of a digital society.

Telecommunications and travel by air brought the world together on a macro level, but they also disinclined us to engage with our neighbors. I believe the long slide to isolation is the consequence of social forces that have tracked the trajectory of human progress since the founding of the Republic, and which we can only fault ourselves for accepting without question.

Our government is, after all, a creature of our own invention, served by people who have been subject to the same deterioration of values and responsibility as the nation as a whole.