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Associations Now

de Toqueville’s America: Revisited

ASSOCIATIONS NOW, September 2007, Feature

By: Scott Briscoe

Almost 175 years after writing Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville talks posthumously about how associations have changed, adapted, and improved over time.
Summary: Back in 1835, French historian Alexis de Tocqueville wrote an analysis of the role of associations in American democracy that still rings true. But what would de Tocqueville think of today’s associations? Find out in this posthumous interview exclusive.

“Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society.”

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote these words in 1835 after studying the new form of government taking root across the Atlantic from his French homeland. Now, almost 175 years after he first wrote Democracy in America, those who staff associations still get blank looks when they say, “I work for an association.”

Yet, Democracy in America remains required reading in advanced high school and college civics courses around the country (and should be reread by all members of Congress, the cabinet, agency heads, and, well, everybody else in the country). Associations Now editors were blown away when de Tocqueville granted them an interview—believed to be his first posthumous one. What follows is the transcript.

Associations Now: You wrote about political associations and civil associations—how have you witnessed them changing over the generations?

de Tocqueville: Fundamentally, they have not changed. At a basic level, an association is still a collective society, one that establishes goals and works toward those goals as a group because the many in cooperation will always be able to accomplish more than the many in isolation. It should never be forgotten how unique and sagacious it was for the framers of the U.S. Constitution to bestow the right of association on the people of America. And still more amazing how the people of America used this right to create what became the central nervous system of a democracy where the power is with the multitude, not a powerful elite.

So you’re saying associations haven’t changed much?

As America’s agrarian culture changed to mercantile, then to industrial, then to commercial, and now it seems is in the midst of another change to knowledge and ideas—as these changes have emerged, the underlying principle of association has not changed. It continues to be a right within American democracy. People continue to seek out others with similar interests in order to do more as a group. Look at Boston before the French and the colonies overthrew English rule. King George taxed tea, so Bostonians simply stopped drinking tea. It was an organized boycott against what they thought was an intrusion into their personal economic interests as well as an insult to the entire city and colony. Is that different than a decade ago when the National Association of Manufacturers advocated for policies that would result in a weaker dollar so exports would be worth more? Or the National Restaurant Association arguing against minimum wage increases? In both contexts, the organizations promoted policies that benefited their industries, and, they would say, benefited all of America as manufacturers or restaurateurs would stay in business and thrive.

The causes may change, but the underlying aims of association remain the same: People seek companionship. They seek mutual benefit. They seek to add or change laws. They seek to fill the needs that the government or private sectors do not fill. These needs are part of what comprise humanity and are not unique to democracy. What made democracy different is, for the first time, these associations had real power to effect change without revolution, without toppling the existing authority or government. In other societies, associations were less powerful and thus less plentiful.

In Democracy in America you wrote, “If men are to remain civilized or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve in the same ratio in which the equality of conditions is increased.” When looking at the modern American association, have we grown and improved the art of associating?

No one could ever have predicted that this business of organizing around a purpose would lead to an entire sector—or profession if you will—of association management. Even after money exchange and currency became the type of wealth that was measured, it was inconceivable that someone outside the interest being organized would be paid to help organize it.

Some might say barely paid.

Yes, that can be very true.

But it has been quite an extraordinary development. As this idea of a professional staff servicing the members of an association developed, I think we were absolutely witnessing the growth in the art of associating. But now I’m beginning to wonder about the relevance of the model. Not necessarily the idea of a paid organizer per se, but the fact that new ways of associating seem to be bypassing that model. It is perhaps time for that next leap of improvement in the art of associating.

What are these new models you speak of?

Take a look at the open-source movement, specifically the development of Linux. What interests me is not whether or not Linux has the potential to be a ubiquitous operating system. Rather, I am fascinated by the open-source method of its development. Thousands of exceptionally bright engineers worked on Linux for the purpose of mutual benefit, as well as all those other attributes that lead to people associating—companionship, self-benefit, common cause, and so forth. It was an association, though it does not fit the organization model now in use. And there are many other examples—Wikipedia for one. And the sharing or piracy—what a different meaning that word has—of music and movies using online networks is another. People are finding one another and organizing around a common interest in ways that do not fit the association model that developed over the last 50 years or so.

Are you saying that associations as they exist today have lost their relevance?

No, but I am saying they need to continue to grow and improve the arts they use to associate. In one chapter in Democracy in America (“Of the Relation Between Public Associations and the Newspapers,” Chapter 6, Book 2), I talk about the importance of newspapers in the organization of associations. Newspapers had the capacity to focus many people on a particular issue around which they organized. As each new technology emerged, people used it in the formation of associations, though it was not necessarily the intent of the inventor. Locomotion made it easier to spread messages from town to town. Telephones made it easier still. Air travel made great collections of like-minded people possible. And, of course, now may be the biggest jump in the art of associating as people join collectively through the power of online collaboration. People will use technology to form associations, whether the establishment of the association management profession embraces it or not.

As you look at America now and if you were to write an addendum to Democracy in America 175 years later, would you still talk about the wondrous proclivity of Americans to associate?

The context now would be very, very different. Economic structure is every bit as important as political structure in the modern world, and the capitalism that emerged from America and Europe is the only economic structure in modernized societies. Associations are much more influential with the political sector than the economic one. In fact, you could argue that their influence over the economic sector is only predominantly achieved by means of inducing the government to influence the economy.

In one sense, capitalism has given rise to a new elite class that has parallels to the structure and power of the aristocratic systems from my day in Europe. A broad spectrum of power is concentrated in the hands of a few. However, unlike the old aristocratic systems, power is not solely concentrated there. Political power is still a potent force, and associations have a lot of influence in that sphere.

Not to mention the huge middle class in America today and all the leisure pursuits that affords. Thousands, maybe millions, of associations, groups, clubs, and community organizations have formed. Include with that the quick emergence of online communities around every possible interest or subject area imaginable, and I’d say America remains a nation of joiners. As I said in Democracy, they were predisposed to be a people who joined with each other. That’s just as true today, and it will be just as true tomorrow.

You mentioned the power associations have to influence the government—with the term “special interest” used with such scorn, how is that influence changing right now?

That is something I have thought quite a bit about. This is true in Western Europe as it is in America: When every issue is a pitched battle with several associations representing millions of people taking opposing views to the issue, it creates a troubling dynamic. Now the need to associate is not so much the need to advocate as it is the need to defend. Both sides claim to have solutions that are better for society. That really is the key. When one side is not advocating a position that is best for society as whole, then they are focusing their efforts in the wrong direction. Rather than influencing policy, they need to look inward and find the right way to collectively use the new reality to their advantage.

So do you think there are too many associations with too many competing interests?

Goodness no. That’s the beauty of having the right to associate. While it is a guaranteed right, it is also a privilege. It should not be taken for granted, but any collection of like-minded people should be allowed to participate in pursuits that benefit or engage the collective.

What is the future of the association management profession?

That is a good question. Forty years ago, I was excited by the increasing professionalism of those who performed the administrative functions for large organizations. When you look at some of the functional areas that make up the modern association, you see the need for this professionalism: organizing large meetings, managing educational opportunities and knowledge resources, serving members, coordinating volunteer activities, governance—these are all important areas that take special skills and talent. One of the things I wonder about is whether this professionalism has gone too far. So many associations are starting to look more and more like businesses serving a consumer niche rather than an organization of like-minded people working toward collective ends. I think the future is one where the administrators of the organization reject this consumerism mentality and go back to finding and working on common purpose.

What does that mean for those who work for associations?

Take membership. The goal of the membership function is to increase the total number of members. It seems that these days that means enticing members to join with whatever shiny, new prize that can be devised. That approach has become tired and turns the power of association on its head. The power of association is that people join because they want to be a part of what the group is doing. That means, first and foremost, that the group must be doing something worthwhile to begin with. If that is so, the modern membership professional’s job is then to build a case for why others should join the group. Build the best case you can, and then offer it. If someone accepts it, then you have successfully added to the richness of the group. However, if your case is rejected, do not build it up again differently. Make your case and move on. That is the way it should be. Humanity is predisposed to seek comfort and redress in groups. Democracy ensures that they are able. As long as political power has any influence over economic power, there will be a need. For more than 200 years, Americans have proven that they will associate, and I am sure that 200 years from now people will still be finding like-minded individuals, so that collectively they can accomplish what they cannot accomplish on their own. 

Scott Briscoe is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. No fortune tellers, spiritual mediators, or witch doctors were injured in the conducting of any interviews for this article.


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