In a previous article I discussed the danger that Alexis de Tocqueville thought the type of individualism that inclines men to withdraw into their own private concerns posed to American democracy. The article was incomplete because it did not mention the solutions Tocqueville proposed for this problem. This article should remedy that omission.
Although the inclination toward individualism is inevitable in democracies, Tocqueville thinks that Americans can fight this tendency through free institutions. A free institution is any voluntary association of citizens working toward the common good. These institutions can combat despotism, but only if they perceive that their actions can make a tangible difference.
This is made possible through administrative decentralization which keeps public affairs within the reach of American citizens. Tocqueville praised American legislators for ordering the republic so that local affairs were left up to local communities, which encourages citizens to become involved in these affairs: “Only with difficulty does one draw a man out of himself to interest him in the destiny of the whole state…But should it be necessary to pass a road through his property…he will discover, without anyone’s showing it to him, the tight bond that here unites a particular interest to the general interest” (487).
In order to combat individualism, the affairs of local government must be handled at a level where citizens can realistically expect to influence the decisions that directly affect their lives. If the administration of government becomes so centralized that no citizen can influence policy on a local level individualism will greatly increase.
Americans can successfully fight individualism by uniting to solve problems “Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite…Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States” (489).
These associations are more necessary in democracies than in aristocracies because aristocracies are filled with powerful citizens who can influence affairs on their own and have no need of associations. Democratic citizens, however, have much less power individually and must unite into associations in order to have an effect.
Tocqueville praised these associations for producing good and necessary sentiments in the American people, saying that in associations “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” (491). Since democracies naturally incline men toward individualism they must have associations to produce this effect.
In modern America, one of the best things citizens can do to preserve a healthy republic is support and maintain local communities and their local institutions. One way to do this is to spend money at local businesses instead of national chains whenever possible because, if they are well-run, these stores can generate the same spirit that local political associations do.
For example, Buffalo Wild Wings serves the same beer in Michigan as they would serve in Florida or California. Local restaurants, however, proudly advertise that they serve locally-brewed beer. This local beer might not be objectively better than the other beer, but it is beneficial to American democracy for citizens to eat at local restaurants and drink local beer.
Consuming local products teaches citizens to think of themselves as members of a specific, local community. They will begin to take pride in products made in their community and, regardless of the actual quality of these products, will begin to regard them as better than national chain products. Once citizens are habituated to thinking of themselves as members of a local community they will be more likely to take an interest in the affairs of that community and become involved in local free associations. Therefore, whenever possible citizens should spend money at local businesses, rather than national chains.