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11 November

To save democracy, Americans need to hang out more

The midterms suggest that Alexis de Tocqueville’s 200-year-old warnings about American individualism have come true.

By Charlotte Kilpatrick

When Alexis de Tocqueville was 25 years old, the French government sent him to America to study the prison system.

What began as a study of jail cells morphed into a nine-month epic road trip that criss-crossed the new country. He mingled with Americans from all walks of life (including President Andrew Jackson) and then wrote one of the best works of political science, Democracy in America.

De Tocqueville was particularly fascinated by what he described as Americans’ “infinite art” at forming associations to solve common problems. In the America of the 1830s, citizens came together to hold village parties, build churches, distribute books and hold bake sales to fix schoolhouse roofs. The associations were the building blocks of a folksy democracy in which Americans would go by horse and carriage to their voting stations on the first Tuesday in November to vote for everything from local sheriff to president of the United States.

Although the Frenchman believed the US was a great example of democracy, he also foresaw ways the country could lose its democratic edge by adopting a rugged sense of individualism that saw everybody competing against one another rather than working for the betterment of society. This would happen if Americans withdrew from their communities and only associated with people like themselves.

Lo and behold, almost 200 years later that’s exactly what has happened.

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Tuesday’s midterm election results are a startling example of the type of estrangement De Tocqueville warned of. Instead of voting for candidates offering solutions, paranoid right-wing voters huddled up to extremists who promised to protect “freedoms” while simultaneously stripping women of their right to bodily autonomy. A survey released in July of this year revealed that almost half of all Americans predict another civil war, and 40 per cent believe having a strong leader is more important than protecting democracy. 

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One of the biggest problems facing modern US democracy is that Americans don’t hang out together anymore. Or if they do, they only hang out with like-minded people. In Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (published in 2000), the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam documented how a combination of ugly urban sprawl, television and working long hours have slowly eroded the social ties that kept the country together. In the two decades before Putnam published his book, the frequency that Americans spent going to bars, nightclubs and taverns dropped by 40-50 per cent, and the number of evenings spent at a neighbour’s house also dropped by one third.

Over the past two decades the social trends that Putman observed have extended to political affiliations. An article published in Nature last year looked at the addresses of 180 million registered voters in the US and found that 98-99 per cent of all Americans live in politically segregated communities. Not only are Americans unlikely to chat with a fellow citizen of a different political persuasion while waiting in line at Starbucks (that is, if said American is lucky enough to live in a place where they can walk to a coffee shop and not have to use a drive-through), but Americans also get their news from different sources. This has resulted in a sizeable portion of the population that believes Joe Biden is not the legitimate president, and another that “a group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring” are trying to control US politics and media.

The individualism that De Tocqueville warned of has become the mantra of the modern Republican Party. In 1986 Ronald Reagan famously said the nine most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help”. This insistence on self-reliance and fear of government is the reason the country can’t come together to form a universal healthcare system, the reason college debt tops $1.6trn for degrees that students in other countries get for free, and the reason American school children are gunned down by military-style assault rifles.

The isolation of libertarian “you do you”-ism is literally killing Americans. If they want to be the democratic beacon for the world, they could start by turning off Fox News and asking their neighbour over for a drink.

[See also: Will America’s Gen Z save the world?]