Tocqueville turns to political associations, an institution that Americans have embraced more than any other people has. The instinctive American suspicion of authority leads citizens to spontaneously join together in groups of any size to defend and promote ideas of public safety, morality, industry, and religion. While Tocqueville compares the right of association to the liberty of the press, he argues that the press has far more authority, since its members express opinions explicitly and exactly, united into one front. In addition, the power of meeting in person leads to the maintenance of bonds and opinions. Finally, such groups may finally decide to unite as a political party—becoming a kind of government within the government.
Having discussed both the limits and the powers of the liberty of the press, Tocqueville turns to the other element in the pair that he’s already signaled. He thinks of political associations as joining people face-to-face in the way that newspapers unite those who share the same opinions and consider the same topics important. He also distinguishes between political associations and political parties, while still showing how one leads to another.
Tocqueville considers the liberty of the press as absolutely necessary in a democracy, but unlimited liberty of association is more dangerous, since it threatens the functioning of the government. That the existence of such a liberty has thus far not damaged America is due to Americans’ longstanding familiarity with the principle, and the way in which it has actually come to work against the tyranny of the majority—since as soon as a party becomes dominant, it pervades all of society, and the opposite party’s only recourse is to establish itself outside this dominance.
Tocqueville will not be altogether consistent on this point throughout Democracy in America. While this is the most suspicion he’ll express about unlimited liberty of association, already he wants to show how this potential threat is mitigated by the specific qualities of American political life precisely because of the other danger— that is, the danger of a tyranny of the majority.
In an aristocracy, Tocqueville argues, the nobles and wealthy are natural associations that check power, while in a democracy it is necessary to construct such associations. People have a natural right to act in common with each other based on their beliefs; nonetheless, Tocqueville argues that in some nations, such a liberty can be taken to excess. Most Europeans, indeed, think of the right of association as a weapon of conflict. In America, however, it’s thought of as a more benign means of peaceful debate and competition. This is because certain European parties are so different from the majority that they can never hope for majority support, but are strong enough to fight it nevertheless, while in America those whose opinions are opposed to the majority are powerless against it. Since differences in opinion are so small, this is not too dangerous in America. In Europe, meanwhile, the freedom of association can lead to a desire to attack the government.
Throughout the book, Tocqueville will continue to insist that even if he finds aristocratic societies to be superior to democratic ones in a number of ways, it’s not realistic to return to the old aristocratic norm. Instead, one ideal aim would be to find artificial constructions that replicate aristocratic ways of acting and doing but in a new, democratic framework. Here, the example he gives is that of associations, which become a constructed equivalent of the “natural” associations present in an aristocracy. He also spends time lingering over the specific ways that the American system avoids the dangers of unchecked liberty of association, dangers that Europe must work to avoid.
Finally, America’s right of universal suffrage means that the minority can never appeal to imaginary support, whereas in Europe, minorities often claim that they have more support than is apparent, since their support base may consist of all the people without a right to vote. Since European associations desire to fight rather than convince, they’re often military in style, exerting tyrannical control over their members—quite unlike the case in America.
If everyone can vote, Tocqueville argues, those in power have a much clearer sense of their actual basis of support—whereas this basis of support remains a question mark in many European countries that limit suffrage. Again, Tocqueville points out certain elements of American democracy that are not replicable elsewhere.