Tocqueville notes that he’s already discussed political associations, but will now turn to civic associations that aren’t pure political. Americans love to create any kind of association—religious, moral, commercial, and so on. Any opinion or undertaking that arises will inevitably have its own society attached to it. Tocqueville admires this skill in promoting voluntary associations for the smallest purpose. He asks whether there may be a necessary connection between the principle of association and that of equality.
While Tocqueville tends to repeat himself—he has already mentioned the distinction to be made between political and civil associations, and Americans’ embrace of both—such repetition only serves to underline Tocqueville’s argument about the way American political conditions pervade and influence all aspects of society.
Tocqueville notes that aristocracies always include a small number of powerful people who are able to undertake significant pursuits alone—and who don’t need to join with others in order to do so. But in democracies, individual citizens are weak when acting alone: they need to join together in pursuit of a common aim to have any hope of succeeding. The difficulty is that their number needs to be great in order to have any power at all. While other Frenchmen might respond that the government should just be more active, Tocqueville argues that this is impracticable outside of purely political affairs.
Tocqueville has already devoted a number of chapters to describing the power of American individualism; here, though, his emphasis is on the fact that individuals in a democracy are actually weak in the sense of their incapacity to exert significant influence in society. As usual, Tocqueville distinguishes himself from a number of his contemporaries in terms of his preference for decentralization.
Tocqueville recalls hearing that 100,000 Americans had banded together to abstain from drinking alcohol—he thought it was a joke at first, and didn’t see why they felt the need to make a society out of this private choice. But he argues that the French need to attend to these moral and intellectual associations precisely because they seem so foreign—American progress is largely due to their prevalence.
Ultimately, the association that Tocqueville initially considered to be a joke would grow so powerful that alcohol would in fact be banned in the United States, though not until 1920 (the era of Prohibition). Such associations are a model that, he thinks, France should consider replicating.