Tocqueville hypothesizes that there’s a link in democratic countries between the preponderance of political associations and civil associations: he suggests that this is because when people have a commercial or moral interest in common and join together for a common aim, they learn how to direct complex affairs in a way that’s replicable in political life (and vice versa). Political associations may seem less risky than, for instance, a manufacturing association, which requires people to invest their own money; but political groups teach people to surrender their will to that of others. In turn, to destroy the right of political association, such that people may only meet for certain purposes, makes it less likely that people will be eager to meet at all. He argues that a nation that prohibits political associations will always have only few and weak civil associations.
Because Tocqueville is rarely eager to give specific, concrete examples, it’s not always obvious what exactly distinguishes political associations from civil associations, especially because he describes newspapers, for instance, as both. Still, while he characterizes civil associations as having an aim other than that of participating in parties and elections, he also emphasizes that there is more continuity than difference between the political and civil spheres, in that both contribute to something he prizes—the involvement of citizens in their society.
Tocqueville reiterates his claim, in the first part of his book, that unrestrained liberty of political association is dangerous: here he qualifies that by saying that complete political freedom should be the goal, but until people learn how to manage such freedom, political associations may well be limited, even if this comes at a price.
Although Tocqueville identifies himself as a partisan of liberty (often over and above equality), he also continues to warn that freedom is difficult and even dangerous, and therefore needs to be learned or given out gradually.