Democracy in America

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Capitalism and the pursuit of individual wealth are seen as hallmarks of contemporary American culture. Indeed, de Tocqueville remarks upon this in Democracy in America. However, ideas about profit, corporations, capitalism, and the individual have all shifted radically in the past 200 years. Drawing on the sources you have read, the film Roger and Me, and class lectures, discuss changing ideas about individuality and corporations in American culture and how contemporary ideas are both different and similar to those that de Tocqueville witnessed in the 1830s.

..nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of condition among the people … it creates opinions, gives birth to new sentiments, founds novel customs, and modifies whatever it does not produce… It has there been able to spread in perfect freedom and peaceably to determine the character of the laws by influencing the manners of the country. (de Tocqueville, 1988:Introduction) When Tocqueville visited … it was the Americans' propensity for civic association that most impressed him as the key to their unprecedented ability to make democracy work… There is striking evidence, however, that the vibrancy of American civil society has notably declined over the past several decades (Putnam 1995:65-66) … The most whimsical yet discomfiting bit of evidence of social disengagement in contemporary America that I have discovered is this: more Americans are bowling today than ever before, but bowling in organized leagues has plummeted in the last decade or so. Between 1980 and 1993 the total number of bowlers in America increased by 10 percent, while league bowling decreased by 40 percent. (Putnam, 1995:70)

On the surface, Robert Putnam’s example of ‘bowling alone’ has little to do with the ‘vibrancy of civil society.’ However, he goes on to point out that nearly a third more Americans bowled in 1993 than voted in the 1994 congressional elections. Bowling is more popular than voting. Surveys by the Roper Organization and the U.S. Labor Department as well as the General Social Survey demonstrate a marked decline in traditional civic associations such as unions, the PTA and the Lions and Elks over the past two and one half decades. (Putnam 1995:66-70) The contradiction between this civic disengagement and Tocqueville’s observations of 160 years ago helps to highlight the myths and generalizations about individual freedom, profit, and capitalism put forth both by scholars and by Americans themselves. In the discussion that follows, I hope to shed light on some of these assumptions and meanings.

When de Tocqueville traveled to the United States in 1831, it took 37 days to cross the ocean. There were no satellite communications, no television, telephone or even telegraph. Consensus on political issues was reached after time consuming discussion carried on with difficulty over great distances. African Americans were enslaved. North America was largely unpopulated. To be sure, radical changes were already taking place. In Virginia, Nat Turner led his slave revolt that August. President Jackson was championing the common man, and native Americans were forcibly migrated from eastern states into western territories.

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