The Lost Art of Association

America is a nation of joiners. When the French aristocrat and political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in the early 1830s, he was astonished at all the ways Americans associated. He wrote, “Of all countries in the world, America has taken greatest advantage of association and has applied this powerful means of action to the greatest variety of objectives.”

The American art of association was so extraordinary to Tocqueville because Europe had long relied upon either the aristocracy—persons of wealth and prestige who headed their own estates—or the government to do the sorts of things that Americans did through associations. Tocqueville writes, “Wherever, at the head of a new undertaking, you see in France the government, and in England, a great lord, count on seeing in the United States, an association.” Americans had no aristocrats, nor did we want them, nor—and this is important—did we need them. And we didn’t seem to need the government, either.

In America, Tocqueville saw that ordinary people on their own initiative got together to solve problems and to pursue shared goals. Americans do this, Tocqueville noted, for problems large and small, for ends banal and exalted. He wrote:

Americans of all ages, of all conditions, of all minds, constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which they all take part, but also they have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, intellectual, serious ones, useless ones, very general and very particular ones, immense and very small ones; Americans associate to celebrate holidays, establish seminaries, build inns, erect churches, distribute books, send missionaries to the Antipodes; in this way they create hospitals, prisons, schools. If, finally, it is a matter of bringing a truth to light or of developing a sentiment with the support of a good example, they associate.

From a political perspective, why do associations matter?

Associations matter because they are quite literally self-government. By forming associations, Americans are creating their own means of governing themselves around various objectives. Citizens like the ones Tocqueville saw associating to form schools do so because they see themselves as responsible for the education of children in their community. Citizens associating in political parties do so because they believe that they should decide which candidates should run for election and what their general policies should be. Citizens associating to build churches do so because they believe themselves responsible for their own religious worship.

This practice of self-government goes back to the beginning of American public life. In 1620, Pilgrims formed the Mayflower Compact, an agreement among those in the nascent colony to govern themselves. Similar constitutional forms took place in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and elsewhere in the English colonies. By the time 1787 rolled around, American had more than a century and a half of practice in self-government.

But Tocqueville’s point is that Americans don’t just engage in this form of self-government when it comes to their political lives, drawing up colonial charters and then state constitutions and, finally, a national constitution. Americans do this in their social lives as well. Ordinary citizens associate for all sorts of reasons to solve various problems. And this has deep political significance.

Association and the Constitution

The First Amendment to the Constitution doesn’t mention association, but it does protect the right “peaceably to assemble.” One of America’s finest First Amendment scholars, John Inazu, argues that this right of assembly protected political dissenters like the Democratic-Republicans in the 1790s, the abolitionists in the early nineteenth century, and suffragettes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Inazu also notes that the right of assembly is fundamentally relational. By definition, one practices the right of assembly only in association with others.

When the First Congress was debating the Assembly Clause, one objection raised was that the provision was superfluous, so obvious it was unworthy of inclusion in a Bill of Rights. How could one worship, speak, engage a free press, or petition the government without assembling with others? The right of assembly was a redundancy in the text.

Congressman John Page of Virginia responded by saying that the right of assembly is “no more essential than whether a man has a right to wear his hat or not, but let me observe to him that such rights have been opposed.” This was a veiled reference to the founder of my home state of Pennsylvania. In 1670, William Penn had been arrested in England for unlawful assembly when he tried to worship with his fellow Quakers. He refused to remove his hat at the trial, showing that he thought it an illegitimate infringement upon his rights. The point was that important rights like religious liberty and free speech could be undermined if people were not protected in the right “peaceably to assemble,” to associate with others for their common purposes. The simple image of Penn’s arrest was worth a thousand words, and the Assembly Clause was saved.

Unfortunately, there is reason to worry that Americans’ right of association as well as our practice of association are in decline. These trends are probably related. Given the importance of association to self-government and its long history of practice and protection in America, these developments are disconcerting. However, if we can understand the reasons behind the decline, perhaps we can reverse the trend.

Tyranny of the Majority and the Decline of Associations

The potential for those in power to oppress those without power is present in any form of government. In a monarchy, one must worry about a tyrannical king. In an aristocracy, he must worry about oppressive aristocrats. In a democracy, the people rule, or more precisely, the majority rules. Well, Tocqueville noted, a democratic form of government was not in itself an antidote to oppression. A great danger in democracies is that the majority will oppress minorities. But, he notes, one of the great securities against this danger is the freedom of association. If individuals in the minority are free to form associations, they can pursue their interests and solve their own problems by strengthening one another’s will to action, no matter what the majority might think of them.

This principle has played out repeatedly in American history. The abolitionist movement made great use of the right of association to host conventions and exercise other constitutional freedoms, like free speech and free press, to convince fellow Americans of the rightness of its cause. The labor movement made powerful use of associational rights. In fact, the Supreme Court famously enforced the First Amendment right of assembly in a landmark case to vindicate a labor union. The Supreme Court repeatedly upheld the associational rights of the NAACP to work to end segregation.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has described the right of association as the right of “expressive association,” reducing freedom of association to an aspect of the freedom of speech. As essential as free speech is to American liberty, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are, as Professor Inazu notes, separate rights. Look again at the quote above from Tocqueville. Many of the examples that Tocqueville gives of associations are peaceable, but they are not expressive and they fall outside of the Supreme Court’s definition of “expressive association.” That doesn’t mean, though, that these associations aren’t important, and it shouldn’t mean that they aren’t protected under the First Amendment right of assembly. Our associations remain essential to our self-government.

Furthermore, it is precisely around these seemingly insignificant activities that, among other things, lifelong friendships are made, that a social safety net is formed, and that human beings become socially integrated into the world around them. Perhaps even more disturbing than the misunderstanding of the right of association is the decline of Americans’ practice of the art of association.

Harvard professor Robert Putnam noted despondently twenty years ago that Americans were increasingly “bowling alone”—forsaking the associations that give life meaning and that attach us to others. Where we once participated in multiple social groups, we now go through life alone. We have essentially abandoned our associational practices and, in the process, we have seen our associational rights decline as well. Where we once turned to our associations, now, like Tocqueville’s French, we turn to the government. As Howard Husock has argued, this has undermined the norms of responsibility that bolster a healthy society.

State and Community

Why has this happened, and why does it matter? American sociologist Robert Nisbet argued in his classic book The Quest for Community that the modern state has caused a decline in associations by taking on the functions of various groups. Instead of a local community fixing the pothole, the state does it. Instead of parents getting together to create a school for their children, the state does it. Instead of religious organizations caring for the poor, the state does it.

What’s the difference between receiving money from a government program or from a private charity? From one perspective, nothing. The public welfare system may just as easily provide the services we need without requiring us to organize them ourselves.

But from another vantage point, government cooptation of such functions does real harm, by making our associational ties superfluous. Sure, we might have a few friends, but we don’t need them. And if we don’t need them, if they don’t serve a significant function in our lives, we may neglect these relationships, which are so important to our happiness and wellbeing. We lose the concrete social networks that help us to advance socially and economically. Chatting with a neighbor while we work on a communal project, we find out about a reliable and affordable mechanic. Talking with a fellow parishioner over coffee at church, we are introduced to someone who needs our professional services. J. D. Vance notes that the real advantage of the upper class is not its wealth per se, but its networks—the people in its web of connections who can help professionally and personally.

The psychological and social significance of associations is related directly to the functions that these associations perform for us. If they fail to perform these functions, many people withdraw from them. This social withdrawal is what Nisbet called “alienation.” People feel excluded from the social order and they lose interest in being a part of it.

Getting together with neighbors to fix potholes, to found schools and build churches and to care for the underprivileged, binds people together. These associations lead to a deep sense of community. Timothy Carney has argued that the loss of this sense of community has led to a significant increase in deaths of despair and poverty.

What Can We Do?

A good place to start in reversing these trends is changing our own attitudes. Before you think of yourself as a member of political society, think of yourself as a member of your social groups, of your family, of your neighborhood, of your school. Devote yourself to those places and to the people in them. Second, when conflict arises between these associations and the state, let your prejudice be for the association, whether you are a part of it or not. Associations can be dreadfully wrong at times, true—but so can the state, and the state has much more power. Third, insist that our judiciary and our legislatures do better in treating our right “peaceably to assemble”—to form the associations that Tocqueville saw as so important to American self-government and individual well-being.

Our associations matter. Let’s act like they do.

This article originally appeared in RealClearPublicAffairs.

About Luke C. Sheahan

Luke C. Sheahan is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Duquesne University and a Non-Resident Scholar in the Program for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society at the University of Pennsylvania. He is author of Why Associations Matter: The Case for First Amendment Pluralism (2020).

Photo: Bouillante/Getty Images

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