The results have been catastrophic. As the procedures that once conferred legitimacy on organizations have grown alien to many Americans, contempt for democratic institutions has risen. In 2016, a presidential candidate who scorned established norms rode that contempt to the Republican nomination, drawing his core support from Americans who seldom participate in the rituals of democracy.
American government’s most obvious problems—from its dysfunctional legislature to Donald Trump himself—are merely signs of this underlying decay. The political system’s previous strength and resilience flowed from Americans’ anomalously high rates of participation in democratically governed organizations, most of them apolitical. There is no easy fix for our current predicament; simply voting Trump out of office won’t suffice. To stop the rot afflicting American government, Americans are going to have to get back in the habit of democracy.
In the early years of the United States, Europeans made pilgrimages to the young republic to study its success. How could such a diverse and sprawling nation flourish under a system of government that originated in small, homogeneous city-states?
One after another, they seized upon the most unfamiliar aspect of American culture: its obsession with associations. To almost every challenge in their lives, Americans applied a common solution. They voluntarily bound themselves together, adopting written rules, electing officers, and making decisions by majority vote. This way of life started early. “Children in their games are wont to submit to rules which they have themselves established, and to punish misdemeanors which they have themselves defined,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America. “The same spirit pervades every act of social life.”