Tocqueville’s Democracy in (Digital) America

by on September 6, 2009 · 2 comments founder Scott Heiferman explains how Meetup is all about “The Pursuit of Community” in the New York Times.

A Meetup is about the simple idea of using the Internet to get people off the Internet. People feel a need to commiserate or get together and talk about what’s important to them. Our biggest categories are moms, small business, health support and fitness.

When we were designing the site, we were wrong about almost everything we thought people would want to use it for. I thought it would be a niche lifestyle venture, perhaps for fan clubs. I had no idea that people would form new types of P.T.A.’s, chambers of commerce or health support groups. And we weren’t thinking that anyone would want to meet about politics, but there are thousands of these Meetups.

People have organized more than 200,000 monthly Meetups in more than 100 countries. There’s nothing more powerful than a community coming together around a purpose. We spend increasingly more time in front of screens. We’re more connected technologically, but we’re less connected physically.

Heiferman’s vision of technology bringing people together in pursuit of shared interests,passions and causes, from the political to the charitable to the trivial, would have delighted Alexis de Tocqueville, whose 1835 classic Democracy in America identified voluntary association as the unique genius of the American character.

Tocqueville concluded that representative democracy had flourished in America, rather than leading to murderous despotism as it had in Tocqueville’s revolutionary France, because, among other things, Americans built a rich civic society interposed between the atomized individual and the state. Rather than suppressing political associations as factions dangerous to the health of the state, Americans embraced political associations (parties and causes), which served as “large free schools, where all the members of the community go to learn the general theory of association.” Americans would apply that art in every other walk of life, from today’s AIDS Walks or PTA meetings to groups of rock climber enthusiasts: “The art of association then becomes… the mother of action, studied and applied by all.” Tocqueville concludes:

When you see the Americans freely and constantly forming associations for the purpose of promoting some political principle, of raising one man to the head of affairs, or of wresting power from another, you have some difficulty in understanding how men so independent do not constantly fall into the abuse of freedom. If, on the other hand, you survey the infinite number of trading companies in operation in the United States, and perceive that the Americans are on every side unceasingly engaged in the execution of important and difficult plans, which the slightest revolution would throw into confusion, you will readily comprehend why people so well employed are by no means tempted to perturb the state or to destroy that public tranquillity by which they all profit. Is it enough to observe these things separately, or should we not discover the hidden tie that connects them? In their political associations the Americans, of all conditions, minds, and ages, daily acquire a general taste for association and grow accustomed to the use of it. There they meet together in large numbers, they converse, they listen to one another, and they are mutually stimulated to all sorts of undertakings. They afterwards transfer to civil life the notions they have thus acquired and make them subservient to a thousand purposes. Thus it is by the enjoyment of a dangerous freedom that the Americans learn the art of rendering the dangers of freedom less formidable.

Thus does the First Amendment protect not just speech, religion and lobbying, but also the “right of the people peaceably to assemble”: Not just because the right of assembly is key to democracy but because it allows us to unite in “Pursuit of Community.”

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