Democracy in America and the Importance of Association

Two centuries ago the untamed continent offered democracy an opportunity. It was the opportunity to work out its own adjustment with nature. That adjustment consists of two large processes, — the exploitation of natural resources and the coordination of industrial and civil affairs. The blending of these processes is the true secret of the development of democracy. It is the only way to ensure that democracy will not be a blind whim of the moment, but will endure for generations.

The first duty imposed upon those who direct the affairs of a democracy is to educate it; to warm its faith, if possible; to purify its morals; and to guide its energies. This will require a new science of politics. The old science has not been able to do the job.

To do this, it is necessary to substitute a knowledge of business for its inexperience, and a familiarity with its true interests for its blind propensities. Only then will the democracy be able to make a rational choice, and to abide by it.

In the meanwhile there must be some rude adjustments in politics. Forests must be cleared, mines worked, fields plowed, and things made. These are the material conditions which compel a democratic people to organize themselves into associations and take a share in the governance of their country. The democrat must be prepared to suffer the inconveniences of association and of a divided society for the sake of its future.

Associations are the very life of a democratic people. It is impossible to understand how the Americans are able to accomplish so many great enterprises without a general association. There is no one undertaking so small that the Americans will not unite for it. The English may do much in isolation; the Americans cannot.

The associational form of society is a peculiar feature of American democracy and it is a source of the peculiar susceptibility of the nation to democratic erosion. This erosion has been manifested most recently by President Trump’s efforts to subvert the 2020 election and his continuing attacks on the independence of the civil service. At the same time, state legislatures have enacted laws to restrict voters’ access to the ballot, politicize election administration, and foreclose electoral competition through extreme gerrymandering. Hyperpartisanship and gridlock in Congress make it difficult to provide unbiased oversight of the executive and judicial branches.

Despite these challenges, there are some hopeful signs. For example, some who engaged in the 2020 election subversion effort have been investigated and prosecuted; this bodes well for democracy in the United States. However, so long as a major political party remains unwilling to accept legitimate electoral defeat, the United States will remain susceptible to democratic backsliding. For more information about purchasing a copy of the book—from bookstores or here online—click here. The article is also available in ebook and etext editions from Project Gutenberg. The text of this essay is copyright 1923 by Samuel L. Greene and is licensed through Project Gutenberg.