All news

Tocqueville in the 21st Century - Challenges for Democracy in America: Effective Governance, Equality, Multiculturalism, and Civic Engagement

Association of Americans for Civic Responsibility

7th Annual Roundtable Conference

May 5, 2010

Tocqueville in the 21st Century - Challenges for Democracy in America:

Effective Governance, Equality, Multiculturalism, and Civic Engagement

Final Report

The Association of Americans for Civic Responsibility (AACR) held its Seventh Annual Roundtable Conference at Syracuse University's Maxwell SchoolCampus in Washington, DC on Wednesday, May 5, 2010. The theme of the conference was "Tocqueville in 21st Century: Challenges for Democracy in America" with a focus on four discussion topics - Effective Governance, Equality, Multiculturalism, and Civic Engagement.

In his opening remarks, Dr. Joy Cherian, founder and president of AACR, emphasized the importance of civic responsibility in our lives and how itshould be a core value in a civil society worthy of a noble pursuit during the 21st century.

Conference co-chairs professor Michael Schneider of the Maxwell School and Mr. Chad Tragakis of Hill & Knowlton welcomed the participants to theroundtable conference and briefed them on how AACR is playing an important role in cooperation with the Maxwell School and Hill & Knowlton, aleading global public relations firm, in spreading awareness about individual and institutional civic responsibilities through publications and specialevents.

For its 7th annual roundtable discussion, the AACR brought together a group of distinguished scholars, experts and civic leaders who explored themeaning of Alexis de Tocqueville's seminal analysis of Democracy in America in terms of four significant challenges confronting the nation inthe 21st century. Tocqueville was an aristocratic Frenchman who studied philosophy and law in France before traveling to America under the pretext ofwanting to study prison reforms in the country. His visit led to the first (1835) and later second (1840) volume of his most well known book titled Democracy in America, a two-volume study of the American people and their political institutions.

Consensus emerged easily among AACR's roundtable participants that Tocqueville was both perceptive and visionary in highlighting several elements ofthe emerging federal society conducive to democratic governance: a mobile, egalitarian society, distrustful of remote government, relying on a mix ofindividual initiative and responsibility and also highly committed to volunteerism. The diverse mix (for that period) of ethnic groups and religionsled naturally to both a great deal of religiosity and opposition to any official state-sponsored religion.

However - and Tocqueville might have shown remarkable foresight - these qualities created the grounds for challenges to social and political coherencethat have emerged at different times in the evolution of the nation. This is apparent, according to the views expressed in the May 5 forum by ourexperts and the ensuing conversation.

In this decennial year of the national census a great deal will be revealed about demographic trends that will affect many aspects of our national lifefrom Congressional representation to formula for the allocation of federal funds for national needs.

The four speakers identified tensions, sources of conflict and dissent with regard to the four challenges to contemporary democracy in America. Indifferent ways each dealt with myths, images and interests that cast doubt on America's flexibility and capacity to respond effectively tocontemporary challenges. Yet each identified sources of hope and expressed confidence in future constructive forward movement.


Panel 1 - Effective Governance- Thomas E. Mann, the W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow in Governance Studies, the Brookings Institution

Calling Tocqueville one of the "grand individuals in the history of American democracy," Thomas Mann decried today's "dysfunctional governance," andcalled for efforts to restore the will to build consensus. Our national governing institutions, particularly the U.S. Congress, have lost theflexibility needed for compromise, so essential for our future. Governance problems abound: distrust in government and central institutions, economiccollapse, dangerous resentments. These are reflected in the Tea Party movement, a large inchoate collection of some decent citizens as well as otherswith nativist fears. A churning challenge to the political system is the ideological polarization reminiscent of the 1960s counterculture, pulling thepolitical parties away from the center. The party system character is altered. Mann noted similar periods of polarization.

Dr. Mann also mentioned an important report of the American Political Science Association in 1950,"Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System" that merits revisiting .

See also:

The bibliography of studies over the 50-year period commemorated by the 2000 APSA meeting that reviewed the original "Responsible Parties"report and more contemporary thought about political parties and effective governance:

Dr. Mann questioned today's party divisions so intense that each views the other as disloyal. He attributed some of the "hyper-partisanship" to theclose balance of parties nationally. The stakes are higher and politics have taken on the characteristics of the "permanent campaign." Communicationinstitutions and the media have also let down the country as political activists, especially talk radio hosts, reinforce extremism and distrust ratherthan encourage civic engagement. Congress is the perfect example of the declining quality of deliberation and the ability to compromise and engage. Heexplained the decline in Congressional civility and the resulting "banality of public debate" as an inability to wrestle with complex problems.

Yet, to cite the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Dr. Mann argued "everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts." In thepost-modern world in which facts are disputed, in the "echo-chamber of American politics" we see the intersection of political process withextraordinary problems ranging from the economy to energy.

The national response to this litany of political ills can be simple, according to Dr. Mann, to adopt a new attitude and culture of "yes, we can, andhave!" We should be more confident of our ability as a nation to respond to challenges creatively. The fact is, the past year has been the mostlegislatively productive start to an administration since FDR. Dr. Mann recommended that participants readPresident Obama's University of Michigan speech. One of the current challenges is how to maintain democracy and civic engagement in these partisan times. He noted the retaliatory politicalstrategy of those in and out of power, and the constant parliamentary opposition that necessitate a super-majority for any policy progress. Thus weneed to think creatively and restore the underpinnings of civil society that Tocqueville taught us.

Dr. Mann also recommended historian Gordon Wood's major book The Radicalism of the American Revolution as a source of important ideas on the social as well aspolitical changes wrought by the revolution and substantive formative decisions in shaping the nation.

Panel II - Equality in America -Christian Dorsey, Director of External and Government Affairs, Economic Policy Institute

Christian Dorsey argued that while much progress has occurred, many inequalities remain and challenge the integrity of American society. "We're noteven close" to being a "post-racial society," and to achieving equality for women and African Americans in the workforce, he contended. Women comprise50+ percent of the workforce but receive only 80 percent of the pay received by men. African Americans face recession level unemployment during goodtimes and depression levels in the current recession. Dr. Dorsey displayed a number of charts demonstrating the many aspects of economic disparitiesin the distribution of opportunities and wealth in contemporary America. He particularly focused on the growing income gap: While in 1980, the CEO ofan average large company earned ten times more than a regular employee, in 2000, the gap increased to an incredible 530 times a regular employee'swage. Similar disparities exist in schools and housing, further exacerbating the gap in wealth. The cycle continues of poor housing and schooling,fewer work opportunities and less achievement, dimming future prospects.

For starters, the U.S. desperately needs to increase the minimum wage, Dr. Dorsey contended. He called for other initiatives in varied fields to leadto full employment, not just to slow inflation. American society ought to have greater faith that government can help solve our social and economicproblems.

In answer to several questions, Dr. Dorsey said:

  • Money has too much influence in politics and policy.

  • Peer pressure is needed regarding over-consumption stimulated by the media.

  • The criminal justice system needs to reduce and eliminate built-in biases in sentencing against minority groups. We should not consider unpatriotic calls for civil treatment of criminals and the accused.

  • While it is all well and good to criticize unions for undue influence, they need negotiating partners, and in terms of international competition, it is important to seek ways to improve labor conditions abroad, rather than blame American unions for competitive disadvantage.

  • We pay a price as a nation for the high disparities in income.

Panel III - Multiculturalism -Marc R. Rosenblum, Senior Policy Analyst, Migration Policy Institute

Marc Rosenblum noted four major waves of immigration to the U.S.: the colonial and early federal period; the mid-nineteenth century; the late 19th andearly 20th century; and since the mid-1960s.

The Colonial Wave brought largely Western and Northern Europeans, and English to the U.S., but overlooked was that some 70 percent of the newcomerswere slaves from Africa. Even a significant number of Europeans came as indentured workers.

The Mid-Century Wave, brought Germans who escaped religious and political conflict, and a large number of Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine.

The late 19th - early 20th Century Wave involved large numbers of Central and Eastern Europeans, fleeing political unrest, civil violence, economicdeprivation and growing ethnic tensions.

The post-World War II wave has brought a far broader variety of immigrants, especially from Latin America and Asia.

Dr. Rosenblum noted "competing mythologies" of the U.S. as a source of political asylum of freedom for oppressed Europeans (Thomas Paine) as a model ofopenness, religious tolerance and multiculturalism (Pennsylvania) but also a place for religious purity that did not smile on diversity of practice(Massachusetts.) For a long period Congressional legislation did not constrict immigration. It was not until during the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804)that Congress increased from five to 14 years the requirements for residence and good behavior to qualify for citizenship and gave the President theauthority to deport individuals without appeal.

In the second wave, the concept of a "nation of nations" as a social myth contrasted with the parallel rise of the anti-Catholic, anti-Irish"Know-Nothings" movement. Business needed inexpensive labor, however, and Congress approved legislation allowing business to pay for workers' travel.Notable also was the Burlingame Treaty with China, to provide large numbers of workers whoplayed an important part in building the transcontinental railroad.

In wave three, powerful competing concepts involved the push-pull of poverty/political oppression with economic opportunity and ideas of perfectabilityand the Americanization movement. Increasingly English was seen as a key to becoming American. Between 1875 and 1907 five significant laws imposedadditional qualitative restrictions on who could come to the U.S., yet immigrants increased until World War I. In 1917 Congress approved and thePresident signed legislation requiring a literacy test. Between 1921 and 1924 quotas set numerical limits by prior family and demographic presence inthe U.S. Immigration decreased by 85 percent in the 1920s and 1930s reaching a low point in World War II and thereafter, limited by race and ethnicity.

The fourth wave after World War II reveals that we remain all the more a nation of immigrants, despite anti-communist fears that were alsoanti-immigrant. Legislation in the early 1950s retained race and national origin restrictions. The turning point in the current wave occurred in 1965with the dropping of the national origin system that led to increased numbers and greater diversity.

Dr. Rosenblum made several observations about migration patterns and the American response:

  • Current immigrants always are seen as "different."

  • Yet there is often a political backlash against restrictions leading to an effort to organize against opposition to immigrants.

  • Immigrants invariably assimilate over time.

  • Among the institutions that assisted assimilation traditionally were political machines in urban areas.

  • There has generally been a tension between socio-cultural outlook on immigration and economic competition of immigrants with people already established. This varies with business cycles. Nativism is intense and cyclical also.

  • International tipping points - wars and refugee movements, also play a significant part in the promotion of demographic shifts that interact with domestic tensions or opportunities in receiving countries.

  • The Hispanic population of the U.S. has doubled every decade since the 1960s. Just as in earlier waves, Hispanic immigrants are learning English and catching up with others in language skills, but not yet in income.

Dr. Rosenblum reviewed briefly some of the controversy surrounding the thesis set out by Samuel Huntington in his article and bookWho Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity, that the current wave is different from prior generations - learning English less well, less inclined to integrate into American society, with moresevere cultural differences. There might be, at least for the present period, fewer economic opportunities and less upward mobility.

Immigration and immigrants will be key aspects of political debate in several states, particular four border states, he added. While increasinglymobilized, Hispanic immigrants are not yet as politically influential as they will be.

Asked what Tocqueville would say today about immigrants and multiculturalism in America, Rosenblum conjectured that Tocqueville would note that,contrary to contemporary myth, immigrants pay more in taxes than credited; their work creates work for all the services they consume and thatAmericans' wages increase as a result of immigrants' presence and work.

Panel IV - Civic Engagement - David M. Anderson, Ph.D., Senior Vice President, State and Congressional Relations, the Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars

David Anderson focused on the impact of the current technological revolution on civic engagement. He noted that Tocqueville feared extremeindividualism and sought the remedies of civil society and compromise. A major question today is whether the Internet [the digital revolution] isconducive to polarization or community formation, whether individualism or social responsibility is furthered by the Web. What is happening tointermediaries, special interests and small communities in the U.S. as a result of the communication revolution? Dr. Anderson sees digital technologyas value neutral. The Worldwide Web is inherently democratic but also can be used for terrorism or to splinter social coherence. He pointed to a studyof information technology entitled "Digital Prosperity" by Robert Atkinson.

Dr. Anderson also observed:

  • There are signs in politics that the Web is helping innovation.

  • The number of Americans engaged with social networking sites is increasing dramatically.

  • The 2008 campaign has just begun to show the impact of technology in political mobilization. Social networking sites and Web videos, IT recruitment, management and training of volunteers and staff, new approaches to advertising, "micro-volunteering," and changing cell phone technology, all indicate trends in communication that are only beginning. These had a decided attraction for younger voters.

Venturing into the realm of language and meaning, Dr. Anderson expressed the view that, as important as the transfer of information through theInternet is in so many walks of life, the new communication technologies are all the more important for their effect on feelings; states of being areimportantly central. The creation of relationships is a central feature of the new technologies.

The Conference was hosted by Syracuse University and Sponsored by Hill & Knowlton.

This report was prepared by Ms. Pavlina Majorosova, Mr. Chad Tragakis and Dr. Michael D. Schneider

Facebook Twitter DZone It! Digg It! StumbleUpon Technorati NewsVine Reddit Blinklist Add diigo bookmark