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June 4, 2010

the old order passes

When Tocqueville visited America in the 1830s, civil society was predominantly composed of local, voluntary groups. They held regular face-to-face meetings. Their most important means for distributing information and opinions were newspapers (which were carried by the US Mail). Associations needed newspapers to communicate and they arose in response to the news. Thus, Tocqueville wrote, "There is a necessary connection between public associations and newspapers: newspapers make associations and associations make newspapers."

Tocqueville's civic ecosystem evolved but remained fundamentally similar for more than a century. It is now in steep decline, as shown by these trends:

(GSS is General Social Survey. DDB is DDB Needham Life Style Survey. Analysis by the author.)

The correlation between the trends in newspaper readership and attendance at face-to-face meetings is especially striking. The reason to be concerned by this graph is a core commitment to public deliberation, which has traditionally occurred within associations, at meetings, informed by newspapers.

But we should not mourn the passing of 19th- and 20th-century associations and media. We should organize. We can rebuild the public sphere from new building blocks, as our predecessors have done several times in the American past. The new materials include digital technologies and networks, as well as new forms of face-to-face association.

June 4, 2010 8:49 AM | category: none



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