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In the Spirit of Tocqueville

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In the Spirit of Tocqueville

American civil society steps up to the challenge of Covid-19. April 7, 2020
Covid-19
The Social Order

The most remarkable thing about the arrival of the Samaritans Purse disaster-relief organization in Central Park is that it is not seen as remarkable. A nondenominational Christian group led by the Reverend Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son, Samaritans Purse set up a field hospital of tents to treat Covid-19 patients overflowing from nearby Mount Sinai Hospital, which itself started as a Jewish communal institution and still makes special accommodations for the Orthodox.

We should not be surprised that Samaritans Purse exists and was poised to spring into action, or by the fact that a hospital with different religious roots would be open to working with it. American civil society, diverse and self-organized, still responds to need.

Such major initiatives are complemented by everyday occurrences of a more modest scale. New York City restaurants get together to donate surplus food to overwhelmed food banks. A 20-year-old Yale junior, Liam Elkin, and a friend, Simone Policano, have started a group called Invisible Friends. Its 1,300 volunteers have delivered groceries and medicines to the doorsteps of the elderly, some referred by the synagogue of which both young and old are members. Nationwide, the Next Door app provides a platform for neighborhood groups and residents to provide similar help.

Such initiatives reflect the capacity and habit of Americans to start and sustain local organizations outside government. Alexis de Tocqueville observed this American habit long ago in Democracy in America. The French aristocrat described what he called America’s “spirit of association.”

“When citizens can associate only in certain cases, they regard association as a rare and singular process, and they hardly think of it,” he wrote. “When you allow them to associate freely in everything, they end up seeing in association the universal and, so to speak, unique means that men can use to attain the various ends that they propose. Each new need immediately awakens the idea of association. The art of association then becomes . . . the mother science; everyone studies it and applies.” Free association is what, among other things, distinguishes America from China, where independent churches, the Falun Gong, and other groups not sanctioned by government face repression. Americans rise to the occasion of Covid-19 today because they routinely rise to less critical occasions, and they are encouraged to do so—by tradition and custom, and even by the tax code. America not only nurtures civil society but also retains what has been called our civil religion: a common set of American values that transcend denominational (and political) divides.

Tocqueville praised the self-governing character of American communities, which provide a framework not only for governors and mayors to step up and lead but also for residents to work together and create their own initiatives. The large contributions that major corporations have made to combat the coronavirus—195,000 masks donated by Goldman Sachs, JetBlue’s free flights for medical workers, the Four Seasons luxury hotel’s donation of lodging to nurses and doctors—reflect this old story: American self-organization.

We often hear that the Covid-19 crisis is a test of democracy. Some even suggest that authoritarian China may wind up handling it better. That’s a strange conclusion to reach, though, considering that it was China—where local communities cower before Beijing, and where private association is barred—that loosed the monster in the first place.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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