Brianne Wolf is Assistant Professor of Political Theory at James Madison College at Michigan State University.
The issue of guns in America is often discussed as essential to freedom in a liberal society. On the one side of the issue, the freedom relates to the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms against a tyrannical sovereign. On the other side of the debate, the concern is banning or limiting gun rights to ensure freedom from fear and violence. A part of the conversation being missed by all is the role of gun violence in the erosion of civil society, another essential component of freedom in a liberal society.
Alexis de Tocqueville, visiting America in 1831 with his friend Gustave de Beaumont came to analyze the prison system on behalf of the monarchy of Louis-Philipe. In addition to that report, Tocqueville ended up writing one of the most famous and studied pieces on American political thought, after perhaps the Federalist papers. In his work, Democracy in America, Tocqueville analyzes not just the institutions or laws of democracy, but what he famously termed its “habits of the heart” (46). Tocqueville was interested in the social and cultural interactions between individuals in a democracy as essential for a regime that depends on self-government to maintain freedom. He argued that “Citizens individually weak do not form in advance a clear idea of the strength they can gain by uniting; you must show it to them in order for them to understand it…They meet once and learn how to find each other always” (913). He continues, “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” (914). Tocqueville argued that interactions in formal governmental settings like local government or township meetings or those of more informal settings like civic associations such as temperance societies, festival committees, or houses of worship, and activities like parties and book sales, were foundational to fostering what he referred to in the French as “les liens” translated as the bonds of affection that link individuals to one another in a society and give them feelings of duty and obligation toward one another. He even thought children practice the art of association in the schoolyard (302). He noted that in a democratic society civil associations are so important that they will pop up to solve even momentary problems. In one example he wrote, “An obstruction occurs on the public road; the way is interrupted; traffic stops; the neighbors soon get together as a deliberative body; out of this improvised assembly will come an executive power that will remedy the difficulty” (303). Associations of all kinds are also “free schools” to learn about working together in a democratic society. He thought without associations, “all citizens are independent and weak…so they all fall into impotence if they do not learn to help each other freely” (898). Tocqueville worried about individualism, the tyranny of majority opinion, or the soft despotism of an overgrown administrative state and powerful centralized government eroding associations. Though he predicted many things accurately like the US civil war and the continuing tension between Russia and the US in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, he did not foresee the threat of gun violence to American associational life.
Gun violence has been top of mind for me this semester after the shooting on Michigan State University’s campus on February 13 which killed 3 MSU students and wounded 5 more. Though MSU was soon replaced in the news cycle with several other of the more than 163 mass shootings that have taken place already in 2023, the effects have persisted throughout campus this semester. Students have been unable to focus on their education as they continue experiencing the effects of the trauma of that day. One of the effects I want to focus on, however, is the unintended consequence of the erosion of civil society in response to the shooting. In many ways, units across campus have increased opportunities to connect. The College of Communication Arts and Sciences made local headlines for handing out Squishmallows to students. My own College, James Madison, has hosted several lunches and breakfasts to give people time to be in community with one another. Economists have shown how community ties can be strengthened in response to disaster. But also in response to the violence incident, the University has begun locking doors at 6pm across campus. Many units, like mine which is a residential college, have community outreach efforts like lectures and discussions that take place after 6pm. This has introduced a challenge to building the very kind of civil society Tocqueville thought so important in a democratic society. It has introduced potential problems of racial profiling, putting students, faculty, or staff, at risk for deciding who should be admitted, or even discouraging such events from taking place or members of the surrounding community from taking part in these learning and community-building opportunities.
In America this week, the place of associational life that Tocqueville thought so vital, has been called into question. There were two disturbing events of shootings occurring in response to young people mistakenly approaching the wrong home because they confused addresses. In one of the events, 16-year-old Ralph Yarl was seriously injured after he rang the doorbell of the wrong house, trying to pick up his twin brothers, and in the other, twenty-year-old Kaylin Gillis was killed as she and her friends were trying to leave the incorrect home they had mistaken for a friends’. In North Carolina this week, a 6-year-old, her parents, and a neighbor were shot because they tried to retrieve a basketball that had gone into a neighbor’s yard. It apparently has become unacceptable to approach the home of a neighborhood stranger. What’s more, one cannot expect help from neighbors if one has been injured in such an encounter of mistaken address. One of Yarl’s neighbors wanted to help, but didn’t at first on the advice of a 911 dispatcher because they feared an active shooter.
In America this week, we also learned that one cannot approach a car in a parking lot of a grocery store, either. Two high school cheerleaders, still in uniform after practice, were shot in Texas after accidentally approaching the wrong car. Also in America this week, there was a mass shooting at a 16-year-old’s birthday party in Alabama. The many and varied arenas of civic interaction outside of government are not safe from gun violence. The role of guns in society has introduced a new threat to civil society from the ones Tocqueville feared.
In his famous book Bowling Alone, published in 2000, Robert Putnam theorized that civil society was eroding because of multiple factors that could be boiled down to increased individualism. He used multiple studies and data to analyze questions like: “Do we really know our neighbors less well than our parents did, or is our childhood recollection of neighborhood barbecues suffused with a golden glow of wishful reminiscence?” (26). Many of the activities that Putnam suggests are foundational for generating social capital and therefore for building civic connections in American life like bridge clubs, bowling leagues, “community projects…directions for strangers” (138), selling Girl Scout cookies door-to-door, “gossiping with the next door neighbor, sharing a barbecue picnic on a hot summer evening, gather[ing] in a reading group at the bookstore, even simply nodding to another regular jogger on the same daily route” (93) and so many more are now tainted with not only the possibility, but the real probability of the threat of gun violence.
For Putnam, quotidian interactions are essential for increasing social trust and with it the ability for citizens to work together on self-governance. In a democratic society we rely on citizens speaking out in political arenas to exercise and contest power and to defend rights, but for Tocqueville and Putnam those formal arenas are not enough. Rights and political participation are essential components of a free society. Tocqueville himself argued that political association was required to teach the art of combining for civic associations to also flourish (912). But I think Tocqueville also would have agreed that political associations alone are insufficient. He wrote in a note, that “the habit of associations in civil life…gives them great facility for associating in political life” (911). We cannot think that the erosion of our civic connections where we have opportunities to learn, to meet new people, to have new experiences, to form meaningful connections with others, in short, to have fun and full lives, leaving only formal political interactions, will be enough for liberty to thrive in a liberal, democratic society. What’s more, Tocqueville notes that a robust civic associational life can distract citizens from public affairs, making citizens less polarized and passionate in their opinions and more willing to use their political freedoms responsibly and productively (915). He argued that civil associations make “the dangers of liberty smaller” (916). When we interact with others, we learn to temper our extreme reactions and opinions to be able to work with others toward common goals. The desire to participate with others in society rather than retreating into private life was already on the decline, but with gun violence reaching into even those most basic interactions of everyday life, we are risking losing the freedom generated from the very arenas that could allow us to work together to find ways to solve the problem. Gun violence and the fear it generates, and not individualism, is the new threat to civil society.