Eric Marcarelli

Software Developer, Writer, Painter

Delicate Balance: How the Strength of Common Bonds Shapes a Nation

August 08, 2010 by in Culture, History, Writing

This is a long, somewhat dense, but hopefully interesting look into an important aspect of national communities.

It is the mid 19th century and settlers are blazing a trail across the Great Plains of America. Their fearless procession proceeds with irrepressible optimism towards seemingly boundless horizons. A fledgling American nation has articulated its destiny and will advance west until it eventually spans the entire continent. Tragically, during this time of great national growth American Indian tribes are to be subjugated through a series of wars, relocations, and broken promises. A century later America is engulfed in the Second World War and a united nation stands up triumphantly to the powers of oppression. Yet this society founded on the ideals of freedom is destined to turn on its weaker members and force innocent Americans of Japanese ancestry into concentration camps. America has led the world in protection of personal freedoms but at the same time has been home to several humanitarian disasters. Being capable of both great good and great evil, it is essential to discover how we can shape our nation for the better. A national community is more than a group of people living within certain geographic borders. Something must bind these people together and sufficiently separate them from their international neighbors. The members of the community must feel some common bonds with one another. For an ideal national community these bonds must exist in the correct proportions. If the bonds are too weak, people will not see themselves as members of a community and will feel no responsibility for the well-being of their fellow citizens. On the other hand, a people too strongly united can impose their will over minority groups and stifle independent thought. An ideal national community is made up of many diverse factions which agree on certain basic principles but disagree enough on policy that no one group is allowed to enforce its will on others.

Unity is necessary for a healthy national community, but when the bonds that create such unity are too strongly forged the result can be disastrous. Although the American Revolution freed the nation of rule by a single despot, Tocqueville wrote of a “tyranny of the majority” which could consume America just as fiercely (Tocqueville 4). Democratic institutions do not, by their very nature alone, protect the rights of all citizens. If a majority can bind itself together, it may wield control over the government apparatus with little resistance from its dissenters. Tocqueville warns that America has “inadequate protections” against this power-that every protection in place is inevitably subject to the whims of the majority (Tocqueville 5). This point is clearly emphasized by Ronald Takaki in A Different Mirror when he recalls the United States army was ordered to arrest Indians who practiced the Ghost Dance-a religious activity (Takaki 229). As former Indian agent Dr. Valentine McGillycuddy observed at the time, other minority religious groups are allowed their rights, so “why should not the Indians have the same privilege?” (Takaki 229). Although the United States Constitution declares that Congress “shall make no law” prohibiting the “free exercise” of religion, the majority of Americans held power over the relatively small Indian groups and the safeguards of the Constitution did little to protect this victim (US Const., amend. I). Likewise, despite the Constitution’s assurance of the rights of assembly and free speech, the police are used to break up peaceful gatherings. In the novel Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow portrays the police bursting into the hall and putting an end to the speech of Emma Goldman, an anarchist who clearly holds a minority position (Doctorow 54). Far from an insolated incident, Doctorow makes it clear that is behavior is a “typical conclusion” to her speeches-violation of its own rules is standard procedure for the ruling majority (Doctorow 54).

Because legal challenge is difficult, the majority is free to use the force of law to enact its world view. As Takaki points out in a discussion of 19th century Indian policies, the tyrannical majority wanted to “advance and civilize” Indians by destroying their tribal system which it saw as “savagery” (Takaki 235). Of course, to those Indians the tribal system was not savagery but their own idea of civilization. Although these intrusions generally do the weaker group more harm than good, a dominant group will often insist that destructive actions are in the victim’s best interest. In 1933, for example, the Indian affairs commissioner John Collier decided that in order to prevent erosion it was necessary for the Navajos to reduce their stock of sheep and other animals (Takaki 242). Collier argued that implementing this stock reduction program was a matter of Navajo survival, and yet it was described by the Navajos themselves as one of the most devastating experiences of their history (Takaki 244). It was later determined that overgrazing was a mere secondary cause of the feared erosion (Takaki 244). At one point in Ragtime striking workers are attempting to send their children to stay with other families so they will be better able to continue the strike (Doctorow 126). Police and even militia are employed to prevent the train from leaving. But more than simply obstructing their right of movement, the police incite a riot and enact violence on the innocent people, causing far greater harm to the children than could possibly have occurred had they been allowed to go with the other families. The city marshal, of course, claimed this was all “for their own good” (Doctorow 127). While unity is surely important to a nation’s success, we must be careful that this unity does not bring with it a tyrannical majority.

Often times a majority will solidify its unity by casting a weaker group as its enemy. This “othering” technique creates a common bond of hatred and blame in the dominant group and carries dire consequences for the “other.” Perhaps the most egregious example in American history is what may be called the genocide of American Indians. Upon the arrival of European empires to North America, a flourishing continent filled with diverse peoples was shattered. Disease and warfare left some tribes with as little as ten percent of their population intact, and others were annihilated entirely. It was these weak remnants that the American government, fueled by a strong majority, attacked and subjugated throughout the 19th century. In one instance the United States army had captured a group of Indians, rounded up their weapons, and outnumbered them by five times (Takaki 229). After a shot was heard the soldiers began “shooting indiscriminately” at not only the disarmed warriors, but women and children as well (Takaki 230). One survivor reported, “We tried to run, but they shot us like we were buffalo” (Takaki 230). Because they had successfully cast the Indians as savage enemies, the more powerful group was able to slaughter these people without consequence. Most Indian tribes were relocated to reservations. Once on the reservation, the tribe was not allowed to leave, with one commissioner warning that any who cross the boundary would be “liable to be struck by the military at any time, without warning” (Takaki 233). It would not be much of a stretch to call these places large prison camps. But sadly one does not have to stretch at all to turn up detention camps in our history. A century later the great uniting force of world war brought the American majority strongly together again. While they achieved great things in the world, this generation turned on Japanese-Americans and herded these people into concentration camps. Although in Hawaii itself, where the attack on Pearl Harbor actually occurred, the Japanese were not round up, a blatantly unnecessary internment program was enacted elsewhere in the country. Farmers on the West Coast came right out and admitted that they supported Japanese internment for “selfish reasons:” they wanted to lock up their competition (Takaki 381). There is a sort of cyclical process at work here. Majorities do not simply come to abuse the rights of minorities because they are powerful; this abuse actually feeds the unity of the majority and increases its power.

While the use of force by the majority is more visible and more outrageous, tyranny of the majority need not be physical. Tocqueville observed that, as soon the majority decides on some point, “a submissive silence is observed, and the friends, as well as the opponents, of the measure unite in assenting to its propriety” (Tocqueville 5). After a united majority makes up its mind about some issue there is no room left for dissent. We see this in our own time as people who speak out against the majority opinion are cast as un-American or are made to look fanatical in the public’s eye. As Tocqueville described, this tyrannical power may allow the dissenter to remain alive and physically unharmed, but his career and reputation is often destroyed. A perfect example of this behavior is the reception to Ron Paul’s presidential campaign. Ron Paul is not some anonymous and unknown candidate who appeared out of nowhere. He has been elected to Congress ten times and he received the most donations of any republican candidate in the fourth quarter of 2007 (Malcolm 1). Despite these facts, most news agencies maintained from the beginning that he had no chance of winning and gave him less coverage than all the others. Of course, without coving him he is made to look unelectable, and so this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is clear that the media, fueled by the majority opinion, decided Paul’s views were not worth significant public attention. By stifling new voices in this way, tyrannical control over opinion by an established majority threatens to impede the progress of national growth.

Bonds forged too strongly in a nation can lead to disaster, but forgoing all shared values is a grave mistake as well. Tocqueville wrote of two types of patriotism: patriotism of instinct and of reflection. Patriotism of instinct originates in the “disinterested and indefinable feeling which connects the affections of a man with his birthplace” (Tocqueville 2). That is, this form of patriotism exists when people have a basic love for their country simply because it is the place where they were born. While Tocqueville suggests this kind of patriotism can sustain nations in times of trouble, such feelings quickly dissipate and the weak bond of a common birthplace cannot perpetuate a healthy national community. After the terrorist attacks on September 11th, people across America came together in bonds of instinctive patriotism. It took mere months for these feelings to lose most of their strength, and they have now completely dissipated. When people have inadequate bonds to their fellow citizens, they may feel they “owe nothing to any man” (Tocqueville 7). Without this feeling of obligation, people will be less motivated to help the less fortunate members of society. In What is a Nation, Robert B. Reich argues that the upper classes of America, separated economically from the rest of the population thanks to an emerging world economy, will slowly “secede” from the rest of the population (Reich 193). He does not, of course, mean that there will be a new nation formed, but he believes that a lack of common bonds will lead the groups to separate and cease to help one another. Without “attachments and loyalties extending beyond family and friends,” Reich fears that people will not acknowledge any of the obligations of citizenship (Reich 205). The bonds of Tocqueville’s patriotism of instinct are not strong enough in Reich’s view to cultivate a strong national community. Lest one begins to think this lack of bonds may at least absolve a nation of the violence associated with strong unity, E. L. Doctorow illustrates what can happen when people feel no connection at all to society. Emma Goldman, a prominent anarchist, wants to destroy all formal bonds in society and live in total freedom. Yet when she is offended by something a fellow anarchist writes, she uses a “horsewhip” to violently attack her opponent (Doctorow 60). She obviously does not respect his right of expression, and does not care to let him live in the freedom she so desires for herself. In other situations not even murder is off the table for Goldman and her friends. A society with a lack of unity provides as few protections for essential rights as a society in which bonds are too strong. When individuals share too few common bonds they lose their ability to act collectively and provide protection for their own basic liberties.

When bonds between citizens are of the correct strength-neither so binding they become oppressive nor so weak they become useless-society can generate great achievements. Patriotism of reflection is the second type of patriotism identified by Tocqueville. The people are not, in this case, mindlessly bound together. Rather, they advance the prosperity of their country by advancing their “own welfare” (Tocqueville 2). When people are working with their own self-interest in mind, argues Tocqueville, it is far more productive than asking them to work altruistically. Tocqueville also brings up the point that in America, at least in the 1830s, voluntary associations formed the backbone of society (Tocqueville 7). In contrast to other nations where “government” or a single “man of rank” are at the head of social progress, these associations in America allow the best of ideas to spring up from all segments of the population (Tocqueville 8). This allows diverse plans to be explored and the best of them to survive. In The Strange Disapearence of Civic America, Robert D. Putnam illustrates what can be done when people come together in the right way. Putnam does not focus on a majority group with members adhering strictly to a single philosophy. Rather, he emphasizes membership in “diverse organizations”-voluntary associations of the kind Tocqueville described (Putnam 1). A “long civic generation,” that is, a generation whose members belonged to many of these diverse organizations, was responsible for the success of the nation in the 20th century (Putnam 1). When people associate freely and ideas are allowed to flourish, a vibrant and prosperous national community will emerge.

It should now be clear that a nation should strive to achieve social bonds in the right balance, but it may still be unclear how to achieve such a feat. The federal government has grown over the centuries to be very centralized and that is a key mistake. As Reich’s bitter complaints about the state of federal spending clearly illustrate, having one-size-fits-all government programs only divides the population. Furthermore, the power of such a governing apparatus allows groups to seize control and force their will on others. In other words, the current governmental organization tends to provide us with the worst of both worlds, to embody the weaknesses of both strong and weak national bonds simultaneously. The first step in correcting the problem would be to decentralize most government functions. The Constitution outlines in clear language the limited role the federal government should play, and even explicitly says that all other powers are to be left to the “states respectively, or to the people” (US Const., amend. X). The power of the majority has allowed Congress to step neatly over this boundary and involve the federal government in nearly every facet of American life. States should be given more power to check the federal government’s actions. To do this, states can be granted the power to withhold federal tax revenues from its people until an unconstitutional action has been rectified. Half of the withheld tax money would go to the state’s treasury and the other half would be refunded to the people. Unlike the Supreme Court which has no real incentive to strictly follow the Constitution, this increased funding for the state would motivate states to watch closely for unconstitutional behavior. Without federal subsidies to equalize them, state governments will have to compete more amongst themselves for citizens. This competition will provide an increased incentive for the states to try new ideas rather than shun them. Over time the size and philosophies of the state governments should diverge enough that everyone’s beliefs are truly represented; we will have states where the government is forbidden by its constitution from interfering in the market, and we will have others where the state itself owns the means of production. The federal government will exist over these states only to advance the most basic and inalienable rights which bind Americans together, and the smaller groups, none large enough to constitute a majority, will compete with each other freely for the hearts and minds of the people.

An ideal national community is made up of many diverse factions which agree on certain basic principles but disagree enough on policy that no one group is allowed to enforce its will on others. Nations must be wary of forces that unite their people too strongly, because a strong minority has a dangerous amount of power over minority groups. Such tyrannical majorities can not only subjugate weaker members of society legally, but can also suppress independent thought and innovation. On the other hand, a people too divided or apathetic can achieve little and offer no strong protection on the rights of the people. This topic is especially significant to the nation now as it heads into November’s elections. The country must decide how it will shift its national bonds. With protections on essential liberties being curtailed, the threat of unending war in the Middle East, and an economic crisis looming, Americans must strive to keep that delicate balance between the two extremes in order to advance freedom and prosperity into the future.

A note on sources: because it wasn’t required, this piece has no extended works cited list. If anyone needs help finding the sources from in-text citations feel free to contact me.

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